5 Horror Writing Tips

Awhile back I wrote a post about what elements I think are necessary for a good horror story. This week, I’m adding on to that with some tips to consider if you’re sitting down to write a horror story, whether in the short or long form.

1.) Write What Scares You

“Horror needs to work on you, the author. You need to be troubled, a little unsettled, by your own material. Write about what scares you. Doesn’t matter what it is or how absurd.”

25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, Chuck Wendig

In other genres my advice here would be “write what resonates with you,” but for horror I think you have to tap into your own fears to generate a good story. To come across as authentic, you need to be at least a little bit afraid of what you’re writing about. If you don’t think vampires are scary, but you’ve decided to make them the monsters in your horror story because they’re popular, I don’t think your story will really succeed.

Find the things that scare you and then find ways to build the story around that. Are you afraid of flying? Try writing a story set on a plane. Don’t like going to social gatherings? Write a story about a party where everyone is actually evil.

I think mining these inner phobias for inspiration is a far better and more interesting way to generate stories than writing about whatever the latest monster or thriller trend is.

2.) Show Don’t Tell

This rule obviously applies to any kind of writing, but I think it goes doubly for horror. Make sure that you’re showing us how afraid your characters are. Put us in the moment with them, make us share what they’re going through.

If you tell the reader that they should be scared, you’re not going to have a very strong story. Instead just show us what the characters are going through, and let us respond as we will.

You want your readers to have a gut reaction to what’s happening on the page, especially in a genre like horror. Where other types of stories might be able to get away with a bit more exposition, your horror tale won’t really succeed if it’s lacking in punch. Keep that in mind when you’re writing and certainly when you’re editing.

3.) Less is More

Horror films have the advantage of visuals to inspire fear and disgust in the audience. With the combination of visuals, acting, and music, it’s much easier for a filmmaker to elicit a visceral response from a viewer in a way that the printed page can’t.

For me the best horror stories are the ones that don’t try to compete with film in this regard. I think horror stories that are memorable are the ones that keep the reader thinking about how creepy the experience was long after they’ve put down the book.

To this end, I would put my focus on building the tension in the story and the stakes for the characters rather than trying to give a blow by blow account of all the gory scenes or a hyper-detailed breakdown of what the monster in your story looks like.

Neil Gaiman’s short story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is a great example of what I’m talking about.

4.) Don’t Be Afraid of Adding Humor

Bringing levity to any dark story is important, I think. You need a certain amount of contrast in order to make a story work. If everything is bleak all the time, it makes it difficult to get through a story. And ultimately, life isn’t one tone all the time. Having some shifts in mood, even very slight ones, can help make a story feel more authentic.

As the characters in your horror setting get dragged deeper into the darkness of whatever it is they’re encountering, adding some humor can help create contrast between the calmer parts of the story and the moments of mounting tension.

5.) Don’t Be Afraid to Add Meaning

“Horror stories can serve as modern day fables. It works to convey messages and lessons, rules about truth and consequence. If you’re looking to say something, really say something, you’ve worse ways of doing so than by going down the horror fiction route.”

25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, Chuck Wendig

Get Out was one of the most successful horror-thrillers of the year because it tackled a very real life issue about the horror of being black in America. The topic resonated with a lot of people, and so they were drawn to the theater to see the film.

Having a strong underlying meaning for your story will make it all the more powerful, and horror can be a great vehicle for communicating political, social, or moral ideas. Who the victims in your stories are and which of them survive can say a lot as can what or who the monsters are.

I’m not saying that your story needs to have a strong political message or be a powerful social critique, but I imagine there are things in the world you feel strongly about. I think finding ways to fuse those into your horror story can bring the narrative to the next level.

Just make sure you’re going about it in a way that’s authentic to the story, not in a way that’s didactic or preachy.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this addendum to my other horror writing post. If you find these tips helpful, let me know in the comments. Similarly, if there are tips you think I missed, let me know that as well.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and catch you next time.

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3 thoughts on “5 Horror Writing Tips

  1. I always bring up the “less is more” whenever someone asks about writing horror. Horror in general, actual, because even films make better use of dark hallways than CGI monsters. I always point to 1408 as a good example. No shambling monsters, just atmospheric horror.

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