Today I’d like to share a few tips with you about how to write more effective horror stories. Horror has been my passion since I was a child, and over the years these are some of the things I’ve learnt.
1. You don’t need to be original
Think about what type of horror you like. It might be zombies. It might be vampires. It could be body horror. In my case, it’s zombies and haunted mansions. Not necessarily together, but hey, Resident Evil is one of my all time favourite video games! If I see a movie coming out featuring zombies then I already want to see it, I don’t need to know anything else. Haunted house? I’m there, just give me a release date.
The point is, especially in horror, people have certain things they like. You don’t need to create a zombie werewolf whose only sustenance is a lunar melody that only the girl next door can hear once every five weeks when the stars align. If you can write a classic werewolf tale with your own colour, in your own style, people will flock to it. If you can add your own unique spin to it, go for it, but it’s not absolutely necessary before anyone will even look at it. People like the basics. Do that well first, and then you can expand from there.
2. Write about what scares you
This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating. Especially if you are just starting out, your ability to inspire fear in others will be a lot more successful if you can first inspire that fear in yourself. If you don’t find your story scary, if you don’t find your threat real and pressing and stressful, chances are no-one else will either.
I find the idea of ‘mental health’ terrifying. How do I know that what I’m looking at is real? What if everybody remembers something happening that I don’t? What if I think something is there but it really isn’t, or vice versa? Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy, and that scares me, so a good deal of my horror stories at least somewhat revolve around “is this real, or is the protagonist imagining it?” Take your fears and make other people feel them, too.
3. Think carefully about your setting
A story’s setting is always important, but even moreso in horror. Are you going to feel more scared in an old, dark and creepy mansion, or having a picnic in a field of tulips in the warm sunlight with all your friends and family around? The trick here, of course, is that both can be terrifying! Stories that take safe places and make them unsafe are amongst the most effective and interesting to read.
Take time to think about your setting. Describe it. Live in it. If you’re trying to create an atmosphere of dread, you need to make everything around your character feel uneasy. This is most easily done using the environment. Imagine, a young man walks down an empty corridor in the hospital. His arm is broken and he needs help. A light flickers above, buzzing and crackling with each step. He hears a squeak up ahead, but he’s yet to see a single soul in this large, cold block of concrete and steel. He runs towards it, only to find a wheelchair slowly wheeling out of one of the rooms. But no-one is pushing it. Suddenly, there’s a sound behind him. In reality, this scene would take perhaps one or two seconds. But when you put yourself in that setting and fully allow yourself to feel every little part of it that makes it unique, suddenly the terror builds. Which brings us to the next point!
4. Don’t rush
Take your time. This is one of the most important features of horror. Horror is the one genre where you’re allowed to meander and not rush to get to the point right away. In fact, it’s often better that you don’t! Like the above, take your time, describe what’s going on around the character. What exactly is making them feel uneasy, and why should I feel uneasy too? This is where you can spend a little time describing not just what the character sees, but what they can hear, what they can smell, what they can sense. You’re trying to build tension, and, “Bob walked into the bedroom, but something was off. The murderer jumped out behind him!” just doesn’t cut it.
Go slow. Savour the moment. Let the dread and tension build until you feel like something is going to pop, and then deliver the scare. Or better yet, don’t. There doesn’t need to be a scare every five minutes. The more scares you throw in, the less effective they become. Go slow, maintain your tension, and deliver the scares when appropriate.
5. You don’t need a twist ending
Horror is one of the few genres where a lot of people feel that if there isn’t a twist ending, then it just wasn’t good enough, or even intelligent enough. I beg to differ. If you can come up with an incredible twist that no-one will see coming, go for it! But it’s absolutely not necessary for an effective horror story. Just like plot lines in general, the world can only see so many twists before they know them all and they no longer become a twist, anyway. Focus on telling a good story first. If you want to add a twist, go for it. They really can make an average story amazing. But a bad twist that makes no sense or can be seen coming from a mile away can also turn a great story awful in an instant. Think carefully. If the story doesn’t need a twist, don’t try to force one in just for the sake of it.
6. Tap into people’s primal fears
Pyschology recognises five basic fears that all of mankind shares in common:
1. Extinction – ceasing to exist
2. Mutilation – being invaded or losing body parts
3. Loss of Autonomy – being immobilised or paralysed
4. Separation – abandonment, rejection
5. Ego-death – humiliation, shame
Use these as your basis to craft horror that will reside in people’s minds long after they’ve finished reading. Take a look at any of the biggest horror stories and you’ll see they all play on one of these fears somehow. Why are mental hospitals so scary? Because nobody likes the idea of their freedom being taken away and being immobilised against their will. The whole body horror genre exists because of the fear of mutilation. Kids have nightmares about standing up in front of the class only to discover they’re in their underwear and everyone’s laughing at them because of the fear of humiliation. Pick a fear, find what scares you from it, and unleash it upon the world. Millions of people out there are afraid of the same thing, you just need to find them.
7. Pay attention to the world around you
Still at a loss for ideas? Start paying more attention to the world around you. Inspiration can come from the strangest places. Maybe you overhear a conversation in a shopping centre that you think might work as a good story. Maybe you pass a building that looks like the perfect setting for a haunted house or serial killer on the run. Perhaps a quote you hear on TV that could be turned into a story all of its own. Inspiration is everywhere, and it often comes unannounced. If you see something that might make a good story, write it down. In your phone, on a piece of scrap paper, anywhere. Don’t let it escape, and when you finally get time, sit down and craft a tale out of it.
I find a lot of inspiration from video games. It could be the setting, it could be an idea in the game, it could be a piece of dialogue that I think would be interesting to explore. Another source of inspiration is the city around me. What scary event might happen by that river over there? Who might be lurking in that building over there? Why does that person look like they want to murder puppies? Be open to everything you see and hear, there might be a great story waiting behind it.
How about you guys? Where do you find your inspiration? How do you try to create effective scares? What type of stories are you prone to write, and why? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!