Think back to a time you were scared. I mean truly terrified. You felt your blood turn to ice in your veins, your face drain of color. Your chest became tight, your body tense. A cold swear formed on your skin and your guts turned to water. These are all reactions of fear. Most people prefer to experience their fear through fiction, as they know it can’t actually hurt them.
But how does one go about writing truly terrifying fiction?
Let’s begin by examining what horror is.
What is horror?
Horror: (n.) an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.
What is fear?
Fear: (n.) an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Today we are going to look at 6 of the best ways to create convincingly good horror.
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I see you shiver with antici….
It’s the build up that really gives horror its vibe. You want your reader to be on the edge of their seats waiting for the bass to drop. You want their imagination running at a million miles a minute, trying to piece together the bizarre maze you are weaving. There should be intrigue, much like a mystery. There should be build up. You don’t want to reveal the big scare in the first chapter. That comes later, after you are invested; after you know exactly what kind of character we are going to be sympathizing with. That brings me to my next point:
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The characters in horror are unique. Often, they are put into situations that seem insurmountable, and down right diabolical. It’s a chance to show how a person would react in their biggest moment of strife. How do you create convincingly good horror? Create a character who is pushed to the limits of their mental capacities. If you want your readers to feel fear, horror, and all those negative emotions mentioned above, your characters need to feel those things too.
What would be more terrifying: A character scared to death of losing her haunted house because she’s broke and this is the last shot she has before she becomes homeless? Or a character who has enough money to move out of the haunted house and into a better situation?
What would be more terrifying: A new single mother suffering from post partem depression being pursued by a serial killer? Or a single CEO girlboss who has been trained in martial arts and who owns a gun collection being pursued by a serial killer? (While the latter would be hella entertaining, would it really be more terrifying?)
R E L Y O N | T H E S E N S E S
You don’t have the ability to use a person’s senses in real time. You can only play with these through their imaginations. By describing the way something smells, tastes, feels, etc, you can mimic those same reactions to those sensual feelings.
I’m sure we can all remember the way your mom’s fresh baked cookies smell, just as vividly as you can remember the way that rotting roadkill smelled outside of your workplace. The job of a writer is to play on the reader’s memories. Conjure up those feelings of fear by referencing:
- unpleasant smells (burning hair, rotting fruit, unwashed human)
- strange noises (footsteps in the hallway, moaning from the attic, a chainsaw starting up)
- gross textures (slimy, slick, cold, rough)
- visuals that can be burned into someone’s imagination (an old house, an abandoned school, a bloody morgue)
- Repulsive tastes (the taste of blood in the back of your throat, rotting meat, metal)
I didn’t get very specific with any of these examples, and I’m sure you each imagined something different, depending on your own personal memories.
U S E | T H E I M A G I N A T I O N
THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF WRITING HORROR! Do not over explain. Your readers are smart. They are very smart. As mentioned above, you can create links to your own personal experiences just by using trigger words such as those based on the five senses. The mistake most horror fiction writers make is they try to overexplain the monster, to show every inch of the beast from the teeth glistening with blood down to the furry talons. And while some description does serve to create fear, remember that the scariest thing is a person’s own imagination.
What if you hear a sound and never see the thing?
Allow your readers to fill in the blanks. We don’t need to know what color the drapes are in a haunted house unless it’s pertinent to the story. Leave some things unexplained. It will only add to the freaky nature of your writing. And you’d be surprised. If you add something to your book that has no way of tying in, your readers might just come up with a brilliant theory of how it really does connect.
An example of this is Five Nights At Freddy’s. That’s a really scare game to play, but it’s also intriguing. It’s not just a jump scare game. There are hidden clues all throughout that game that are never brought up by the creator or talked about at all, but somehow, the fans were able to piece them all together into a truly disturbing story. Of course, by the end of the series, all theories were confirmed, but with no lead from the creators prior to their confirmation at the end, fans were going wild with all the theories they could make. Some of the ideas they came up with were so far out there! It’s amazing what a devoted fan will do if given to prompting to solve a mystery. (For those interested, the confirmed theory is that the entire series of games are dreams dreamt of by the child victim of one of the malfunctioning animatronics at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzaria)
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I’m not really a fan of Stephen King’s horror stories. Why? Because they are just too damn depressing for me. Horror aspects aside, his characters are so horrible that it takes a lot for me to get through one of his darker books. The Shining was particularly hard for me. Reading about an alcoholic abusive father is a lot to stomach. You have to be in the right mindset for that. I thought I was signing up for a story about a haunted hotel, but I got so much more than that. The horror not only came from the supernatural aspects of that book, but also from the terrible mental issues that the main character suffers from.
And that’s why Stephen King is so successful! In all of his books, there is always a disturbingly real sense of “oh my god, this could really happen”. He is the master of internal human struggle. And sometimes his characters aren’t redeemable. They are part of the horror.
By weaving a disturbing plotline, you add to the level of horror. Going back to the Five Night’s At Freddy’s example, I first though “How is this going to be scary? It’s basically about Chuck E. Cheese’s”. Turns out, you can make anything scary if you add in the right amount of disturbing plot.
These disturbing plots in horror fiction usually have to do with the darker things in life; death, murder, abuse, mental illness, etc. The more layers of disturbing you pile on, the more horrific your story will be. My favorite kind of added horror has to do with the history of a place or person. Another Stephen King example. Rose Red. The scariest part of that for me was when they describe the history of the house, how it came to be, and how many people had died in the process of building it. By giving that backstory, you already know what to expect by the time the characters arrive at the house for the first time. That’s part of the anticipation (See point 1).
E X P E R I M E N T | W I T H V I S C E R A L V O C A B
Writing is all about using words to paint pictures in people’s minds. After all, the readers are only looking at symbols on pieces of paper and imagining the scenarios described. Having a wide range of vocabulary will vastly improve your writing in any genre, but with horror, it is particularly important.
The best example of this I can think of is Ruth White’s Spleen. This is a spoken poem with vocabulary so dark and visceral that just listening to it makes my stomach sink and my heart feel heavy.
“When the low heavy sky weighs like a
lid on the spirit, aching for the light,
And when embracing the horizon it pours on
us a black day which is sadder than any night.
When the earth is turned into a dripping
dungeon in which hope, like a bat, flutters blindly,
And bruises it’s timid wing and tender
head against the walls and rotted ceilings.
When the rain stretching down it’s long streaks
of water imitates the bars of an enormous prison.
And a silent throng of loathsome spiders
come and weave their webs inside our brains,
And suddenly the bells swing angrily,
and hurl their hideous uproar into the sky like a
band of wandering spirits, who wail relentlessly.
And long hearses without drums or music
move in a slow procession through my soul.
And defeated hope bursts into tears.
And the fierce tyrant, Anguish,
sets his black banner on my bowed head.”
I hope this inspired you to tackle that horror story you’ve always wanted to write. Just remember that a great author reads a vast amount in the genre they write, so if you are new to the horror genre, start out by reading some of the highest recommendations.
To recap, you want to build anticipation, write complex characters, rely on the senses, use the imagination, weave a disturbing story, and use visceral vocabulary. Do you have any other tips for those horror writers out there? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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