15 Tips for Writing Horror
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 6 “Horror"
“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”― Clive Barker
Horror is a genre which plays upon the emotions of the audience, but it does so for very specific reasons. We may not always analyze why we are made afraid by a sotry, but there are usually specific reason for our fears, a specific nature to them, and a specific way in which we can make fear more effective. So today, we are going to take a look at the things that scare people the most by learning the Ten Sources of Horror. Like before, please note that these are probably not the only possible sources of horror, nor the only ways of understanding horror. This is simply a compilation of the types of horror I have witnessed, understood, and used in my personal experience of reading and writing.
(TRIGGER WARNING. Please be aware that this tutorial will contain illustrations to help me explain each principal. Sensitive readers may want to skip over this tutorial, as the examples may be perceived as anything from creepy to severely disturbed.)
The Ten Sources of Horror
Source 1: Implied Terror
There is a form of storytelling that is becoming increasingly popular in the horror genre. With this form, the author will show the audience seemingly innocuous things that aren't at all scary. I'll use an example from a short story I wrote in college. In it we first encounter a farmer working on his garden. The farmer adopts a child, names her Daisy, eventually kills her, and then plants daises over her grave. It is there, at the end, that the audience understands the unspoken implication that every patch of flowers is over another child's body. But that horror does not hit us until the very end, when we finally understand what is really going on. The Life of Pi is another effective example of this, though I won't give away the ending tot those who haven't read or seen it.
The reasons that this form of storytelling can be effective are the concrete imagery, the clues left by the narrator, and the audience's imagination. The audience usually does not feel an overwhelming sense of fear throughout the entirety of this type of story. Instead, they get an off-putting but vague chill, and the clues they encounter lead them to believe that something is off. Such clues can include creepy dialogue, weird images that don't fit the scenery, or events that don't match the rest of the story. The horror comes at the end, as the audience either closes the books and puts together the story in their head; or else when they reread the story and are able to interpret all of the strange clues for the horrifying things they imply (like the flowers).
Source 2: Direct Visualization
Instead of implying horror, some writers choose to directly show it. An example would be a story which directly draws a mental picture by describing a serial killer slowly butchering someone. The author will go into excruciating physical detail, engaging as many of the reader's senses as possible to trigger their imagination and put them in the scene, usually through the eyes of the victim. Descriptions may include: the warm burning as a knife is slid across the skin (touch); the smell of bleach in a bucket for clean-up after the deed is done (smell); the copper-like taste of blood in the victim's mouth (taste); the victim's body being opened and their organs methodically removed (sight); the sounds of rib-cage being cut with a hack-saw (sound).
Obviously, the key to Direct Visualization is description, engaging all the senses so that the reader feels like they are there witnessing the horror. Of course, gore is not the only method. You can describe anything from monsters to car-wrecks. So long as the physical details create fear, that they draw a vivid image of something horrific, and they pull the audience in, you are doing it right.
Source 3: Known Triggers
Stories often play off of those things which we already fear. There's a reason that there are a million shark stories, scary clown stories, stalker stories, etc... We don't need a novel to know that those things are scary. We fear clowns enough that we don't need to read Stephen King's “It” to fear them more. But the story plays off of that fear, exploring and forcing us to vividly imagine every nightmare we've ever had about a clown, and then adding new ones.
When you are using known triggers, one of the greatest strategies is to rely heavily on atmosphere. Using the example from above, the readers of “It” are likely already afraid or at least creeped out by clowns. If you're writing about sharks, your audience already knows to be afraid of them if in open water. There's no mystery about what those sorts of Known Trigger monsters and scenarios will do. So you play with anticipation, scenery, and mood—releasing balloons into the air, having a stalker call the house and breathe into the phone, revealing the numbers of missing children who have gone swimming in the ocean. Of course, the climaxes/reveals of stories with those Known Triggers can be terrifying as well; but it is a good amount of anticipation and suspense which often makes those stories so memorable. Note that people don't remember the shark in Jaws (as good as it was) quite so well as the suspenseful music leading up to its attack.
Source 4: Corruption of the Familiar
I've spoken before about my experience with the original Poltergeist film. I enjoyed it greatly, and found the subtleties of the horror, the special effects, the music, and the acting to all work well towards a creepy and thoughtful production. However, my experience was quite unlike that of the people who were able to watch it when it first came out (like my mother). She was terrified when she first watched the movie because she grew up with televisions that actually played the national anthem and then went to static at night (as in the movie when the ghosts showed up). The movie took something from her everyday life, corrupted it into a source of fear, and left her with that sense of dread even when the movie was over.
