Last Updated on September 30, 2022 by Neil Chase
Horror Story Writing: 9 Tips for Writing Horror Fiction
When I first started writing, I didn’t set out to be a horror genre writer.
I’ll admit, I always loved genre fiction the most, and it still holds true.
Action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and yes, horror, but the latter in smaller doses.
Perhaps it was too many sleepless nights with the covers pulled up over my head after watching a scary movie on TV that kept me from fully embracing it at a young age.
But somewhere in my early teens, I discovered that the best way to dispel the ideas of the unknowns lurking in the dark was to embrace them.
To create them myself. I could control them, shape them to be whatever I wanted, and in doing so, discover the means to defeat them.
Horror novels and movies went from scary to exciting almost overnight, and I found my voice well suited to telling stories about otherwise ordinary people battling the extraordinary and supernatural. And the more I shared my ideas with others, the more I heard the same kind of response.
It wasn’t the monsters that they gravitated towards – it was the people and the struggles, both inner and outer, that they had to overcome in order to defeat those monsters.
It’s the human condition that draws in horror lovers, and the catharsis that comes with putting a name or face to our own fears. Like our protagonists, we may not always win, but just facing the unknown is enough of a victory in and of itself.
So if you find yourself writing a horror novel, short story, screenplay, or short film for the first time or the hundredth time, you need to know that it takes more than scares and monsters to craft a good horror story.
Horror Story Writing: 9 Tips for Horror Authors
1. Create relatable horror-genre characters
A great horror story is a character-driven piece.
First, you get a sense of that person, then you start to relate to them, and finally, you put yourself in their shoes.
I find that isolation is key in this regard.
Explore the idea of your main character(s) being cut off from the world in some way during their adventure – this could be:
- Physically – such as in a remote location or trapped inside a building or losing their means of communication
- Mentally – such as having a break from reality or struggling with internal flaws, shortcomings, or inner demons and being unable to connect with others.
That way, when the scares begin, there’s nowhere to turn for help. The struggle becomes more personal and internal, and by default, more real. Then ask yourself:
- What would I do in this situation?
- How would I cope?
- Would I be able to keep it together?
If you can relate to your character(s), then your audience will as well.
2. Pay attention to people around you
Find out what scares others. Start small and work your way up.
Think about and notice what little things scare people, such as phobias, which can be rational (such as fear of heights) or irrational (such as fear of cats).
Consider also what they say they don’t like because dislikes tend to lead to fear for many people. In addition, a lot of our negative emotions, such as anger or hate, come from that initial concept of fear, trickling all the way down to distaste.
The people around you will spark ideas that you may not have thought of before, both in what they do and what they say and especially in what scares them and how they cope with that fear.
3. Pay attention to the news
The news is filled with frightening images and stories on a daily basis, from the local level to the global.
Whether it’s a small town deviant preying on one or two people or a dictator bent on world domination, there’s always something both topical and frightening in each news cycle.
Use these real-life news stories as inspiration for your own horror story!
Just remember to temper your stories by gauging public interest. If there’s something that’s dominated headlines for a long time, people might be sick of hearing it by the time you craft a story around it.
So can you do something different?
Can you take it in a different direction or give it a unique spin?
If you simply rehash the news, even unintentionally, then your audience might just roll their eyes and lose interest before they’ve even started reading. Make it fresh!
4. Try using the theme of family in some way
Most people can relate to the theme of family.
Regardless of good or bad relations with those close to us, most people love their families (or at the very least stay connected with them in some way).
The biggest fear for most of those people is that something bad should happen to their loved ones. Remember, family is more than just blood relations – for many, it’s the friends and colleagues that surround us daily. The people we hold dear.
So imagine a scenario where your family is in danger, and how you (that is, your protagonist) would react.
What range of feelings would you go through?
What lengths would you go to to keep them safe or get them to safety?
At what point would fear give way to anger or protective instincts?
These are all questions you can project onto your main character(s) as they face the danger that threatens their world.
5. Use fear to drive the choices of your characters
Fear drives a lot of our choices in real life.
