How to Write a Horror Story

by JoHarrington

The horror genre is meant to be scary or disturbing. But it can also be humorous and cathartic. Do you have what it takes to write like Stephen King?

Readers love the thrill and frights of the horror genre. It's a way of upping the ante above anything that they will ever experience in life - thankfully!

For many, horror is a dramatic way of exploring survival in extreme situations. It releases the tension built up by witnessing real world atrocities on our televisions; but also leaves us feeling in control of whatever life can throw at us.

The best horror stories of all tap into real and present fears, then end the anticipation by making such scenarios actually occur.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

To Write Horror You Should Read Horror

This is true of all writing genres, but never more so than in this one. Certain tropes have become so because they work.

I'm a great believer that all good writers began (and continue on) as enthusiastic readers too. It's the flip-side of the same coin.

Therefore I was gratified to find that one of the most famous horror writers of all agrees with that principle.  Stephen King wrote,

If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but "didn't have time to read," I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
On Writing by Stephen King

I cheered.  People could be forgiven for not listening to a word that I said, because I'm nowhere near the Times Best Seller List.  But he's a very different prospect.  Stephen King knows what works!

Scenes from Stephen King's The Shining

PAUL STONE - The Shining

By reading horror, you are discovering for yourself the Holy Grail of horror writing.

You are allowing yourself to feel scared, thrilled, uncomfortable and distressed.  You are seeing what makes you gasp and recoil; and you are noticing what causes you to turn that page.

Not at the time though. The best experience of all is to immerse yourself into the story. Let it all happen to you, as it would any reader. Then, at the end, return to the tale as a writer.  Pick it apart and determine what made it do that.

You will be gathering your tools, which you can use to write your own.

For example, I learned a valuable lesson by reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. It's not what you see that's so scary.  It's what you nearly see and what causes your imagination to fill in all of the gaps.

Your reader's imagination is your greatest ally. It will fill in the blanks in a way that's horrifically personal to them.

Documentary: The Horrors of Stephen King

Watching horror movies isn't a real alternative to reading the books, as some of the devices won't translate. But it's close enough!

Using the Subtle Touch When Writing Horror

Try to cut down on the gore-fest in your horror writing. It doesn't work half so well on paper as it does on the movie screen.

I was a ghoulish child and I loved all of the classic monsters.  While other little girls drew pictures of Sindy and Barbie, I was copying images of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's monster or Christopher Lee's Dracula. 

In the middle of all of those childish drawings was a sketch of a woman screaming. It had come from a book of ghost stories and it was meant to be there as background scene setting.

As children do, I showed my collage of pictures to my mother and a whole army of aunties.

They dutifully inspected it and answered my question, "Which is the scariest?"  Except none of them answered as I thought that they should.  They all pointed to the woman.

This was wrong!  Frankenstein's monster was patently the scariest of all!  Or maybe the Wolfman, but you could take him down with a silver bullet. We all had crucifixes around our necks.  Vampires were no threat. 

But no. It was the woman. 

I was only about seven or eight, but I had the same questioning mind then as now. I wanted to know why!  She was no monster.  She wasn't even supernatural!  She was just looking scared.  I pondered it alone for a while, but no answers surfaced.  So I put my question to the highest authority in the land.

My Mum said that the lady was the scariest because we don't know what's frightened her.  And she's looking past us.  Whatever has made her scream is standing right behind us.  And we don't know what it is yet.

Scary Scene from The Haunting (1963)

Based on 'The Haunting of Hill House', the film is amazing. The book is even better. The 1999 remake was crap.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

You can learn a lot by comparing all three of these. The book and first film worked brilliantly. The second film made the horror blatant and failed accordingly.

This notion was underpinned as I got older and realized that it repeated over and over again.

A classic example is the aforementioned Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Nothing actually happens in that story which can't be explained away as pareidolia, overhearing the neighbors through thin walls, or our protagonist going insane.

In fact, the whole story can be interpreted as a descent into madness.  Or it is a ghost story.  I've read it both ways and they're both equally terrifying!

What Jackson does perfectly is that she applies a light brush to all of her conclusions. Her descriptions are rich and as well crafted as any horror story can be.  But she passes the assumptions onto her readers to make and that is genius.

Nor is she alone in that.  Think back to the most disturbing and enduring horror image that you've ever encountered.  Are you told it all?  Is there a garish gore-fest, or is it an idea deftly inserted like the twisting of a knife?

Gore is best reserved for the movies, where they have the special effects to make it a visual experience.  For horror writing, the subtle approach is always best.

The Climatic Moment in Stephen King's Carrie

Just note how subtly this is done. But it's a scene which stays with readers forever.