This is a popular and effective tool for creating fear in your audience. Authors of creepypastas use this quite regularly, creating a fear of specific video-games, television characters, places, children, pets, etc... And it's effective because those familiar people and objects are already integrated into our lives, creating an easy pathway to our emotions. They then leave a trigger so that we are reminded of that fear after the story is over. To use this type of horror, look for events, objects, or people who we see every day. Note that if we already have an emotional connection to those things, we create a higher potential for fear when those things are corrupted. For example, someone who babysits is more likely to be effected by a story about children who are demon-possessed.
Source 5: Hopelessness and Helplessness
Whether we are discussing the dread of an unstoppable monster like Cthulhu, a child with terrifyingly abusive parents, or the inevitable death of a character who has been cursed, there is something to be said for the horror of helplessness and hopelessness. With this sort of story, the protagonist has no control over their own fate. Though they try their best, the terrifying situation is so much bigger than they are. So the story usually consists of a near-futile fight against the inevitable.
I remember when I was a child, and was buried in sand so that I couldn't move. The feeling of being completely trapped and helpless was terrifying to me. And I think we all can relate to that sort of sensation—whether a physical entrapment or a situational one. In order to make your readers feel that dread, however, you need to employ writing strategies to draw them in. Put them in the shoes of the entrapped and hopeless protagonist, play on their empathy so that they relate to that character, and use a narration style which best makes the reader feel the emotions that the character feels.
Source 6: Suspense
The next sort of fear that authors use is suspense. Suspense is opposite of hopelessness, in that it is actually based on the amount of hope that the reader can experience in the outcome of a story. You've likely heard that someone was “on the edge of their seat” when watching a movie. It means that we are invested in the story and have no idea how things will turn out for our hero—leaving us perpetually on the edge of anticipation for what will happen next in that story. The stories that employ suspense often dangle the hope of victory in front of the character, giving them numerous chances to escape or win. But then, unexpectedly, these chances and hopes will be dashed to pieces, leaving the audience unsure of what will happen next.
The hope that the protagonists can escape the horror set against them will cause a greater amount of personal investment into their victory or survival. You just have to be aware of the balance between the hope and doom that the audience can see ahead of your characters. Never let them think that the characters will definitely win, nor that they will definitely lose. This type of storytelling also creates the terrifying possibility of ripping away that hope at the story's end—like in the original productions of “Carry” and of “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Source 7: Fear of Fear
In his first inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt said that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Clearly, he was speaking about writing horror stories (kidding). But there is an application in writing. The Fear of Fear is a genuine type of horror. For example, as a child I was terrified of demons because some idiot decided that teaching children that demons are always watching you was good parenting. But the interesting thing about my fear, in retrospect, was that I wasn't afraid of these imaginary monsters dragging me to Hell or of them doing anything to me. I was afraid of seeing a demon and feeling unbearable fear. In other words, I was afraid that I would feel fear, and it would be too much for me to handle. And it was actually that presidential quote which taught me the source of my fear.
But it isn't just children who are afraid of being afraid. People who watch scary movies renowned for jump-scares aren't usually afraid because of the atmosphere or story. They are afraid because they know a jump-scare is coming. They are afraid in anticipation of being afraid. But we can use this in writing, as well. If we are using Known Triggers like a clown, for example, we can toy with the audience's fear before the clown ever shows up by hinting at that specific Trigger's imminent potential to scare. Every time we show a balloon, or see a red hair, or even feature a non-killer clown, we are playing with our audience's heads. We are telling them “Ooh, you better watch out. The clown is coming, so you'd better be afraid now.” And the fun thing about horror is that those people who want to be scared will actually appreciate and willingly take part in your mind-game, just for the experience.
Source 8: Fear of the Unknown
You've probably heard the saying, “humans fear what they don't understand.” Well it is completely true—especially in a story. Mystery and the unknown are scary things. This is the reason that we are often at least nervous when meeting new people or encountering new experiences. It's also related to why, in scary horror movies, the director often doesn't fully reveal the monster until the climax. You see, when we only see the destruction of a monster or serial killer, our minds do some pretty interesting things. First, we experience the mystery as chaos. And so while there may be motivation and logic behind the horror, we don't know it. This leads our imaginations to run wild. We begin to project our own personal greatest fears upon that unknown mystery.
This is done quite similarly in writing. We limit the exposure of the source of horror, and instead show the fruits of what it has done. We have the detective encounter a mutilated body, or we meet a witness who was driven to insanity just by seeing the mysterious evil. Of course, all of these clues and events should piece together (so if the audience re-reads the book, all the clues will makes sense to them). But preserve the mystery as much as possible if you want to increase this sort of fear.
