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Top Tips on Writing Horror

Do you want to know how to write horror? These tips might be the ones for you.

Before I begin, I just want to point out one or two little things. I know that horror is subjective, I do not claim to be able to make you s**t your pants merely by putting specific words in a certain order. What I can tell you are some tips that will help you to elevate your stories, tales, shopping lists (whatever it is) into something a little more… unsettling [INSERT CREEPY LAUGH HERE].

Not everyone is scared of the same thing, if we were then life would be boring, having said that, we all suffer from the human condition and part of that condition is the capacity to be scared and unnerved and (for whatever reason) a lot of people like to have that emotion tested by consuming tales of the macabre and strange.

Just a disclaimer, I am not going to say anything about how to describe someone’s insides turning to their outsides and include details on things like gobbets of flesh or the wet tearing of muscle from sinew. I am going to give you tips based on the *cough* many years I have been an avid reader of horror and gothic fiction and what I have learned in scribbling one or two tales of my own.

So, without further ado:

Show Don’t Tell:

For those of you who know some of my work you might be saying to yourself “Magpie, didn’t you already do a whole piece on this a little while ago?” Well yes, yes I did. I think the message is worth repeating, essentially let the reader / audience do some work. You do not need to slap them in the face with events, feelings and what thing looks like. Allude to them, describe them in non-obvious ways (particularly if it comes to some kind of beast or monster). For further information you can click the link below:

Describing the Effects of Action After the Fact:

This was quite the wordy heading, but I was not completely sure of how to make it shorter so apologies for that! Well, what do I mean exactly by this? It is quite simple, when you first engage with the antagonist, whatever it might be. Keep the detail of the wee beastie to a minimum. Talk about the damage left behind in its wake. You can be grisly and awful but allow your readers to experience this like the character surveying the scene. That sense of the unknown (more on this later) adds a deepening dread and tension, a desire to know what is responsible for all this carnage.

Remember to consider devices such as juxtaposition to increase the feeling of unsettledism, unsetllitude, unsetllingness… ah, I’ve got it now: unease.

This extract from Dracula exactly captures what I am trying (probably unsuccessfully) to get across:

The rays of the searchlight were kept fixed on the harbour mouth across the East Pier, where the shock was expected, and men waited breathless. The wind suddenly shifted to the north-east, and the remnant of the sea-fog melted in the blast; and then, mirabile dictu, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship.  

Dracula – Bram Stoker – Chapter VII

The Everyday Made Strange:

This really gets to the crux of fear. It is the idea that things we know can warp and change. When we find that which we have grown accustomed to changing then we are unsettled. It means our environment may hold new dangers. There are things that, when out of place become intrinsically creepy and illicit that innate fear response in all of us. The conventions of the laugh of children distorted and out of place plucks at those hairs on the back of your neck, the haunted house run down and filthy shows a home, a place of supposed security made dangerous. The film or book with the child in a corridor of a school devoid of others at night. (As a teacher, I can tell you the first time you are in the building alone and the lights go out in the corridors can be more than a little nerve wracking.) There is a reason these tropes persist, they work.

Don’t believe me? Entertain this thought experiment (and this idea was central to my story under the covers https://www.magpiestories.com/under-the-covers/ ): you are younger now, say eight years old, you are in your bedroom and ready to go to sleep. You are content, safe in the knowledge sleep will soon arrive and all is well. You shift, warm and comfortable. Then it happens.

Your toes have come out from the edge of the duvet. Your body surges with adrenaline, your eyes widen in panic and in an instant reaction, similar to that of touching something too hot to hold, your feet snap back under, retreating to the safety of (what I call) the magic duvet.

Why? You know why, because “it” will get you. You cannot describe what “it” is, but “it” waits with powerful hands waiting to drag you somewhere, somewhere with “it’s” teeth and claws. Waiting for that foot to remain uncovered for long enough for “it” to take hold.

Notice this creature vanishes with the safety of the dawn and the light. But in the dark, at night, when you are alone “it” waits for you.

The Unknown:

Right, I think that I should have made this one much more important than I have, it is a central tenant of what makes things scary. The less we know about something, the more we don’t like it. It runs against that basic human quality of trying to figure out the world and reach conclusions based on information we think is true. We love mystery but only to the extent that it is quickly figured out.

This is what makes those of you who are a certain type of horror aficionado despair. Think how the more you learn about a certain creature the less threatening it becomes. Over the course of a work of fiction, the hero must grow on the journey and learn how to defeat the monster and they do that through knowledge.

This forms part of a personal theory as to why it is so hard to make a single thing the villain of a sequel or franchise persist. Even taking things like A Nightmare on Elm Street, though brilliant and amazing, the more we see and learn about the antagonist the less frightening they become.

I do not think that Mary Shelley expected her creation to go from this:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

Into this:

I mean…

What is really scary?

This is completely subjective. Tip done…

Okay, scary is a state of mind, potentially everything can be scary. It just depends on how you transmit that idea. You have to practice, try to tap into things that you found terrifying as a child and bring them onto the page: being in the dark, trapped, discovering a dead animal somewhere. Think about the reactions you had, use your complete range of senses. Some of the most chilling events I have experienced begin with an out of place noise where I did not expect it. The creak of something etc.

Play around with central themes, follow some of the advice above. Just know this, it is not an exhaustive list merely some ideas to try.

If you are unsure about what is scary or how to produce it, I will go back to my old failsafe READ!

I hope this has helped.

As ever,

Warm Regards,

Magpie Stories

By magpiestories

An English teacher by trade, an author at heart, it only took a global pandemic for me to start writing my first novel. Along the way, I found a love for creating shorter fiction which I share on this site along with some updates and (hopefully) useful writing tips.

I hope you have a... pleasant time reading.

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