It’s hard to imagine that people can actually fall in love with a story in which horrific things keep happening to people.
But they do.
Authors like Stephen King have dominated book stores and have seen their stories thrive as movie adaptations in Hollywood.
But to write a horror story that terrorizes and wins the hearts of your readers, you need to get a couple of things right. You must understand that the terror alone won’t save your story; read on to learn about the common subjects in horror stories and how to write scary stories.
Why People Love Reading Horror Fiction
No one enjoys being surrounded by danger, death, terror, and pain. Normally, we are afraid of these things.
So, why do people enjoy stories filled with these things?
Although nobody likes to experience things in a horror story, reading them is different. Horror fiction introduces some sort of a controlled environment for experiencing fear. When we read a horror story in our comfort zone, we experience the element of fear, and at the same time, we feel safe knowing that the horrors happening in the story are not actually happening to us.
This mix leads to an intense but enjoyable experience.
The Horror Subgenres
The subgenre of a horror story determines its tone and atmosphere. When you are aware of the subgenre of your horror story, there are a lot of things that could perfectly go wrong (for your characters) and go right for your readers.
Gross-out horror: This is anything from excess blood oozing from a slit neck, intestines hanging outside, a gouged-out heart, and a lot of other graphic descriptions of gruesome scenes that are solely intended to shock the readers.
Thriller-horror: This subgenre takes advantage of psychological fear and usually occurs before much has happened, around the beginning of horror stories.
Classic horror: In my teenage years, I was in love with characters like Dracula and werewolves. Such characters are found in classic horror which is dominant in Gothic horror, a genre with spooky themes and supernatural happenings.
Terror: According to Stephen King, terror is the worst level of fear. The fear is caused by imagination and the writer has to have mastered the use of persuasive and suggestive writing. The author can suggest the unknown, and the reader’s mind starts to fill in the blanks, and the imagery becomes a terrifying story.
4 Key Elements of a Good Horror Story
A horror story involves the following key elements:
The four major ingredients must be present in any horror story and have to be used efficiently.
Fear is what everyone expects to find in a horror story—and it’s the basic element of a horror story.
However, as I have already iterated, fear on its own is not sufficient.
Your story needs that element of fear to be complemented by the other three: suspense, mystery, or surprise.
A horror story is no good if the scary characters just go about hurting, killing, or scaring the other characters with no mystery behind their existence or their murderous quirks.
And… the readers shouldn’t always anticipate the scary events as that sucks some of the fear out of the readers. When they’re caught off guard, the fear is intense and it makes the horror story more realistic.
If you don’t want to end up with a boring horror story, you need to write a story that invokes the reader’s emotions and engages their mind. A good balance of these four elements will help do just that.
Tips for Writing a Terrifying Horror
1. Use Your Own Fears
You don’t have to be an emotionless badass to write a good horror story. Your own fears can help guide you to write the scariest of things.
Use your fears to write things that people would find spine-chilling and use vivid descriptions—as vivid as the fear in your mind—to increase the scariness of your story.
For example, I’m afraid of blades and heights and if I were to write a horror story based on these feelings, I’d be looking for the scariest things a blade would do, like one character beheading another using a blunt panga and having to repeatedly hack the neck of the victim.
2. Remember the Basics
Horror stories are special, but to you (the writer) they are still like any other story.
The basic elements of a story have to apply to a horror novel or short story—characters have to have goals, there has to be conflict and all the other elements.
If you let the horror element overtake your storytelling abilities, there’s a 99% chance you have no story at all. So, you need to balance between the drama of horror and the flow of the story.
A great horror storyline, just like that of any story, has the protagonist(s) fears or goals, provide the characters’ motive(s) for their roles, expose the decisions that read to the protagonists’ present situation, consequences of the characters’ actions, and how they are going to overcome the situation or succumb to horrors presented by the antagonist(s).
To write a great horror story, you must supplement the mystery and suspense with some elements like humor or bravery.
3. Avoid Clichés
Clichés surprise the element of surprise from a horror story, and with that gone, the story becomes boring, predictable, and—consequently—not scary.
Basing your horror story on the familiar horror tropes isn’t bad, but… you have to develop a story that takes its own shape. I always say that only a horror story writer is allowed to kick his readers in the face—when they think they know what is going to happen, give them something they wouldn’t expect.
4. Write longer sentences
I picked this one from our very own R.L. Stine, aka Jovial Bob. He says that by writing longer sentences, you rob the readers of “natural pauses” that periods provide. The longer sentences mean that the readers don’t have time to take a breath, hence they build anticipation for the reader.
This helps the readers feel as tense as the characters and unknowingly get immersed in your horror story. If this is successful, the reader will want to get to the end of the story as they now have some sort of emotional investment in your story.