Source 9: Fear of Great Power
Those who have great power do not need to show it, especially when trying to create fear. All humans know this, at least on a subconscious level. It's why we'll pick a fight with the beefy, violent loudmouth in the bar who we know is just compensating for something; but never the quiet guy in the trench-coat, sitting silently in the corner. It's the reason that in “It” the clown simply taking the time to talk to children was more terrifying than his giant monster form fighting for its life at the end. It's why Slenderman is horrifying for how he just slowly walks and follows you. We fear these because creatures and people of such power can kill or otherwise destroy the protagonists any time they want. The lives of our characters only go on because the darkness has arbitrarily decided not to pounce yet. It's the fear of being in a cage with a lion who is just not hungry … yet.
When I wrote an early draft on my novel about monsters, my editor told me that my monsters weren't scary. I couldn't understand why not! They were hundreds of slobbering evil beasts who murdered chaotically, tortured, maimed, etc... He explained to me that my monsters just seemed … stupid and pathetic. After all, with a hundred of them, their being all powerful, ravenous, and supposedly smart, they should have had no trouble immediately killing a few teenagers. Furthermore, if they were really powerful, they would have no need to torment their prey. Instead of acting like a cruel and disturbed child that tortured animals out their own weakness, truly powerful monsters should have no need to thus debase themselves. He advised me to limit their numbers, make them smarter, and make them more reserved. The result of my following that advice was that I came out with some pretty scary monsters. If you want the darkness to seem like an actual threat, don't make it seem like it feels the need to bloat its ego or compensate for something, by being obvious and grotesque. Make it subtle, strong, composed, noble, and aware of its superiority. That way, your audience knows that your characters truly are at their mercy.
Source 10: Fear of the Petty
In “It” we don't just see one powerful monster (Pennywise); we also see a petty monster in the form of Beverly Marsh's father. Mr. Marsh is a poor and uneducated man in a broken marriage, who himself was obviously raised in an abusive home and whose emotions are being fueled by the bigger monster. He takes his inner pain, desperation, and perpetual fear of his wife's infidelity, out on his daughter who is helpless to defend herself. What this creates for the story is a terrifying relationship of emotional incest, emotional violation, and physical abuse, . But note that it isn't because Mr. Marsh is a big terrifying monster, only a vile human acting out of pettiness. And it is this pettiness, not the man himself, which makes the audience feel an uncomfortable amount of dread. I think another name for this sort of fear is that of the weaker part of human nature. But that's a mouthful, so we'll stick with fear of the petty.
We also see this sort of fear used in books about cults or rednecks in the woods. The subject of this horror is not something big and scary and powerful, but rather something desperate and weak. These are usually humans who hurt others in vile and disgusting ways, because they can't help but to act out of their most base and terrible desires, as well as their cowardice. The fear comes because the petty and vile humans are in a position of power (the heads of a small town or group, a parent, a teacher, a gang, a nurse taking care of someone disabled, etc...). And while they shouldn't have the power to hurt anyone, they go out of their way to remain beacons of fear. The fear comes from what petty and terrible things those humans are capable of—their desperation, their cruelty, and their hearts. And this type of fear triggers something inside of the reader, who knows that this horror is firmly planted in reality and in the nature of some of the people they meet.
Tip 1: Find your own niche in the genre of horror.
Horror has become a particularly uninspired genre. This makes sense, I suppose, with such masters as Stephen King and Lovecraft setting such a high bar. People see their works as the epitome of writing and try to emulate it so that they too can write great horror. But the problem is that those two will forever be the masters of their niches; and nothing you try to copy will be anything more than “kind of like Stephen King.” This does not mean you should give up on horror, only that you should be yourself in your writing. Begin your own niche in horror based on the things that would most scare you! Then you can eventually become the master of your own brand of horror.
Tip 2: Horror is a two-way street.
Unless you are trying to scare young children (not a challenge), most anything you will write will not be scary enough for some readers. Now, if your book is full of errors, and you didn't get the plot or atmosphere right, that is one thing. But even if you get all of those right, there are still people who won't be afraid. Firstly, this is because fear is a subjective experience. What scares me won't necessarily scare you. Secondly, horror requires audience participation. Much like a concert or circus show, a horror story depends on the effort of the audience as well as the author. The audience has to want to be afraid and be willing to take that journey with you. So if you are getting mostly good reviews, but a few sticklers who say you're not scary enough, take their feedback with a grain of salt.
Tip 3: Don't romanticize the villain/monster/darkness.
Readers can tell when the antagonist of your story is your own romantic fantasy—when you have fallen in love with the monster instead of fearing/hating it on some level. It's obvious, and it is one of the things which immediately robs your story of any potential for fear. So just make sure that if you are really going to write horror, that you truly despise and fear the darkness on some level—and that you are not creating a lovable but gruesomely violent anti-hero like Hannibal Lecter (who I love but who isn't scary). There is nothing wrong with a lovable antihero, it's simply not scary and removes the story from the realm of horror. And if you find that this is what you actually wanted to write instead of horror, roll with it and write an awesome dark/gritty/suspense novel.
