This guide to how to write a horror story covers the basics. First, read a definition of horror and common elements of horror fiction. Then read 6 tips on writing horror stories that you can use to evoke intense feeling in your readers, even if you don’t exclusively write horror:
The word ‘horror’ means ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust’ (Oxford English Dictionary). The word comes from the Latin horrere, meaning ‘to tremble or shudder’.
5 common elements of the best horror stories
The best horror stories share at least five elements in common:
- They explore ‘malevolent’ or ‘wicked’ characters, deeds or phenomena.
- They arouse feelings of fear, shock or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny – things are not what they seem. There is a heightened sense of the unknown and/or mysterious.
- They are intense (as the dictionary definition reminds us). Horror books convey intense emotion, mood, tone and environments. Together, these produce the sense that everything is charged with ominous possibility.
- They contain scary and/or shocking and scintillating plot twists and story reveals (unlike episodes of the cartoon Scooby Doo, in which the bad guys are typically conniving realtors dressed as paranormal beings – ghosts, werewolves). In horror the ghosts and werewolves are very, very real.
- They immerse readers in the macabre. Horror tends to deal with morbid situations, from repetitive cycles of violence to death-related uncanny scenarios. Zombies march, vampires make you join their legion, or (in subtler scenarios) long-dead friends or relations pay unexpected visits.
How do you write a horror story or novel like Stephen King, Clive Barker or (looking further back in the genre’s history) Edgar Allan Poe? Start with these six tips:
1: Learn how to write horror using strong, pervasive tone
Tone and mood are two elements that contribute to how your story feels. Great tone and mood can have readers’ spines tingling before a single character has even spoken or made a terrible decision.
How you describe settings, character movement and actions creates an overarching tone. In horror writing, a dark or frightening tone is often pronounced. Take this example from Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always:
‘Half closing his eyes, he crossed to the window and fumbled to slam it, making sure that the latch was in place this time.
The wind had started his lamp moving, and when he turned back the whole room seemed to be swinging around. One moment the fight was blazing in his eyes, the next it was flooding the opposite wall. But in between the blaze and the flood it lit the middle of his room, and standing there – shaking the rain off his hat – was a stranger.
He looked harmless enough. He was no more than six inches taller than Harvey, his frame scrawny, his skin distinctly yellowish in colour. He was wearing a fancy suit, a pair of spectacles and a lavish smile.’
The scene is suffused with a sense of the unsettling. Objects that should be stationary move. The room itself seems to move. The viewpoint character is disoriented. A peculiar character seems to materialize out of nowhere.
Barker also creates an ominous tone through indirect means. ‘He looked harmless enough’ draws our attention to the possibility the man could in fact be harmful. The ‘scrawny’ frame and ‘yellowish’ skin both make the stranger unsettling and increase the sense of unfamiliarity.
Whether you are an aspiring horror author or not, work at creating consistent mood and tone. If you want to write a scary novel, focus on ways you can make actions and descriptions work together to establish an uneasy atmosphere.
2: Read widely in your genre
Whatever genre you write in, whether psychological or paranormal horror read as many books by respected authors in your genre as possible. Examples of celebrated horror authors include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, John Lindqvist and more.
As you read authors in your genre, make notes on what aspects of your genre the author excels in. Is it great, spooky settings? Copy out your favourite quotes that create an eerie sense of place and re-read when trying to make your own settings more vivid. Actively learning from great authors will improve your mastery of the horror genre.
3: Give wicked characters better, credible motivations
When you write a horror novel, it shouldn’t read as though a malevolent force is sitting at a bus stop, waiting to infiltrate your unsuspecting characters’ world ‘just because’. Give every malevolent character a strong, clear motivation. Revealing exactly what the motivation is can be part of the mystery that sustains your story and keeps readers guessing why unsettling things keep happening.
If there’s a malevolent force, being or stranger in your horror novel, make their motivation similar in magnitude to the character’s actions. Readers will scoff if a creepy doll goes on a murderous rampage in your novel simply because somebody took its batteries out.
4: Use the core elements of tragedy
This is excellent horror-writing advice from Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds. As Wendig puts it:
Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its truest and most theatrical form: tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps.
