Updated: Jun 16
Tis the season to be scary… yes, it’s time once again to talk about writing for the horror genre.
Let’s just be clear from the start: stories involving supernatural creature do not automatically make the grade of horror, for horror as its own specific parameters that qualify it as a separate entity than the rest (see what I did there?)
Namely, horror should be scary.
I can hear all the “d’uhs” thudding around me already, but truly giving your readers the heebie-jeebies is somewhat of an art. There are some common mistakes that crop up often and inevitably derail any atmosphere or – the most important aspect – utter dread. A horror story without dread is going to end up a damp squib.
Here are some suggestions on what you can try with an early draft of your short fiction.
Beginnings – set the tone from the start.
Despite the fact that there is so much emphasis on story beginnings when it comes to writing advice, really scrutinising the opening paragraphs of a story is not something the majority of writers practice, but it counts for so much. Especially in horror. You want a first line that intrigues, creates mystery and informs the reader from the start that something isn’t going to be quite right in the upcoming narrative.
Re-read your draft and identify the paragraph or sentence where the horror dilemma first occurs. Would this make a better opening line? If your current opening is setting up the scene and serving up background information to provide context, can you move it a few paragraphs (or a page) down and launch the story into the predicament immediately? Get your reader hooked with something spooky, weird, or out of the ordinary. Set up a question that needs to be answered (why is the neighbour acting so weird; why do things keep moving of their own volition in the new house?) Don’t answer that question yet. The reader will read on to find out.
Attention to word choice.
Use language that evokes the idea of looming evil, darkness, etc. Use a voice that evokes this, too. Emotion plays a vital part in writing horror. A cheery narrator who always finds the positive in things and/or bumbles about the scene too casually or narration that is too pedestrian is not going to send chills up the reader’s spine.
Write in the present scene, not in retrospective narration.
This is often the problem with relying too much on a Telling narrative mode. When you write in retrospect, it feels like the event already happened. And if your main character is narrating, then you’ve given the game away that they survive. You’re aiming to make the reader feel like the protagonist could die at any moment. And not just die, but die in the most gruesome or cruel way. Writing in retrospect takes away that vital effect of immediacy from the prose.
Please note: writing in retrospective narration is not the same as writing in past tense.
Supply your reader with the right indicators.
You need to provide hints and clues that something bad is coming. If you don’t, you’ve wasted precious anticipation foreshadowing.
Focus on creating a sense of spookiness and dread as much as you can.
In the case of horror writing, it’s the one time (probably) that I’d advocate going overboard on the emotional/descriptive details. At least to begin with. You can always pare down in revisions, but overdoing the spooky is a better approach than pedestrianising it. In particular, if you are new to the genre.
Your reader experiences their fear by proxy.
Your protagonist is there to experience the fear on behalf of your reader which then translates back to them. Every prickly hair, suspicious creak or ghostly moaning in the night should be filtered through your main character and their reactions to what’s happening around them.
All roads lead to dread becoming reality.
Although this can be said of all stories when they reach the climax, it is doubly so with horror. All those hints at the monster that you foreshadowed MUST come to fruition. It’s called delivering on your promise. It you don’t serve up the monster/monstrous in some form of material presence – a presence that takes some kind of nefarious action and where consequences follow – the story will feel incomplete and your reader cheated.
So, there we go. Stick to these principles and you’ll definitely be on the right track to keeping your reader from sleeping in the dark.
Got any favourite techniques on upping the creep factor in fiction?