Thoughts on Writing Horror

I’m not certain how it happened, but my writing group all writes speculative fiction. But within that, there’s a pretty wide range of styles. The other day, one of my friends in the group posted about an interest in writing horror. Up until that point, I knew that Nicole did sci-fi and urban fantasy. But despite her quite-practiced evil laugh, I didn’t see horror as something that held much interest for her.

Then she posted asking for advice on writing horror. (I’ve included the link to her blog for the completeists among you.) And I figured, “Hey, I write horror. I should be able to answer that.”

What I discovered, much to my surprise, is that a lot of what I do when I write horror isn’t entirely conscious. Digging that out and finding a way to articulate it became more difficult than I expected. I’m not going to duplicate that advice here–for that you’ll have to click the link and read it on Nicole’s blog. I’ll touch on it a bit here, but because I’ve taken more time to think about it, this is going to be a bigger discussion.

Horror and I kind of came of age around the same time. I was 5 when Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was published. He published over 25 more before I graduated high school. At the same time, horror cinema went through a golden age, starting with Halloween in 1978. While I was still too young to watch a lot of those films, I picked up Fangoria Magazine ever time I was in the bookstore and read all about the horrifying things waiting for me on video and late-night cable television. There were also several fantastic horror comics in those days, perfect for the developing weirdo–Creepy, House of Secrets, The Unexpected, The Witching Hour.

So it’s not a huge surprise that when I started writing short fiction, I wanted to write horror.

Except I wasn’t any good at it.

Oh, I tried. Every piece I turned out for about 5 years was some kind of horror story. And looking back, of course they weren’t very good. I was still learning how to write. Those were all practice. But I also know that the premise alone for most of those just didn’t work because they weren’t scary.

And I’ll be honest with you. I gave up trying to be scary. I still wrote stories with ghosts in them from time to time, but they were urban fantasy. And with the exception of one co-written screenplay, I didn’t try to write horror again until I was in my mid-thirties.

Even without working consciously on horror in that time, something about how horror works had sunk in. It didn’t hurt that I had been working on my writing in that time so the building blocks were in place. The two other keys were that I had been ingesting a lot of horror media, so I had an intuitive idea of what scared me and how, and that I had been running Role-Playing Games with horror elements in that time. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now–running story-centered games was crucial for my development as a writer.)

If you made it this far, maybe you’re hoping for some kind of bullet-point list on how to write horror. Even if you were thinking nothing of the sort, here are my hints, short and sweet, for things to think about when writing horror.

  • Monsters, in and of themselves, aren’t scary. What makes them scary is what they do, and what they represent.
  • This is no story for heroes. Protagonists, yes. But no one is scared when a heroic figure is put in danger. Make him someone ordinary that the reader can relate to, and you’re golden.
  • A slow burn is the only way to cook. Take a page from Ridley Scott’s Gothic sci-fi masterpiece Alien. If you blow your wad showing the monster on the front page, you better have something bigger and scarier on the last one. Otherwise it’s a let down.
  • Curiosity is the killer. If your protagonist (and reader) have no idea what’s going on at first, imagine the horror when they figure out what’s been causing that strange sound in the closet?
  • Mind your pacing. When things get tense, try for shorter sentences. It might sound goofy, but it works.
  • Use your words. Don’t say something’s scary (or gory, or horrible, etc.) Get descriptive. Get into the character’s heads and understand why what they’re seeing is so frightening. Likewise for horror. If you’re going to do gore, you’re already treading in the Dark Lord’s domain. Don’t puss out. Get descriptive and creative. It’s what you’re here for.
  • Start small, make it big, the bring it home. Think of a small, personal fear (like ghosts). Think of what makes them scary (not a fear of death so much as a fear that even after death you’ll still be stuck in this loop of misery and pain). Now find a way to articulate that bigger concept on a personal level that the reader and maybe even protagonist can relate to.

There we go class. Hopefully some of this was useful.
Again, check out Nicole’s page for the full discussion. There was a lot of good advice that ended up getting posted by a variety of smart writerly types.

One thought on “Thoughts on Writing Horror

  1. Awesome post, Nate, and thanks again for your original comment and the extended version here. It’s great to get your insights into what makes horror work, especially as I experiment with the genre.

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