The horror genre uses the core elements of tragedy so nakedly that some of these have become clichés. ‘Don’t go in that house, idiot,’ you might shout at the screen while watching American Horror Story, because the character has the tragic flaw of being oblivious to personal danger.In horror stories, we get scared because, as readers, we see the signs foolhardy characters don’t.
At its heart, tragedy teaches some important lessons, for example:
- The destructive, rippling cause and effect acts of cruelty can set in motion (the frightening way the title character of Stephen King’s novel Carrie unleashes her powers due to bottling sustained psychological abuse is a good example)
- The value of seeing situations and scenarios from multiple perspectives (e.g. You could tell yourself, ‘That house is abandoned because the property market fell’. But also: ‘That house is abandoned because something terrible happened there (and keeps happening there) and people are afraid of it.’)
- The lesson that bravery means making a choice in full awareness of danger, whereas making choices in blissful unawareness of their potential consequences leaves people vulnerable
To write a credible horror novel, in other words, show that the horror-filled situation is dependent on a network of character choices, past or present. At its heart, horror fiction reminds us that cause and effect is real, even in the fantastical realm of storytelling.
5: Write scary novels by tapping into common human fears
If the point of horror writing (and horror elements in other genres such as paranormal romance) is to arouse fear, shock or disgust, think of the things people are most commonly afraid of.
Live Science places an interest choice at number one: The dentist. It’s true that you can feel powerless when you’re in the dentist’s chair. Couple this with the pain of certain dental procedures and it’s plain to see why a malevolent dentist is the stuff of horror nightmares.
Making readers scared creates tension and increases the pace of your story. Even so there should be a reason for making readers fearful. A terrifying situation should be central to the plot and should be driven by some or other cause (even if the reader can only guess, ultimately, what the precise cause is).
Here are some of the most common fears people have. As an exercise, list the reasons why we might find these things terrifying. Most relate to physical and/or mortal danger, but you can also drawn on other common fears. Fears such as fear of humiliation, inadequacy or failure:
Most common fears – fodder for horror novel writing
- Fear of animals (dogs, snakes, sharks, mythical creatures such as the deep sea-dwelling kraken)
- Fear of flying (film producers combined the previous fear and this other common fear to make the spoof horror movie Snakes on a Plane)
- The dark – one of the most fundamental fears of the unfamiliar
- Perilous heights
- Other people and their often unknown desires or intentions
- Ugly or disorienting environments
Think of how common fears can be evoked in your horror fiction. Some are more often exploited in horror writing than others. A less precise fear (such as the fear of certain spaces) will let you tell the horror story you want with fewer specified must-haves.
6: Terror vs horror: Learn the difference
To learn how to write horror novels, it’s useful to understand the difference between horror and terror. Both have their place in horror writing. ‘Terror’ describes a state of feeling. Oxford Dictionaries simply define it as ‘extreme fear’. To ‘terrorise’, means to use extreme fear to intimidate others. Horror, however, also suggests elements of disgust and surprise or shock. Thus the word ‘horror’ describes not only extreme fear but also revulsion and a sense of surprise and the unexpected.
Horror writers share different ways to understand the difference between terror and horror:
For Stephen King, terror is a feeling the author tries to evoke in the reader before resorting to shock tactics such as surprising with the extreme or unpleasant:
‘I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud.’
King’s quote suggests that if you can create terror in the reader before there’s even a gross-out moment or sickly reveal in your horror novel, you’re winning.
Terry Heller, an English Academic whose published books include The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror, describes the difference thus:
‘Terror is the fear that harm will come to oneself. Horror is the emotion one feels in anticipating and witnessing harm coming to others for whom one cares.’
Heller raises a good point. In horror we see the terror characters feel from their (or the narrator’s) perspective. We also feel the dread of anticipating bad things happening to characters. Because we’re attached to characters’ outcomes, we fear for them and feel horror at bad things they experience.
Meet like-minded horror authors on Now Novel and share your favourite tips on how to write a horror story as well as extracts of your writing for helpful feedback.