How to Write Horror. Where to Begin?

Eight Writing Tips to Help your Journey Toward Horror.

Have you ever watched a horror movie without the sound? Try it, and you’ll soon realise the tension, atmosphere, suspense, and anticipation have disappeared. The piece no longer sends a shiver through the viewer. Why? The answer is because film uses a range of cinematic techniques to terrify its audience. Jarring editing, tight framing, nonlinear sounds, shadows and darkness, jump scares, a disturbing soundtrack. Each technique works together to create a horrific masterpiece that leaves its viewer afraid long after they’ve left the cinema.

A challenge us writers face is how to capture these same techniques… with words. Writing horror can seem daunting and, for some of us, near on impossible, but let’s remember that the modern horror genre is only two centuries old, and has been inspired by literary classics, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1897), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and later novels such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983). How many of these novels were adapted into films or series? Yep, all of them. 

Horror filmmakers draw heavily on novels for inspiration. But how do we make our writing scary? How do we create a piece of fiction that draws our reader in and keeps their eyes glued to the pages, as though they’re watching a horror movie? How do we create suspense when we can’t rely on a soundtrack? How can our scenes be claustrophobic, when we can’t use tight camera angles? We want to drive unsettling fear into our readers, but jarring editing is not an option for us?

H.P. Lovecraftan American writer of horror fiction, stated “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

So how do we achieve this? How do we create fear of the unknown in our writing? Everyone has a different set of unexplainable fears, but these below tips will assist you in finding your own method of establishing horror in your writing.

Tip 1: Know your main character inside and out.

Design a timeline of your character’s life right up to the point where your story begins. Ask yourself questions about the character. Did a tragedy happen in the family when they were ten years old? Has this tragedy impacted on their mental health? Did it make them a loner? What are they like socially? What are their goals? Where do they work or go to school? Are they happy?

The more you know and understand your character, the more this will reflect in your story. The reader will be invested in the character. They will empathise, despair, or celebrate with them. They will want to tag along for the character’s journey, even if it means travelling into the dark, creepy house at the end of the street.

Tip 2: Create a familiar setting and time.

Establish a setting and time that is familiar. This doesn’t mean it has to be a safe, happy place. If your story is set in the future on a spaceship near Mars, then the spaceship needs to be made familiar to your character. Readers need to understand that the spaceship offers normalcy in the world that your story is set in. 

If the story is set in a neglected, rundown mansion on the outskirts of an isolated town in the present year, readers need to know where the town is, what is the population, what are the residences like, is there a main street where people congregate? What do people think of the neglected mansion? Are they afraid of it? See it as an eyesaw? Do they want it knocked down? 

So why do writers need to create a familiar setting and time? Readers need to understand what is normal in the story, meaning what is life like for your character before the horror seeps in. This makes the transition to those terrifying moments in the novel more fear-inducing, because now your reader is taken out of the familiar environment, and placed into the unknown, where frightening possibilities can happen at any moment… or on any page.

Tip 3: Know why your main character is there.

You’ve successfully established a familiar setting and time, but why is your character there? If they’re on a spaceship near Mars, are they there for scientific purposes? Is their goal to research the planet Mars. Find extra-terrestrial life? 

Or has your character inherited the creepy, abandoned house, and due to financial strain, decided to live in it. Are they going to renovate the house? Are they going to move their family in? Are they running away from their former life and looking for a fresh start?

In order to create a character with motivation, you need to link them to the familiar setting and time, and establish a reason for them to be there. No one wants to read a book that begins with a character discovering a haunted house and entering the front door for no apparent reason. Doesn’t sound interesting, does it? And it makes readers question why a character would do something like that in the first place. Readers need to know the character’s situation and their goal in order to be invested in the journey. It’s these details in character, setting, and time, that make the beginning of a book worth reading, and what ultimately makes readers anticipate what is on the next page. 

Tip 4: Create clues.