Fear of losing a job, fear of debt, fear of safety for our kids, fear of bad grades, fear of bullies, fear of crime… the list goes on.
Regardless of what stage of life you may be in, there is always something to fear, and the choices we make daily reflect on how we cope with that feeling. And let’s face it, some cope better than others.
While that can be a difficult reality to get over, we can use our fears in our written work to both motivate and hold back our characters, as something to either give into or overcome. The choices are limitless.
6. Use the feeling of impending doom
To build on the previous tip, but in a slightly different capacity, one irrational fear shared by many is the feeling that sooner or later, luck runs out and things will turn for the worse.
One way to use this in your horror stories is to foreshadow what might happen. Give words to the worst-case scenario as a driver for both the characters and the story.
That way, the reader and characters both will spend the story wondering if that other shoe will ever drop. Whether or not it does is up to you, but as Hitchcock once famously said,
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”Alfred Hitchcock
7. Use darkness as a theme or element when writing your horror genre story
It’s often good to use the idea of darkness in some way – a primal feeling we all share.
It’s funny when you think about it in our modern context, because what is darkness?
It’s just the absence of light. In and of itself, it’s not a scary thing, but it’s what the darkness represents that frightens us to this day.
What’s in the dark? Is it just a pile of clothes or is it someone actually sitting there, watching us sleep?
Is it an empty room or is there an unspeakable terror lurking just outside the field of vision?
Tap into that primal caveman fear of the unknown that’s been passed down to us on a genetic level since we first huddled in our caves for fear of being eaten and use it to your best advantage in your horror stories.
8. Use the feeling of being “out of control”
Now, more than ever, we are reliant on technology and others around us for everything from food to heat to transportation to entertainment.
But what if you have no one to rely on, but yourself?
Explore this idea with your characters – being cut off and having to face the unknown without help or technology or even a decent skill set.
We all feel in control thanks to the conveniences of the modern world, but what if you take those conveniences away?
Are you still in control?
There’s a kind of universal theme at play here, with which most people can relate, because though we’re not facing monsters or aliens in real life, all the daily challenges that we go through come down to our own abilities and our own willingness to face them.
And face them head-on.
9. Don’t be afraid to add depth to a horror plot!
Great horror writing is more than just jump scares and gore.
Not to take away anything from good slasher fiction, which arguably peaked in the 80s, but it’s also what created a stigma around horror in general.
It’s good to shock your audience, but you need depth to keep them interested in the entire story.
Really dive into the complexity of emotions that your characters undergo over the course of the plot.
Write against type.
Give us twists and surprises that subvert expectations more than just conjure up cheap scares!
Explore the genre in ways others haven’t considered yet, and flex your creative muscles!
Bonus tip: Go to horror or pop culture conventions as a way to motivate yourself to write more stories for your readers!
Conventions are a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded authors and fans alike, make new friends, share ideas, and really get a handle on the current trends, expectations, likes, and dislikes of your core audience and the industry as a whole.
And it’s a great way to showcase your work and introduce new fans to your horror novels and stories!
Conclusion: Tips for Writing Horror from a Published Horror Author
Writing great horror stories can be rich and rewarding.
You have the opportunity to take a premise built around simple drama or action and create something that’s at once complex and truly unique. And the best part is, you can scare your readers while doing it!
Horror writers know that great horror is all about facing fear, and if the protagonist can do it, so can you, as both a reader and a writer. So be inventive, be creative, and have fun.
Give us characters or situations or creatures we haven’t seen before, but never lose sight of the humanity at the core of your story.
Make us feel more than just fear – make us care. Do that, and you’ll craft a great story, horror or otherwise!
And, if you’re having difficulty coming up with exciting plot points or descriptive characters, try using artificial intelligence (AI) story generator software programs! These are fantastic at helping writers get through periods of writer’s block and find their creativity again!
Frequently Asked Questions about Writing a Horror Story
How do you start a horror story?
