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So You Want To / Write a Horror Story

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Horror evokes many emotions; dread, fear, paranoia, suspense and terror. So why not try your hand at some Nightmare Fuel evoking stories? Note that not even this can make you become the next Poe, Lovecraft or King. Try to learn a bit about writing stories first. Write a Story is a good place to start, and perhaps reading some horror stories would probably help.

To Start Off

Before and during writing, thinking these questions is a good idea.

Who are you trying to scare?

Despite horror being a well-known genre today, that doesn't mean all types of horror will scare everyone. If you want to scare kids, don't make it as blood-curdling as you can. If you want to scare adults, don't make it as tame as you can. Try to find a balance.

Is this diving into a genre, or is this trying to be realistic?

Again, not every horror work will scare the hell out of the reader and make them call for their brown pants. Some people may laugh at a zombie apocalypse story that tries to be scary. Do you want to fool people into thinking this was real, or stick with Zombies Everywhere Issue #14528: Electric Boogaloo? Keep in mind that both kinds can be scary, but that once you take a deep dive into genre, it's hard to make your readers accept heavy realism again.

How are you trying to scare them?

This one is very important. There are many ways to disturb someone to the point of frequent nightmares. These are some tools that writers use.
  • Graphic violence/Blood and gore: If you've ever read Creepypasta, you'll see blood and gore everywhere like it's a Halloween party. But most professional writers would recommend avoiding graphic violence. To the reader, it starts becoming less effective the more they read it. You could have thick gooey blood all over the floor described in a very graphic way, but people will not start squealing like girls over it. Remember that pure horror is able to not have anyone die graphically and still make people quiver in fear.
  • Pure mind-bending: Can be effective at times, but other times it can just get confusing. Especially if the reader starts losing track of what's happening. If you can pull it off, great, but for the basic writer, try not to do this.
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  • Creepy atmosphere: Arguably the most effective of all the tools in horror writer's arsenal. Something is out of place. Something is wrong. It's Quiet… Too Quiet. Did we just see something, or was it just wind playing with the leaves? Nothing Is Scarier, because it preys on our fear of the unknown. This kind of horror leaves a lot to reader's imagination, and the reader will fill in the blanks with what scares him the most.
  • Warping the Familiar: This is the source of scares in tropes like Ironic Nursery Tune (a song meant to be comforting turns creepy) and Abandoned Hospital (a place dedicated to healing turned evil).



Turn the lights off

Engage the Senses

  • As noted above, what you can't see is often scarier than what you can. But why stop with sight? Don't forget sound (fingernails on a blackboard, wind in the trees, voices just low enough to be indistinguishable), touch (cold winds in a closed room, something brushing by unseen), smell (an odor of decay, or a chemical, medicinal stench), even taste if you can manage it.

Timing is Everything

When the characters go down to the basement to investigate that noise, it shouldn't be over and done with quickly. Draw out the scary experiences to maximize impact - the unsteady tread down the stairs, fumbling for the light switch, looking around, and the slow reach for the sheet-covered object... You get the idea.

Humor can be a great tool to relieve tension, such as when that scary noise turns out to be something not scary at all. But be careful: One laugh line in the wrong place tells the audience that their fear means nothing.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Pick your monster. Will it be demons, creatures from the black lagoon, ghosts with Unfinished Business, vampires? What monsters scare you the most? Most monsters have some kind of metaphorical meaning, and touching on that can lend more depth to your story - zombies, for instance, connote apathetic consumption. Of course, one can always go for the scariest hunter of them all... human beings.

Supplemental Reading

Immersion and Horror by C.T. Phipps at The United Federation of Charles discusses how to get your audience prepared to be scared.


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