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Reading a good horror story can give you the same thrill and adrenaline rush you get from riding a scary ride at an amusement park. It can terrify you, haunt your dreams, and even gross you out. However, the case is different for writing one.
Writing a horror story can be fun, but it can also be as terrifying and scary as the ghosts, ghouls and supernatural creatures you want to feature in it. This is because it is not easy to instill a sense of fear, shock, or disgust to readers.
If you are an aspiring horror writer, you might want a few pointers to turn your slightly scary story to a spine-chilling masterpiece. Here are some writing advice and tips that you might find helpful:
Understand the horror genre
To be able to write an effective horror story, you need to understand how the genre is crafted. You also need to know what makes something scary and how to put that scary thing into writing.
The best way to know all those things is by reading and analyzing the works of horror writers from different time periods and sub-genres, such as sci-fi horror, paranormal horror, young adult horror, etc. This will help you determine which elements to include in your own writing and give you an idea which writing strategies would be the most effective for you.
Here are ten of the most terrifying books ever, according to Barnes and Nobles:
- Terrifying Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
- House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
- Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
- Rings by Kōji Suzuki
- Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach
- Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons
Tap into common human fears
Fear is subjective. What scares one reader may not scare the others. But, you can still craft an effective horror story that can terrify most of them by tapping into common human fears. This is because even if a reader isn’t afraid of a particular creature or scenario, if it is common enough he or she will definitely know someone who is, so in a way he or she could still relate to your story.
According to ABC Australia, here are the top 10 most common fears people have:
- social phobias, such as fear of public speaking or fear of being judge by other people
- agoraphobia or fear of open spaces
- acrophobia or fear of heights
- pteromerhanophobia or fear of flying
- claustrophobia or fear of enclosed spaces
- entomophobia or fear of insects
- ophidiophobia or fear of snakes
- cynophobia or fear of dogs
- astraphobia or fear of storms
- trypanophobia or fear of needles
Consider what scares you the most
Aside from common human fears, you can also tap into what scares you the most to make your horror story more terrifying. Make a list of your greatest fears and think about how you would react if you are forced to confront them. Draw inspiration from them and incorporate them in an ordinary scenarios to allow your fears to come across your writing and make your story more realistic.
Create likeable characters and put them in danger
One advice that is often given to writers of any genre is to create likeable characters that readers can relate to. This is especially true for horror stories, because readers are more likely to feel scared, shocked, or anxious while reading, if they care about the characters. To do this, provide your characters—even the evil ones—intriguing backstories, motivations, and quirks and allow them to make mistakes or bad decisions.
Once you have established your characters’ likeable personalities, it is time to make your readers feel for your characters by putting your characters in dangerous and scary situations, such as being terrorized by a possessed doll, stalked by supernatural creatures or moving into a haunted house. Since your readers are already invested in what may happen to your characters, they will surely be at the edge of their seats while reading your story.
Use strong descriptive language and tone
Another advice that is often given to writers is the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. This generally means that when describing movements, scenes, and settings you should allow your readers to deduce what is happening instead of simply informing them. This rule is especially true for horror stories, because in this genre the descriptions should all be infused with a sense of eeriness, danger, and darkness to make the readers feel more afraid. To make your description and tone more haunting you can use imagery, symbolism, irony, and similes.
Make your readers feel strong emotions
The ultimate goal of your horror story is to evoke fear in your readers. However, fear takes many forms, such as shock, dread, revulsion, paranoia, etc., and you need to understand the difference between each one to make them emotionally impactful.
The simplest way to scare your readers is to shock them. You can do this by creating plot twists or quick moments of terror. However, you have to make sure that you don’t use this form of fear too often so that it won’t seem predictable.
Dread or the unshakable feeling that something terrible may happen is one of the trickiest forms of fear to incorporate in your story. This is because you have to make sure that readers are engaged and involved in your story so that they would care enough about your characters to fear that something bad id going to happen to them.
On the other hand, one of the most underestimated form of fear is revulsion, because a lot of writers don’t realize how powerful disgust can be in a horror story. What they don’t know is that you can actually frighten your readers and make them rattled by playing on their instinctive fear of bodily harm or mutilation.