The key to starting a successful horror story is to create a feeling of dread in your reader. You can do this by establishing a dark and suspenseful atmosphere from the very beginning. Begin by setting the scene, introducing your characters, and giving readers a sense of what’s at stake. Then, raise the stakes by adding details that make the situation even more frightening. Be sure to keep the tension high throughout the story so that readers are always on edge, waiting to see what will happen next. With these tips in mind, you’re ready to write horror stories that will keep your readers up all night long.
What are the 5 elements of horror?
Horror fiction is intended to scare, frighten, or disgust its readers. Horror stories typically contain elements of horror, death, and the macabre. The 5 elements of horror are suspense, fear, violence, gore, and the supernatural. These elements are used to create an atmosphere of horror and terror. Suspense is used to build tension and keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Fear is used to invoke feelings of dread and terror. Violence is used to shock and repulse the reader. Gore is used when describing graphic and bloody scenes. The supernatural is used to create a sense of unease and horror. These elements are essential for creating a successful horror novel or short story.
What are some creepy names?
There are many ways to come up with creepy character names for a horror story. One approach is to choose names that are reminiscent of classic horror authors or stories, and sound like they could belong to sinister or dangerous people. For example, you might use names like “Bram” or “Raven” for your characters. You could also try using names that have dark or ominous connotations, such as “Death” or “Night.” Another approach is to choose names that are simply unusual or out of the ordinary or names that have dwindled in popularity. For example, names such as “Aldous” or “Coralena”, which were fairly popular once, or more exotic names such as “Anubis” or “Kali”, who are also well known in other cultures. This can help to create a sense of unease in your reader, as they won’t be able to easily predict what your characters will do next. Whatever approach you choose, make sure that your character names add to the overall atmosphere of your story and help to create a sense of dread in your reader.
What makes a story scary?
In order to create a realistic horror story, the author must tap into our deepest fears. Whether it is fear of the dark, fear of heights, or fear of spiders, horror stories exploit our primal instinct to survive. By playing on our natural fears, horror stories are able to create an atmosphere of suspense and terror. In addition, horror stories often rely on jump scares, unexpected noises, or gore to startle readers and heighten the sense of fear. By carefully crafting a story that preys on our deepest fears, horror writers are able to create chilling tales that linger long after the final page has been turned.
What are story elements that belong in a horror story?
In order for a horror story to be truly effective, it must have certain key elements. The first is a strong story structure. A horror story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with each section building on the last to create a sense of suspense and tension. The second element is well-developed characters. The reader should be able to empathize with the protagonist and understand their motivations. Otherwise, it will be difficult to care about their fate. The third element is a sense of rising action. The story should gradually become more and more suspenseful, leading up to a dramatic climax. Finally, the falling action should provide some resolution, but leave enough unanswered questions to keep the reader thinking long after they’ve finished the story. These elements come together to create a truly effective horror story.
All Outta Bubblegum Radio Show #8 with Konn Lavery
Listen to the show at: All Outta Bubblegum on Sound Sugar Radio – Episode 8
On today’s show, I was joined by Konn Lavery.
Konn is a Canadian author whose work has been recognized by Edmonton’s top five bestseller charts and by reviewers such as Readers’ Favorite, Literary Titan, and The Wishing Shelf Awards. His work has also been curated into the Edmonton Public Library’s Capital Press collection.
He started writing stories at a young age while being homeschooled. After graduating from graphic design college, he began professionally pursuing his writing with his first release, Reality. He continues to write in the thriller, horror, and fantasy genres.
His literary work is balanced alongside his graphic design and website development business. Konn’s visual communication skills have been transcribed into the formatting and artwork found within his publications, supporting his transmedia storytelling fascination. The previous works have also included musical scores primarily composed by Konn with occasional collaborators, also found within his audiobooks.
Selected Links from the Episode – Writing for Horror
3 Fantastic, Underrated Horror Movies That You May Not Have Seen
30 Days of Night
Interested in writing? Check out these other articles:
How to Write a Horror Story
Last Updated on September 30, 2022 by Neil Chase
I’m Neil Chase, and I’m a story and writing coach, award-winning screenwriter, and author of the horror-western novel, Iron Dogs.
I believe that all writers have the potential to create great work. My passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, I’m here to help!