5. Carefully Choose the POV
The point of view you use might determine the type of emotional connection your readers have with your main character. If you decide to go with the first-person point of view, the stakes are high.
You can use the first-person POV to get the reader hooked right at the beginning of the story and get their hearts pumping faster as if they were inside the story.
However, if you use past tense, then the first person POV kind of reveals that the narrator lived to tell the tale.
If you’re not clever enough, that will ruin all your chances of ending with a dramatic twist because the reader already knows the narrator will survive the ordeals.
You can also utilize the third-person point of view, which works better for lengthier pieces.
6. Manipulate the Settings
You have to set the environment in such a way that your readers can start developing some phobia just from having a vivid image of the environment.
You can vividly describe enclosed spaces to evoke claustrophobic feelings from the reader. In horror movies, a simple creak of an upstairs floorboard in a lonely house is enough to spark fear into the audience. This can also work in a written story, just paint a picture of a dark and ghostly quiet house and suggest to the reader that there are some slow creaking sounds or that the chair on the porch is swaying but there is no one outside.
7. Read and Practice
It’s obvious that some people write better horror stories than others, and it helps to study those authors. Stephen King tops the list for most people, you can get one of his books and study how he writes his horror novels.
The goal is not to be a copycat but to get insights into horror story writing techniques.
After studying these best-selling authors, you can start practicing with story prompts. Writing prompts can expand your range of thinking and open up new avenues of imagination that you hadn’t thought of before.
8. Scare Them, Care About Them
You shouldn’t write only to scare your readers, you must write to make fans out of them. To do this, you need to give your character a life that your readers can relate to before you get to the “boo!” part.
And… use simple language and don’t try to be too clever with your jargon.
Spine-Chilling Horror Story Prompts
1. A boy goes missing in the middle of the night and his body is found floating in a river. Five years later, reports of sightings start flowing in, to the disgust of his parents because they want their son to rest in peace. Then all the people that reported seeing the boy begin mysteriously dying one by one.
2. A man makes a deal with the devil to bring back his parents who died in a car accident when he was five years old. The devil appears to have fulfilled his promise, but the parents end up murdering all the people close to the man.
3. A serial killer gets hold of a hacker’s laptop. The hacker had just hacked the security system of a house and the owners had just left for a convention abroad. Their son organizes a house party and invites a dozen of his friends to the party.
4. A man wakes up to find a creature with razor-sharp teeth and bloody claws seated on a chair in a dark corner of the room, waiting for him.
5. A member of a religious group on an excursion discovers that the priest is a murderous werewolf. He tries to secretly warn some members but they also turn out to be werewolves.
6. A boy in a small town accidentally enters a funeral home. While there, he finds two lifeless bodies of his neighbors. When he gets back home, he finds his neighbors sitting on the front porch, their gaze razor-focused on him.
Ways to End a Horror Story
Evil gets vanquished… But…
Most horror stories that I have read or the movies I have seen don’t just want the villain to go out like sissy: they put up a very scary fight and they finally are conquered (dead and buried) and then there’s something that suggests that they aren’t really dead—their eyes open or hand shoots out of the grave just before the story ends.
Everyone’s dead, there’s total annihilation.
A horror story can also end with everyone dead and everything is destroyed. There isn’t a single surviving soul, but the good side has won. If you look at it from another perspective, this kind of ending also means that evil has won since evil almost always seeks the world’s destruction.
The Protagonist wins but has to sacrifice something
The hero vanquishes the monsters and restores peace and order. But…the hero has sacrificed something or someone. It may be his sanity or someone that he loves.
The hero uses some lesser evil to conquer the ultimate evil
In a desperate attempt to vanquish the evil haunting them, the main character(s) decide(s) to use some evil ways or make a deal with a less malevolent entity to conquer the bigger evil.
All hope is not lost
This is some sort of happy ending, where even though things seem pretty bad (i.e., the hero is hurt pretty bad or is dead), the reader is given some hope of the hero regaining his health or becoming a more powerful spirit after death. The evil is about to be vanquished or brought to justice.
Most Terrifying Horror Books
Advice from Great Horror Writers
When you listen to great authors, you always get a few pointers on how to write spine-chilling and nightmarish horror stories. Here’s some quoted writing advice from accomplished horror authors.
“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”
“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. —Stephen King”
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.”
The thing I have learned about writing good horror stories is that you have to trap your readers. Whatever you do, make them feel like they’re part of the story—make them feel the urgency, the blood rush, the terror, and the relief at the end or the scariness of the last “hand popping out of the grave” scene.
And… you can only become a better horror story writer with a lot of practice.