Horror stories remain a popular genre, and for good reason. The best scary stories create a new, spookier world that readers can picture vividly, long after the book has been closed. Horror is personal, and our own fear is a useful tool in writing a scary story that lingers and haunts a reader. If you love to write, scare your readers with these tips designed to terrify and delight them from start to finish.
5 tips for effective horror writing
When you’re writing a scary story, you’ll want to be creative and innovative. But certain rules and plays on convention will help guide your creative choices and spook-ify your writing. These five elements of horror fiction will help you craft a truly terrifying tale.
1. Start with your own fears
The best type of horror writing is the kind you can already envision. If you’re afraid of the woods at night, you’ll be great at dreaming up all the things that could creep up and horrify someone lost alone in the forest. Start with what sparks fear in your own heart. To spark new ideas, try exploring your fear of strangers, fire, spiders, zombies, ghosts, or clowns. It’s okay to use unconventional fears too; although scary stories benefit from the intentional use of tropes (which we’ll talk about later), it’s also good to be specific. If you’re someone who is afraid of illness or always feels like you’re getting sick, use that as a theme. If you are afraid of being left out, what’s the horror story scenario where that idea gets to play itself out? What would that look and feel like? Have you ever heard a story and thought to yourself, “that’s my worst nightmare”? If you fear being abandoned, perhaps everyone on earth is an alien and you’re the only one left on the planet. Allow yourself to truly explore your fears and use those as a starting point for your narrative.
2. Set the stage
The specifics of the room, environment, or location are incredibly important to your story. Think about the last time you were truly afraid. What do you remember? It’s likely that everything felt incredibly vivid. You likely heard every creak, noticed every smell, and felt every breath. Setting the stage means describing the light in the room, the way the shadows fall, the sounds the readers should imagine, and the specifics that let them experience your fear. This step builds on the first one. Now that you’ve established the fear, you can build into it by setting the stage. Afraid of a spider nearby? Perhaps there’s a fuzzy feeling on your neck. Scared of tiny spaces? Maybe you need to describe the way the walls are closing in or the tightness all around you as you realize the elevator is stuck in the chute. Create an environment where fears can multiply, like an experiment in a petri dish that’s expertly formulated for growth.
3. Create a sense of rhythm
Tension is an important part of horror, so when you’re writing something scary you’ll need to be aware of the pacing of your sentences. Longer, descriptive sentences might work well for setting the scene or describing the lonely hunting cabin set off on the edge of a mysterious property. But once the monster is nearby, the water is rising, or the hunting begins, pacing helps lead the reader to a place of uncertainty, panic, and concern. Again, remembering how you feel when you’re afraid is useful. When you are terrified, your breath is short and fast, and your pulse is racing. Any words you say while you’re threatened are likely fast and short, since all your energy is focused on scanning for risks or threats. Use short sentences and evocative words to work the pacing into a fearful fever pitch for your readers. The words should match the experience the reader is having.
4. Use tropes to your benefit
If your reader knows what’s coming, they won’t be afraid. So using an old model that’s been used a million times won’t likely be effective. Think about films you’ve seen that are truly scary. It’s likely that they used a common fear or cliché and subverted it as a surprise. This can be especially useful when building a sense of fear or panic as the pace builds. For example, we all know the horror scene in Psycho where a woman is showering and someone is approaching. When the stage is set for a similar scene and we hear the music of an approaching threat, we anticipate that she will be attacked in the shower. But what if the pacing builds up, the curtain is pulled back and….she’s already eating breakfast? Or is it only the dog telling her to hurry, because he’d like to eat his breakfast? If we build a sense of fear with an ominous knocking on the door of the lonely, forlorn cabin and… it’s just a package being delivered? Having false starts builds a sense of trust with your reader; when you start using a trope or common horror theme, they’ll think they know what’s going to happen. But as they notice you’re not using the tricks they know, they’ll start to get truly scared because they know they’re not sure what’s coming next.
5. Use fear of the unknown or unseen
The rule of “show, don’t tell” applies to horror writing too. But the rule goes even further when you’re writing scary stories. When writing about horror, the art of what you’re not showing is just as important as what you tell or show. The journey your reader is taking in their own imagination is hugely formative. Use what they can’t see or sense to build into their own fear. Describing environments or people is useful, but make sure that there’s a sense of something unknown, unseen, or not understood that looms over the narrative. Play with your readers the way a cat would with a mouse; perhaps you taunt them with a detail or visual clue, but then they realize there’s still so much they can’t see out in the shadows. Perhaps they look out the window and there’s actually nothing there at all!
Looking for more tips on creative writing? Read our article on getting started with creative writing.
Building blocks for scary story writing
Exploring the nooks and crannies of your own fear can form a skeleton to hang your scary story onto. First, start with a journaling exercise that helps you explore the bare bones of a concept.
Use the horror writing prompts below to brainstorm and explore how your scary story might naturally evolve:
- Write down all of your fears. Include silly ones, emotional fears, things you were scared of as a kid, things that scare you about getting older, and fears that may have come to the surface recently.
- What are your favourite horror stories? What makes you love them? If you don’t read horror fiction, you can use scary films as a reference point.
- What are the most memorable characters you remember from books you’ve read? What made them memorable?
- What’s the scariest place you’ve ever been? What did it look like, smell like, and feel like? What sounds did you hear in this place, and what did you imagine happening that scared you so much?
- What’s your vision for your scary story? Is there humour involved in the concept? Is it disgusting and gory, intellectual and political, or is it a classical tale that stands the test of time?
Need more building blocks for your scary story? Read our article on creative writing exercises for beginners.
Use the present moment to invoke real fear
There are always current cultural themes or ideas that can suggest what might scare a wide audience at a given time. Threats of climate change, apocalypse, pandemic, or cultural divides could be incredibly effective when woven in a narrative with traditional horror storytelling. You can also play with cultural conventions or assumptions to add depth to a scary story.
The movie Get Out is a great example of this kind of artful horror storytelling; the way a person of colour who has experienced racial discrimination experiences fear during this film is very different from the way a white person might experience it. Use your own experience to inform your narrative, but don’t forget to consider the perspective of someone whose fears lie on another part of that spectrum. Intelligent horror writing evokes fears that are hidden under the surface.
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