The music inside came to a jangling, discordant halt.  For a moment, ragged voices continued oblivious, and then they stopped.  There was a beat of silence, and then someone screamed. Silence again.

They stared at each other in the dark, frozen by the actual act as thought never could have done. Her very breath turned to glass in her throat.

Then, inside, the laughter began.
Carrie by Stephen King p129

Half of the book thus far has been building up to this moment. The reader knows precisely what will happen.

But when it does, we're not even there. We're out in the shadows, in the wings, hearing the reactions of others.

Yet that is somehow worse.

Buy Carrie by Stephen King

How to Write a Gore-Fest

Sometimes it is unavoidable. In which case, the tried and tested approach is to be matter of fact about it.

No-one is saying that you should sanitize your work, least of all me.  If any genre cried out for blood, guts and gore, it's horror.

All that's being said is that nothing you could write would be as terrible, and precisely horrific, as the images conjured in your reader's mind. A skillful horror writer will push those mental pictures into a certain direction, then let them make the final step themselves.

So your werewolf has fallen upon its victim.  You can give us a blow by blow account of every bite wound and tearing away of the flesh.  You will have forced your reader to follow your notion of what's horrific. 

Or you could step away and suggest it.  There could be screams and pleas in the darkness; sounds suggestive of what's going on out of view.  You could have someone witnessing between splayed fingers, with your narrative telling us more about that person's terror and nausea, than the sight that's causing it.  Or better still, you could have someone watching someone else, who can actually see the attack.

Now THAT would be horror in its purest form!  Because all of the details have to be added by the reader, in an environment of uncertainty and fear.

But none of this is always possible.  If you have a massacre or a serial killer at work, then a certain amount of gore-fest has to be written.  This is particularly true if there's not an established framework for the reader's imagination to latch onto.

We KNOW what a werewolf is going to do.  Our minds are more hazy on what Lksfjhhdksdd, the Demon from the Ninth Circle of Hell, does when it grabs hold of its victim. Therefore, we have to tell our readers.

The trick is to write it all as something very commonplace.  Write it in the same tone in which you would describe doing the washing up.  The more sensationalized you get, the less effective the horror. 

The main issue is realism.  Your reader is having to suspend their belief in order to even accept that Lksfjhhdksdd is real.  The more garish your narrative, the more divorced from reality it all appears; and there's nothing scary in something that couldn't possibly happen to us.

But matter of fact writing adds a veneer of ordinariness over the top of the gore.  It's a subtlety which adds that much needed realism.

Unavoidable Gore in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles

Examine the matter of fact way in which Lestat is attacked in Interview with the Vampire.

'The blood flowed everywhere like water. He was groaning, trying to raise himself, one arm pinned beneath his chest, the other shoving at the floor.  And now, suddenly, she flew at him and clamping both arms about his neck, bit deep into him as he struggled.' p137

As Lestat is a vampire, and conventions change even within that tradition, the reader needs to witness the actual gore. But the second that they could reasonably imagine the rest, Louis stops describing it.

'I turned away from her, my body convulsed by what I'd seen, unable to look any longer.' p137

However, the unimaginable gore-fest had a second stage, so Louis is forced to turn again and watch it. We get a running commentary from him, until once again the scene is fixed in the reader's mind. 

Then the scene abruptly stops!  The rest will play out in our own heads. Anne Rice has done her job.

Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice

Write Horror in the First Person

You don't want your readers to witness this story. You want them to experience it!

Both Interview with the Vampire and Carrie are written in the first person.  The Haunting of Hill House is third person, but it's still a stream of consciousness from the point of view of Eleanor.

Writing in the third person allows the reader to step into a universe and observe it.  That's great for most stories.  It lets the writer add in objective detail and allows us to move where the action is.

But for horror, a greater factor is in play.  We want to reach out to our readers on a deeply emotional level.  We are not just telling a tale.  We're trying to scare them!

Third person lets them watch the protagonist move across a scene; first person places them right behind the protagonist's eyes.  The readers don't watch it happen, they experience it happening to themselves.

This isn't to say that third person doesn't have its place.  If you have a cast of thousands, and don't wish to leap between perspectives, then third person is the way forward.  But you will be sacrificing that direct hard-wire into the emotions of your reader for the sake of style.  It's ultimately your story and your choice which would work best.

'The Magic' takes the first person and really runs with it. It's the opening story in 'Thirteen', which has caused all of the fuss.
Viral internet marketing campaign, meme or reality? That's the question that people are asking as they stumble upon a very frightening story; and the reports about its readers.

Books about Writing to Target Readers Emotionally

It's all about dragging your readers into the story. Buy these guides to discover how to do that.

