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10 Tips For Writing A Terrifying Horror Story

Horror has been popular since the dawn of civilization. It originated in Ancient Rome and Greece with roots in folklore and religious traditions. In those days stories were taken at face-value as truth, and the horror stories of those days contained themes of death, demons, evil spirits, and the afterlife. Stories featuring demons, witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts were common. This tradition has since spread across the globe with variations of the same underlying stories marked with unique cultural and geographical perspectives.

With the horror genre being highly popular and commercialized, it can be a challenge to come up with a horror story that truly terrifies. Horror writers today must dig deeper into the human psyche to the root of our collective fears, have a unique hook, an exciting twist, and characters with more depth than horror writers of the past. These days it's less about the villain popping out from behind a tree and more about what makes a monster a monster.

If you plan on writing a horror novel, here are 10 tips to help you come up with a modern spin.

1. Make Your Characters Real

This may sound like we're stating the obvious. However, if you've read or watched horror before you'll know that character development often takes a backseat while plotline and scare techniques are at the forefront. Horror has been a popular genre for decades, and horror writers today are forced to measure up to greats like Stephen King, and find new ways to truly terrify their readers. It's becoming more difficult to find a new twist on tired old tropes but one way to make your story stand out is by investing in your characters. Even when your cast will mostly be dead or irrevocably damaged by the end of your story, it's important to give your readers a sense of who they are before you kill them off. Take time to explore deeper than physical traits, occupation, and relationships. Dig into the depths of their psyche- What motivates them? What do they hope for? What do they fear most? What will they do when their dreams/values/relationships are threatened? Bottom line, there are monsters lurking behind smiling faces, darkness hidden in plain sight, and wickedness buried beneath a seemingly wholesome surface. It's your job to make the most of it.


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2. Create A Sense Of Safety And Security

At the core what we find the most disturbing is when the illusion of our safety and security are shattered. Whether it's personal, community-wide, or world-wide, we all live in a bubble. We all fear what will happen when our bubble bursts. Exploring how events (even small ones) can have a ripple effect in the greater scheme of things is an excellent way to put your readers on edge. It's the reason why a lot of horror stories begin with "it was a small safe town" or "all was well and good in suburbia". We never expect the unexpected to happen in a stable environment, so when it does, it's all the more horrible. Choose a setting that reflects this sense of familiarity. Someplace your characters feel at home, comfortable, safe in. Then do horrendous things to rip that away.

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3. Make The Stakes Obvious

Defining what's at stake from the start will help you build up the tension. What is your main character trying to accomplish? What is preventing them from reaching their goal? Who do they want to save? What will they do if they can't accomplish what they set out to do? Why? By answering these questions you'll be able to make it clear to the reader what they have to lose. When things start to go wrong, the reader will be kept on their toes wondering if they will truly lose what they hold dear or if their efforts will be enough to save it. Raising the stakes will also lend your story tension, but beware of the pull to keep things high-tension throughout the whole novel. Unlike with a movie which takes place within in the span of an hour, a novel takes longer to read. This means like with any story there needs to be the natural rhythm of highs and lows- those periods with heart-palpable excitement followed by the release of your character processing their traumas.

Here are some common stakes found in horror novels:

  • Survival: Survival is the most basic motivation in horror, but the devil is in the details. Maybe the main goal is to stay alive, but there could also be the drive to defeat the antagonist, uncover how to undo the curse, or find a permanent solution to their troubles.

  • Protecting loved ones: The next basic motivation is protecting those you love. We see this a lot in horror, particularly in paranormal and ghost stories. The more people the protagonist has to protect, the more the goal is at stake. As readers, we know they won't all make it, but we love to see the main character try...and fail.

  • Confronting the past: Another common motivation is the past that comes back to haunt. Often it's not the current situation that frightens, it's the boogeymen from past traumas that the protagonist can't shake.

4. Foreshadow From The Beginning

Foreshadowing is one of the strongest tools you have in your writing kit. It's the red flag indicators that everything is not what it seems. It's those little clues that you leave behind to signal to your reader that something awful is going to happen. It can be subtle like your character noticing that another character is "odd", or it can be more direct such as a shiver running down your character's spine when they pass by the bedroom. It can be a general "bad" feeling or sense of unease when they walk into a haunted house for the first time or the explainable urge to run away when they see a stranger looming across the street. Perhaps nothing seems off to your character, but through omniscient narration the reader can clearly tell that something horrific is about to take place. However you choose to use this technique it can help you build fear in your reader before anything scary actually takes place.

5. Consider The POV

Choosing the right perspective defines the difference between whether or not a reader feels their own heart racing alongside your protagonists'. To do this effectively your readers have to be able to put themselves into your protagonists' shoes- literally. The following writer's are examples of the different options:

Stephen King narrates from third-person limited. This type of narrator speaks with the voice of the author themselves, while bringing a big picture look of events as they are unfolding. It dives into private thoughts, narrows secret or hidden events, and allows for jumping through spaces and different times. To see how this is used, refer to the example above.

