The oldest and most intense emotion of humanity is fear, and the oldest and most intense of fears is the fear of the unknown.” Lovecraft
Terror is different, it subjugates us, attracts and keeps us in tension until the end. But it can also be enjoyed while we write it. There is no magic formula for writing horror stories, but if you play a little with the tools we give you here, you will be able to write a fantastic scary story.
Offer a spooky environment, using all five senses, with interesting characters and play with them for (or against), also mix some dark force or disturbing phenomenon, put them at serious risk, build this conflict and if the reader follows your characters to hell and back, you’ll keep your reader tense on the edge of their seat.
In this first part, we will see 10 tips on the horror genre and how to generate ideas about it. Next week we will focus on another ten tips on how to create your characters, the climax of terror, the ending… unexpected. Oh, and an extra on how to review our text once we’ve finished it.
Understanding the horror genre
Like comedy, horror can be a difficult genre to write because what makes one person despair or scream may be boring or emotionless to another. But as with a good joke, the masters of the genre have often created good stories. Even if the one you write doesn’t appeal to all readers or elicit screams of terror, there will likely be even one who will react with horror to it.
Read several different types of horror stories.
Read several different types of horror stories. Familiarize yourself with the genre by reading good examples, from classic ghost stories to contemporary literature. As the famous horror writer Stephen King once said, to be a real writer, you have to “read and write a lot”. Think about the ghost stories or urban legends told around a campfire as a child or any award-winning horror stories you read at school or on your own. It would be nice if you read specific examples like:
“The Monkey’s Paw,” an 18th-century story by William Wymark Jacobs about three terrible wishes that are granted by a mystical monkey’s paw.
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” is a psychologically disturbing short story by master horror Edgar Allen Poe about murder and torment. “The Case of the Twenty-Four Blackbirds”, Neil Gaiman’s interpretation of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme.
You would be remiss not to read a horror story written by arguably the master of the genre, Stephen King, who has written more than 200 short stories and used different techniques to scare his readers. Although there are many lists of his best horror stories From him, he reads “The Moving Finger” or “Children of the Corn” to get an idea of his style.
Analyze the horror stories that are presented as examples. Pick one or two that you enjoy reading or find interesting in the way the setting, plot, characters, or twists in the story are used to create horror or horror. For example:
In King’s “Moving Finger”, the author works with the following plot:
A man thinks he sees and hears a moving human finger scratching on his bathroom wall; the finger then follows him for a short period as the man tries to avoid it until he is forced to face his fear of it. King also uses other elements such as a game of Jeopardy and a conversation between the main character and his wife to deepen the sense of suspense and dread.
In “Where are they going? Where have they been?’,
Oates nod to the main character, a girl named Connie, providing scenes from her daily life. He then focuses on a fateful day when two men park their car while Connie is home alone.
In both stories, the horror or terror is generated through a mixture of shock and fear, using some elements that could be supernatural (a mobile human finger) and others that are psychologically disturbing (a girl alone with two men).
Think about what scares or disgusts you the most. Take advantage of your fears of losing a member of your family, of being alone; or of violence, clowns, demons, or even killer squirrels. Then your fear will manifest itself on the pages and your experiences or explorations about it will also catch the reader.
Make a list of your biggest fears. Then think about how you would react if you couldn’t escape or were forced to face them. You can also take a survey and ask what your family, your friends, or your partner fears the most. Get some subjective insights from horror.
Take an ordinary situation and turn it into a horrifying episode
Take an ordinary situation and turn it into a horrifying episode. Another approach is to look at a normal situation like walking in the park, cutting up a piece of fruit, or visiting a friend, and add a scary or weird element to it. For example, you might come across a severed ear while walking, cut a piece of fruit that turns into a finger or tentacle, or visit an old friend who has no idea who you are or claims you are someone else.
Use your imagination to put a horrifying twist on a normal activity or scenario.
Use the environment to limit or trap your characters in the story. One way to create a situation that induces terror in a reader is to restrict your character’s movements so that he is forced to face her fear and then try to escape. Think about the kinds of confined spaces that scare you. Where would you be most afraid of being trapped?
Trap your character in a confined place, such as a basement, coffin, abandoned hospital, island, or abandoned town. This will create immediate conflict or threat to the character and fill your story with immediate tension or suspense.
Have your characters restrict their movements.
Perhaps your character is a werewolf who doesn’t want to hurt anyone at the next full moon, so he locks himself in the basement or a room. On the other hand, maybe your character is so afraid of a severed finger that he’s in his bathroom that he tries his best to avoid the said room until it haunts him so much that he forces himself in and confronts him.
Create extreme emotions in your reader. Since horror depends on the subjective reaction of the reader, the story must strive to create extreme sensations in him, such as:
The simplest way to strike fear into the reader is to shock them with an unexpected ending, a sudden image of blood, or a quick moment of terror. However, creating fear through shock can lead to scares in bad taste and, if used too much, could become predictable or less likely to scare the reader.
The feeling that something is not right, which can be unsettling for the reader, makes the character doubt their surroundings. When used most effectively, this feeling can cause the reader to doubt even their own beliefs or ideas of the world. This type of fear is great for slow stories that build up tension or psychological ones.
This type of fear is the horrible feeling that something is going to happen. This one works well when the reader connects deeply with the story and becomes so interested in the characters that they are afraid that something bad will happen to them. Inspiring fear in a reader is complicated because it will depend a lot on the story to keep him involved, but it is a powerful kind of fear.
Use creepy details to create terror in your reader.
Stephen King says that there are several key ways to create a sense of horror in a story that can then elicit different reactions from the reader.
Use gross details like a severed head rolling down the stairs, something green and slimy landing on your arm, or a character falling into a pool of blood.
It uses unnatural details (or fear of the unknown or the impossible) like bear-sized spiders, an undead attack, or an alien claw grabbing someone’s feet in a dark room.
It uses terrifying psychological details
Such as a character who returns home to find another version of himself or one who experiences crippling nightmares that later affect his sense of reality.
You can use the Freytag pyramid to elaborate a scheme, which begins with the exposition of the environment and the life or day of the characters; continues with their conflict (a cut finger in the bathroom, two men in the car), progresses to an escalating action in which they try to resolve or act against said conflict but encounter many difficulties and obstacles; reaches the climax, and then ends in a descending action that reaches a resolution where the characters have changed or (in some types of horror) meet a hideous death.