In order to start building tension in the story, you need to create clues that suggest horror will, or is about to occur. And remember these are clues. They do not need to be fully explained, just established to create fear of the unknown. For instance, our character on the spaceship finds some of his lab equipment and samples missing. Or our character living in the haunted house is gardening a decade’s worth of weeds when they see an unfamiliar face staring down at them from a bedroom window. 

Clues not only launch interest in your story, but form suspense and anticipation. It’s a good idea to map out and understand where these clues are going to happen in your story, and how they link to the ending. Whether it’s an alien or a person who stole the lab equipment and samples, the reader needs to know who and why by the end of the story. Or our character needs to learn the identity of the person/ghost staring down at them from the window, and why it’s important. 

However, horror is not bound by rules that define other genres. The clues that you create need to make sense, sure, but as the author, you need to know what the clues mean in order to create authenticity to the story, even if you are not going to explain them in the ending. Maybe you don’t want the story to be resolved. Maybe you will leave this as a mystery, continuing to scare your reader long after they’ve turned the lights out. No matter what direction you take the story, remember that the clues are essential in creating tension, suspense, and an eagerness to read on, even if it’s only you, the reader, who will fully understand them.

Tip 5: Build tension through pacing.

Pacing is difficult and somewhat of a mystery to novice writers. It takes practice and time to achieve, and writing horror is no exception. The goal is to make readers uneasy and dread what is going to happen, but having to know anyway. Writers achieve this through pacing. Imagine watching a film where the camera pans across the setting, stretching across shadows and darkness, revealing threadbare carpets and rotting floorboards where only mice dare to dwell, before drawing close to the rickety staircase that creaks and whines as though an invisible presence were on it. See what just happened? We have an extended sentence. Now convert what you see through the camera into words, using this method to create ambience to the scene, to show description, and to imply a sense of unease and danger. 

But what if we want the reader’s heart to pummel against their chest? The answer is short, staccato sentences. Let’s return to that rickety staircase. There’s a footstep. Then another. The deceptive pitter-patter of a cat, but not quite. It’s too loud for that. No. It’s someone, or something, that doesn’t want to be heard. But no one is there. A rasp groans from the last step. The floorboards creak ahead. Scrapes and squeaks draw closer. Nails pop. The floorboards sag. 

See how these short, irregular sentences work together to create tension. They draw the reader in, terrified by what could occur, but desperate to know what it will be regardless. 

Tip 6: Make what’s at stake for your character obvious.

In order for your reader to be afraid and terrorised, you need to clearly establish what is at stake for your main character. Is it the character’s life? Is it their significant other? Their children? Readers need a clear and concise reason to understand why the character chooses to enter the dark basement, or meet the serial killer at the edge of a cliff, or walk into the chilling, rotting woods. Knowing and understanding what’s at stake allows a reader to empathise and follow the character’s journey into terror.

Tip 7: Make it something new.

You need to make sure your story doesn’t fall into that dreaded, “been there, done that,” scope. For instance, vampire romance has been overdone. This subgenre doesn’t need to be revisited for at least another thirty years. Instead of looking at what has been done, look for what hasn’t been done. Audiences read horror for its fear factor. If you can make something commonplace unique and scary, you’re on to a winner. Think of Stephen King’s The Mist (1980). Mist is a normal, natural occurring event in the mornings and evening, but Stephen King has managed to make this normalcy into something terrifying.

So look for something new. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a haunted house in your story, but there must be something about the house that readers haven’t seen before. Something we haven’t had a reason to fear until now. You might just set a new trend. 

Tip 8: Write.

It doesn’t matter if you plan your story to the finest detail, or begin with a character and see where your writing takes you, you have to write the story to accomplish good horror writing. And that means finishing the story. Get everything down on paper or typed onto a computer. Don’t worry about editing. Don’t worry about length. Just get the story out of your head and make it real. First drafts are terrible. They’re meant to be terrible. Go back to it after a couple of days/weeks and look at what you can improve or self-edit. You’ll be surprised by what new ideas occur. Get the structure, character, motivation and setting right. Readers want a character and plot driven story. The horror is simply the icing on the cake.