An example of first person narration is Edgar Allen Poe's work. Many of his characters are deranged, placing you directly into the mind of a madman. Here is an example from The Tell-Tale Heart. Notice how you get sucked into the narrative that is rambling, somewhat frantic? What's rational to the protagonist is not necessarily sensible to the reader but we can appreciate his thought process because of the way Poe wrote it. While it works for what Poe was trying to achieve, first person can be a bit too intense for longer horror scenes. It's also harder to conceal details from the readers, which is another challenge to overcome. If you're committed to the first person perspective but don't want to give anything away, then an unreliable narrator is the one you'll want to use.

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6. Be Purposeful With Your Pacing

Pacing within a story is the ebb and flow of emotional conflict and the release of the build-up of tension. Consider the way you use sentence structures when writing. If you want to build dread in a scene, use longer descriptive sentences. They read slower and thus create a feeling of unease. When the action sequence kicks in, use shorter more concise sentences. These are easier to read and quicken the pace, which in turn builds tension. The same goes for dialogue. Longer, wordier dialogue (or paragraphs of dialogue) slow down a scene. It can be great for a character who is overwhelmed, or when you want to pull focus to a specific clue or moment. Shorter, choppier dialogue helps build tension. It's perfect for those moments when your characters are waiting for something to jump out at them, need to communicate only essential information, or when you want an argument or fight to ensue.

7. Tap Into Collective Fears

Struggling to come up with an idea or need more excitement in your plotline? Ask yourself these three questions: What am I afraid of? What is my community afraid of? What is society afraid of? The answers may surprise or disturb you. These are the things that keep us up in the middle of the night, the deepest, darkest fears that we can't shake. By using these to bring depth to your story you're ramping up the level of terror you can create overall. Here are three titillating and petrifying ideas to explore.

  • Instinctive Fears: These refer to the fears we were born with, the kind that we can't help but fear because it threatens us on a primal level. Some examples are a fear of loud noises, fear of falling, fear of extinction, loss of autonomy, mutilation or bodily invasion, separation, abandonment, rejection, humiliation. Other examples are common fears such as a fear of darkness, heights, snakes, spiders, water, etc. These affect us on a biological level and can take your reader's fear to the next level.

  • The Paranormal: These fears defy logic and typically stem from folklore passed on from past generations. While we all know that ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and the like aren't real we can't help but feel our stomachs churn at the thought. It's the uncertainty and mysticism surrounding these creatures that brings them to the forefront of our fears.

  • Societal Tensions: These are the fears that stem from the flaws of society. This type of horror story draws out the tensions, conflicts, and flaws of the way we think. Whether it's racism, body image, classism, environmental issues, mental health, technology, or casual sex, the difficulty in discussing them is what makes it horrifying. Examples: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, White Tears by Hari Kunzru, Penance by Kanae Minato, The Circle by Dave Eggers, and The Devil In Silver by Victor LaValle.

8. Use Traditional Storytelling Techniques

It's easy to get caught up in the action when it comes to writing horror novels, literally. With so much going on writers in this genre sometimes forget that their story is just that, a story. And like any good novel, going back to the basics makes it stronger. Consider the following questions. Take time to analyze why your characters are making the choices that drive your story forward. Assess your setting choices. Do they make sense for your story as well as your genre? What do they add to the overall effect? Could your word choice be stronger? Are you using crutch words when some research could solve the problem? Thinking about these elements can help your novel go from good to great. Here are some more things to think about:

  • What fear or struggle must your protagonist overcome?

  • What decision do they make to put them in this situation?

  • How will they defeat or escape their adversary, if at all?

  • What are the ultimate consequences of their actions?

Before you begin, create an outline to help you stay on track. Plan accordingly and you'll find that the overall atmosphere and suspense will improve. Remember that readers in this genre don't read it for the cheap thrills. Balancing suspense with relief, drama with realism and throwing in a few jokes for comic relief will keep your readers invested and coming back for more.

9. Find Your Hook

Every good horror story needs a hook to help it stand out. This is especially true in a genre where it's all been done numerous times before. Avoid repeating common tropes in this genre and do your research ahead of time. True, there's no way your story will be one hundred percent original, but that doesn't mean you can't come up with a unique way to tell your story. An example of a trope that has been overused is zombies. We don't have enough hands (or toes) to count how many novels and films feature this premise. However, just when we thought there would never be a new, fascinating way to tell this type of story, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009. By combining zombies with a regency novel like Pride and Prejudice, it put a fun spin that hadn't been seen before on a beloved horror classic before.

10. Give Things A Twist

The Big Twist. You know what we're talking about. It's the moment in a horror novel where everything we've been lead to believe turns out to be untrue in some way. The victim is actually the killer, the whole reason they're seeing ghosts is because the protagonist is insane, it was all a dream, etc. If those examples made you groan, and not in a good way, you get our point. Coming up with a twist that not only makes sense but works within the genre is hard. We don't deny that. Where most writers go wrong is they try to make the twist larger than life, when really it's the small ones that haunt us the most. Take William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily as an example. After Emily dies, the villagers discover the corpse of a long-vanished traveler in one of her spare beds — along with a strand of silver hair. While the discovery of the body is gruesome, it’s the presence of Emily’s hair (suggesting she enjoyed cuddling with a corpse) that leaves a lasting impression. Unsure if a twist will work for your story? You don't have to have a big twist to make your horror story worthwhile. Not all horror novels require such a dramatic exit. Often the most horrifying aspect of a story is leaving things in suspense. Not knowing what happens is a fate worse than knowing.

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