Tip 4: Horror does not necessarily mean Hollywood Horror.
Just because a story is in the horror genre, does not necessarily mean that it's a lighthearted gore/monster/killer book. Horror can be comedic (like monster movies), it can be dramatic and serious, or it can be something in between. Once you've decided what kind of horror story you want to tell, then decide what types of strategies would be most appropriate to achieve your goals. If you want to tell a cheesy killer story (I have nothing but respect for a good one of those, don't get me wrong), you'll probably want to go for an explicit Direct Visualization tactic. However, if you are dealing with more serious topics and a more real sort of fear, then it may be both more appropriate and more effective to use Implied Terror.
Tip 5: Avoid exploitation of real life horror.
There is a thin line between portraying the horrors of the world realistically, and exploiting people's pain them just for the sake of being scary. For example, rape is a terrifying thing that happens in real life. As such, it is something that should be written about in fiction, and treated as seriously as what it is. However, that does not mean that we should feature rape in a horror story (or do a horror story about rape), just because it is something scary to put the reader through. Doing so is flippant and disrespectful to the many who have endured it. On the other hand, if you are familiar with that topic and have something important you want to share through the medium of a novel, then a serious, dramatic horror story may be appropriate for that message.
But how do we know what topics are exploitative, and which topics are okay to utilize when creating general horror? A good guideline to keep in mind when deciding, is how common it is. For example, lots of children have had abusive parents, a good percentage of them in fact. So that is probably not something you want to use lightly. On the other hand, most of your potential readers have not been attacked by alligators, or even know anybody who has been. Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone who has been would even think to pick your book off a shelf. So you can generally be as silly and ridiculous as you want with that morbid topic, and use it to cause as much flippant fear as you desire. And know that you can always potentially hurt or offend a reader. The important thing is to be conscientious, and make the effort to be respectful to the pain others have experienced in life.
Weekly Recommended Reading: Stephen King's “It” (Note that the horror comes on two levels. There is the horror of the clown, and there is the horror of the children's everyday lives. And though King treats the clown with a spirit of grotesque humor sometimes, he always honors the realistic honor of what children really endure with a spirit of gravity and seriousness. It is not supposed to give you a fun sort of fear, but one that makes you feel empathy for your fellow man. And if you enjoy the book, watch the miniseries/movie. Tim Curry gives an excellent performance as Pennywise.)
Question for the Comments:
What are you afraid of?
What do you think is the root of your fear?
How might you translate that fear into a story?
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.9
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of horror. Write down what types of horror you plan to use. Then, write down what completely original horror ideas you have for your story.
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ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
A Guide to Writing Dialogue
Big-Ass Character Sheet (Updating)
How to Develop Story Conflict
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I'm currently reading Stephen King's The Dark Tower series and here are the horror themes I've managed to identify: corruption of the known reality (post-apocalyptic landscape, radiation triggered mutation), really smart villains, really petty villains (pettiness is so much scarier than intelligence, because an intelligent monster ca be reasoned, but a petty one will hurt you just to see you scream), the gray nature of the main characters (even the noble ones have sinned) and the inevitability of the end (I won't spoil it further for those who haven't read it yet). And even though I've let aside the books for awhile when they went through a pace not very exciting, or when I felt that the main character chose so, so wrong, I can't really abandon them. I wish I could write like that.
With Goosebumps fanfiction, I ended learning a lot about horror -- like you really, really need to make sure you have a good foundation first. For example, you can pile on all the gore and blood you want, but if you have unlikeable characters, you're not gonna win over any fanbase anytime soon. One interesting thing I found out about the Jaws film was that in the book the characters are so unlikeable that the producers said that they were rooting for the shark to win. So when they adapted the book to the film, they made sure to create characters that the audience could enjoy. So it mattered more when people died or were in danger, thus upping the tension.
I also learned that while not everyone is "afraid" of the same thing, many people are "unsettled" by the same thing. An evil dummy coming to life and laughing won't scare everyone. An evil dummy looking too long at a young girl, on the other hand, creeps people out (and rightly so!) So, aiming to unsettle the audience will probably be more effective than outright trying to scare them because there is more common ground for them to react to. (Again, it can end up mangled if you don't handle it well.)
And yes, that does sound like a rather dangerous way to go about horror. I mean, it sounds like the author was working through some personal issues, so I do have empathy for her. But that can really hurt a reader.
Both of your points on Goosebumps are dead-on. I was actually meaning to include a little shpeel about them (not the things you brought up but some other points) but forgot. Some of those books were just really excellent and made me feel uneasy even after reading. Probably because the consequences of each story were so dire, even to child protagonists.
Anyways, thanks for contributing to the discussion