“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
Horror is not just a remarkably diverse and visceral genre within which to write – it can also be one of the most difficult. The variety of emotional responses you can evoke is wide, as is the kind of experience demanded by different corners of the horror audience – from readers who crave little more than an onslaught of gory carnage, to those who shy away from graphic violence but love the skin-crawling atmosphere of a scary, slow-burn ghost story.
To help you mix up your scary stories, or gain a better handle on writing within the horror genre if you’ve rarely dabbled in it, here’s a helpful list of 5 ways to scare the pants off readers who dare to tread between the covers of your next hair-raising horror opus.
1. Beyond Fear: Evoke a Blend of Responses in Your Horror Story
It helps to understand the difference between horror-centric emotions. Fear and suspense are rooted in anxiety – the expectation that something bad will happen. Fear is the “what’s out there?” emotion – the response to something rustling in the bushes, to nearby footsteps in the dark or the sound of breathing coming from inside the closet. Something feels wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. That alone can be scary.
Panic and terror often follow fear, once the perceived or expected threat is made real. The monster leaps from the shadows, or the intruder is revealed… and the low throb of fear becomes immediate, adrenaline-pumping terror. The threat is there, it is real, and it must be escaped.
Disgust is another viable option – the visceral, gut-churning reaction to vivid bodily harm, grotesque mutations or simple common revulsion such as insects crawling from foodstuffs. These descriptions can be deviously fun to write, depending on your sensibilities and, of course, those of your readers.
For a varied experience, try mixing these types of horror across your scenes. Terror, for example, is often the shock “punch line” that helps break the oppressive nature of fear, giving your readers some temporary respite from the pressure while still offering the the kind of scary read they’re looking for overall.
Keeping an eye on the spread of angles from which you approach horror as an emotion helps avoid your story feeling inescapably one-note. After all, the last thing you want when writing horror is for things to feel bland or predictable. Horror thrives on the unexpected (which we’ll get to in just a few moments) – so make sure to mix it up.
2. Increase Their Heart Rate by Writing Short Sentences
In moments of terror, using short sentences will help you push your readers into a heightened state. Where a foreboding setup in horror fiction will likely be constructed of longer, dread-building sentences and paragraphs, this should change once your character makes the mental shift from fear into terror and panic.
Switching to a shorter structure will force your reader to take breaths more often, pulling them deeper into the scene and creating an experiential connection with the panic your character is going through. When writing horror, this gives you a second important kind of connection with your audience: you’re not only hooking into them in a logical and emotional way through the core concept of your horror story, but also in an experiential manner as part of the active reading experience.
3. The Horror of the Unexpected
Horror is often structurally compared with comedy, and for good reason. The success of both relies heavily on elements of misdirection, build-up and release, all the way to the ending.
To send your reader figuratively rocketing off their seat with shock, hit them where they least expect it. As the tension builds in your scene, heading for the inevitable (terrifying) climax, construct the action in such a way that you’re pointing your reader’s attention in one direction, but come at them from a different source with the payoff.
This misdirection is a classic staple of horror stories – think a character apprehensively investigating a scratching noise coming from a floor-level cupboard. Slowly, fearfully, they reach in… gulping as the saliva dries in their mouth… and open the cupboard door.
Inside, there’s nothing… but then something skitters in the doorway to their right. They look… but also see nothing. It seems they’re alone – and then they stand, look up, and the monstrosity we’ve been expecting is right above them, preparing to attack.
To prevent this becoming stale and overplayed as a horror setup, ensure your reader doesn’t know when you’re going to drop that final bomb. Keep them wondering, keep them rapt, and keep them fearful until you know it’s the right moment to strike. This takes practice, so keep at it and try a few different approaches when writing your scenes; you can sometimes masterfully subvert expectations by deploying the shock early.
4. Corrupt Everyday Stories
Little proves more fertile ground for writing truly scary horror fiction than that which can be found in the everyday.
Try taking pedestrian pieces of everyday life and twisting them into horrific representations of themselves. Think, for example, of body horror – the story of a stubbed toe refusing to heal, the event instead kicking off a grotesque metamorphosis, or a character going through their morning routine only to suddenly discover they don’t recognize their own face.
Taking common things that carry basic expectations in the real world and giving them an abnormal outcome is a simple way to form an effective, relatable horror story that easily hooks its talons into the mind of your audience.
The more easily people can link their own common experiences to the content of your stories when they sit down to read, the simpler it becomes to craft a horror story they won’t soon forget.
Remember: even after they’re done with your story, your audience will continue to experience these common events in everyday life – and the memory of what they read will come back every time. That image sticks around, and even in normality, people recall the horror you planted within them.
5. Don’t Skimp on Character
Your characters are of utmost importance in any successful horror novel. For your readers to feel any concern whatsoever about your threat or your outcomes, they need to find connection with the characters you’re putting in peril.
The stakes should be high – extreme even – and rooted in believable personal relationships with people who will suffer grave consequences if the hero fails to overcome evil.
This doesn’t mean that your character has to be a perfect, virtuous person. They don’t even have to be entirely likeable – but they need to cause strong feelings in the reader.
Before sitting down to write your horror story, spend the required time to thoroughly flesh out and understand your characters. Know how they will react when placed in terrifying situations. Will they be able to think clearly and act appropriately, or are they likely to panic and fuel further chaos once the horror sets in? What’s interesting about their back stories, their history, and how can that personal story tie in with the horrific events at play?
Know their motives. Why would they even get involved in a situation so deadly? This is where you can play on relationships, increasing the threat – and the horror – as your story progresses, by making targets of the people close to your protagonist. This way, your character isn’t just fighting for their own survival – they’re also fighting to save their loved ones.
If you’re writing a monster story, don’t forget that the creature is also a character. Be sure to flesh it out – its origins, its life cycle, methods of attack/defense, whether it is intelligent or acts based on instinct, its weaknesses, and so on and so forth. Fans of monster stories are happiest when they get to read about unique, well developed creatures that not only bring the horror, but also excite the imagination.
Believable characters, believable creatures and believable settings are essential for your reader to sink into the story and become relaxed and open enough for your scares to hit their mark.
Forge Your Next Story of Fear: Join AutoCrit’s Nightmare Fuel!
Thirsty for more horror in your writing life? Join us for the next run of our incredible horror writing course, Nightmare Fuel!
Featuring a wealth of content co-written by celebrated author and writing tutor Rayne Hall, Nightmare Fuel features four weeks of in-depth horror genre education.
Starting with the nuts and bolts of story creation and where to find your most striking horror concepts, the Nightmare Fuel experience travels the dark roads of planning, character, creatures, style and tone, and much, much more. Prepare to write your heart out.
Featuring live classes with tutor Q&A, plus special guest appearances and tips from some of the best in the business, Nightmare Fuel is the most comprehensive guide to writing horror that you could ever wish for. Are you brave enough to take it on?
Find dates for the next class and learn more about what to expect at the Nightmare Fuel horror course page here.