Make the Danger Real and the Baddies Realistic

You can identify all you like with the protagonist, but if the situation doesn't feel threatening, then it won't be.

You can be forgiven a lot in horror writing. Cliches are not only embraced, but expected.  Unlikely scenarios will be believed, if they are written well enough.  Stupidity on the part of protagonists is overlooked.

But you will never get away with a paper thin, undeveloped threat.

The whole point of horror is to make you care about a person or people, then place them into unspeakable danger. 

The worst that could happen does happen, with terrifying abandon.

A moment can be totally lost, if the reader loses faith in the terrible thing.  I always recall, at this point, a scene in the movie Jaws.  The tension was all there.  The horror was real and present.  The shark that jumped out of the ocean was blatantly rubber.  Not even very well crafted rubber at that.

Let's just say that it all turned very swiftly into comedy in our house.

Fortunately, we don't have to worry about bad special effects in literature, because most of that is in our reader's mind.  However, that doesn't give you license to leave your baddie or bad situation undefined.

Horror works because whatever is out there, however unlikely, might actually be true.  Take Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  At the time of her writing, people really were digging up corpses.  The medical associations needed them to teach their surgeons. 

Also hot off the press was the experimentations of Luigi Aloisio Galvani, who was sticking sparks into the muscles of dead frogs. The result seemed to animate them for a moment.  We call it 'galvanization' after him today.

So while the actual story of Dr Frankenstein was fictitious, all of the elements were in place in reality.  That's what made it perfect horror material.  But that wasn't all that Mary Shelley did.  We were invited into the mind of both the doctor and the creature.  We saw how they thought and what they did.  There was back-story; and hopes and dreams for the future.

It's not always possible to gain all of this with your monsters or other danger points.  No-one is going to stop a zombie to ask about their inner feelings and motivation.  (The answer in all cases is 'braaaaiiiinnnnssss'.)  But the more rich in detail your story's antagonist, the more readily your reader will accept the threat.

Then they can get on with emotionally reacting to it. 

Books on Writing Horror Stories

There are better minds than mine prepared to share their horror writing tips. Buy these guides to delve deeper into the genre.
Updated: 09/13/2014, JoHarrington
 
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Brianne Toma on 09/26/2015

I would read Stephen King if he or his editors bothered checking his mechanics better. He has gotten so sloppy that those mistakes became great distractions. Eye sores. I know a lot of his fans slowed down buying his books. If you can recommend me one horror book to read, I'll read the first chapter. I was recommended Divergent, when I wanted to see what the teen books were about. And I loved it...and then the second book happened...and then the third...and then I didn't even finish the series I was so mad at how awful it became. I made it my lesson NOT to write like that.

JoHarrington on 10/29/2012

Koffeeklatchgals - With you all the way there. For me, the absolute master was Edgar Allan Poe. I should have mentioned him in the article.

JoHarrington on 10/29/2012

2uesday - You should just do it. The key to writing any novel is to just do it. If you're fretting on if it's working or not, then you'll never get it finished. Get to the end, then go back and edit anything that didn't work. But unintentional turns are usually the best bits, in my experience anyway! <3

koffeeklatchgals on 10/29/2012

I have to agree - you need to read to write. Stephen King and Shirley Jackson are both excellent choices to represent horror. There's nothing like a scary story to haunt you. If they're really good they stay with you always. The Haunting was the one for me.

2uesday on 10/29/2012

I think horror is a genre I would not want to attempt. I can recall starting to write something once, which I put away, as I did not like the unintentional turn it was taking. I can see that for someone to craft a horror story; they would need to be a good writer in order to carry the reader along with the plot and the horror element.

JoHarrington on 10/29/2012

Brrrraaaaiiiinnnnssss.

I'm glad that you liked that. :D

Kate on 10/29/2012

I'm still laughing at the idea of interviewing a zombie! Excellent.

JoHarrington on 10/29/2012

Thank you very much!

I'm right with you on that one, hence my love of Shirley Jackson's stuff. She's just so subtle about it. I don't think I've read 'Lisey's Story'! I'll put it on my reading list.

Stuff like killer thrillers, in literature form, just bore me. When they're in movie form, they make me jump, but there's nothing clever about it. It mixes being startled up with being scared, which means that there's no real fear there.

The best horror stories ever still have you staring wide eyed at the wall, whenever you remember certain scenes, several years after you've read it. They take you in so well that a part of you stays there.

Jackie on 10/29/2012

Great article!
I've always found horror is at it's best when it's believable. Most good horrors will start out normal, and gradually get scarier, really dragging you in and making it credible.
For example, the most chilling book I ever read was Stephen King's "Lisey's story", not necessarily because of all the horror stuff, but because the main character was facing life after her husband''s death. That was scary.

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