The best form of fear to integrate in psychological horror stories is paranoia or the sense that something is not quite right. When done properly, it can unnerve your readers and make them doubt their own surroundings, perception of the world, and even beliefs or ideals.
Make the stakes for the characters clear and extreme
‘Stake’ is defined in fiction as what your character has to lose if he or she makes a certain choice or decision. To keep your readers engaged in your story and ensure that they are invested in the characters the stakes need to be clear, especially in horror. Your readers should know what is at stake for the characters in the conflict for them to fear the loss. It should be clear to them what might happen if your characters decided to confront the haunted doll or chose to continue living in the cursed house.
Preferably, your characters’ stake should be high enough to keep your readers interested. Your characters’ stake could be loss of innocence, loss of sanity or loss of their life or the life of some they care about.
In fiction, ‘tension’ is defined as the element of a story used to create an emotional connection between the characters and the people reading the book or watching the movie. It is responsible for evoking emotions such as anxiety, fear, stress, and worry.
You can easily tell when directors are building tension in horror movies and TV shows just by listening at the background music. When a character sneaks inside a dark house or enters a basement ominous music would usually play, letting you know that something is about to get them or a jump scare is about to happen.
On the other hand, authors build suspense and create anxiety or fear in their readers through shifting character traits and foreshadowing plot points. They give hints about the horrific climax by providing small clues or details about it, such as a looming shadow in the background that will become an indication of an unnatural presence or a suspicious item that will later become useful. They also alternate from tense moments to quiet ones to amp up the conflict and make it feel more serious or threatening.
Use the setting to trap your characters
One way to induce terror to your readers is by creating a scene or situation wherein your characters’ movements are restricted, so that they are forced to face their fears before they can find a way out. You can trap them in a confined space, like a basement, coffin, haunted house, abandoned hospital, deserted island, or cursed town, to create suspense and anxiety. You can also put them in a circumstance wherein they have no choice but confront the entity that has been preventing them from doing what they need to do. For example, you can have a character who cannot sleep because of the voices she has been hearing from an empty room in her house, so she has to go inside the room to confront whatever it is.
Avoid the cliche
Horror stories have been around since the beginning of verbal storytelling traditions in ancient Greece and Rome, so it is no surprise that the genre has its own set of tropes and cliches you should avoid if you want to create a unique story.
Stay away from overly-used storylines, like a haunted doll tormenting its owners or families moving in a home that turned out to be cursed, and phrases, such as ‘Don’t look behind you’ or ‘Run.’ Instead, focus on creating a story that feels personally terrifying to you or add a twist to a familiar horror trope. You should also remember that too much gore or violence can have a desensitizing effect on your readers. Death of characters and surprises may not have as much impact on them as you would like to if it keeps happening over and over again.
Create a twist ending
The ending could make or break your story. For horror, a cliffhanger or twist ending is advisable because it can make your readers think.
A good twist ending ties up many of the loose ends, but still leaves one major question up in the air to tease the readers’ imagination and allow them to fantasize what may happen to the characters. It should be satisfying, but leaves the readers a lingering feeling of uncertainty. It should also have a shocking effect and be jarring or feel random to the readers.
To create an effective twist ending, you can have one of your characters experience a moment of realization about the conflict or a problem he or she assumed was already solved. You can also create a revelation that is a result of build-up details in the story.
Read you story out loud
Once you have finished writing your story, read it out loud to a group of people you trust. Watch their reaction to gauge how your future readers might react when they reach plot twists or when your characters make major decisions. Then ask them if they think the dialogues sound believable and natural and if they felt dread, disgust, paranoia, and shock in certain scenes. This way you’ll know which parts of your story you need to edit or rewrite.
Writing a horror story is not easy, because it is far more than just ghosts, ghouls, and other supernatural creatures. It can be tricky to write, as it requires you to have an active imagination. However, it is not impossible to craft a good horror story. With the help of the writing tips mentioned above and a lot of planning, patience and practice you can surely make a hauntingly good story that would spook your readers. Boo!
Other Posts You Might Like:
- How to Write a Thriller
- How To Make Your Characters Unique With Character Mannerisms
- How to Structure a Story: Understanding Narrative Structure
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