Learn how to write a horror story that will thrill, terrify and delight readers. Discover common features of effective horror, plus six simple tips:
What is horror fiction?
The word ‘horror’ means ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust’ (Oxford English Dictionary). The word comes from the Latin horrere, meaning ‘to tremble or shudder’.
The best horror stories: 5 common features
The best horror stories share at least five elements in common. Horrors:
- Explore ‘malevolent’ or ‘wicked’ characters, deeds or phenomena.
- Arouse feelings of fear, shock or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny – things are not what they seem. There is a heightened sense of the unknown and/or mysterious.
- Are intense (as the dictionary definition reminds us). Horror books convey intense emotion, mood, tone and environments. Together, these produce a sense of ominous possibility.
- Contain scary and/or shocking plot twists and story reveals (unlike episodes of the cartoon Scooby Doo, in which the bad guys are typically conniving realtors dressed as paranormal beings). In horror the ghosts and werewolves are very, very real.
- Immerse readers in the macabre. Horror tends to deal with morbid situations, from repetitive cycles of violence to death-related uncanny scenarios. Zombies march, vampires make you join their legion, or (in subtler scenarios) long-dead friends or relations pay unexpected visits.
How do you write a horror story or novel like Stephen King, Clive Barker or (looking further back in the genre’s history) Edgar Allan Poe?
Start with these six tips:
How to write horror that thrills and satisfies readers:
- Use strong, pervasive tone
- Read widely in your genre
- Give wicked characters motivations
- Use the core elements of tragedy
- Tap into common human fears
- Know the difference between terror and horror
1: Use strong, pervasive tone
Understanding ‘tone’ is crucial to how to write horror well.
Tone and mood are two style elements that affect how your story feels. Great tone and mood make readers’ spines tingle before a single character has made a terrible decision.
How you describe settings, character movement and actions creates an overarching tone.
In horror writing, a dark or frightening tone is often pronounced. Take this example from Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always:
Half closing his eyes, he crossed to the window and fumbled to slam it, making sure that the latch was in place this time.
The wind had started his lamp moving, and when he turned back the whole room seemed to be swinging around. One moment the fight was blazing in his eyes, the next it was flooding the opposite wall. But in between the blaze and the flood it lit the middle of his room, and standing there – shaking the rain off his hat – was a stranger.
He looked harmless enough. He was no more than six inches taller than Harvey, his frame scrawny, his skin distinctly yellowish in colour. He was wearing a fancy suit, a pair of spectacles and a lavish smile.
Clive Barker, The Thief of Always, 1992
The scene is suffused with a sense of the unsettling. Objects that should be stationary move. The room itself seems to move. The viewpoint character is disoriented. A peculiar character seems to materialize out of nowhere.
Barker also creates an ominous tone through indirect means. ‘He looked harmless enough’ draws our attention to the possibility the man could in fact be harmful. The ‘scrawny’ frame and ‘yellowish’ skin both make the stranger unsettling and increase the sense of unfamiliarity.
2: Read widely in your genre
Whatever genre you write in, whether psychological or paranormal horror, read as many books by respected authors in your genre as possible. Examples of celebrated horror authors include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, John Lindqvist and more.
As you read authors in your genre, make notes on what aspects of your genre the author excels in. Is it great, spooky settings? Copy out your favourite quotes that create an eerie sense of place and re-read when trying to make your own settings more vivid. Actively learning from great authors will improve your mastery of the horror genre.
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3: Give wicked characters motivations
Give every malevolent character a strong, clear motivation.
Revealing what the motivation is for the sinister goings on in your story can be part of the mystery that sustains it and keeps readers guessing why unsettling things keep happening.
If there’s a malevolent force, being or stranger in your horror novel, make their motivation similar in magnitude to the character’s actions. Readers will scoff if a creepy doll goes on a murderous rampage in your novel simply because somebody took its batteries out.
4: Use the core elements of tragedy
This is excellent horror-writing advice from Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds. As Wendig puts it:
Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its truest and most theatrical form: tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps.
The horror genre uses the core elements of tragedy so nakedly that some of these have become clichés. ‘Don’t go in that house, idiot,’ you might shout at the screen while watching American Horror Story, because the character is oblivious to personal danger.
In horror stories, we get scared because, as readers, we see the signs foolhardy characters don’t.
At its heart, tragedy teaches some important lessons. For example, tragedy shows that:
- Acts of cruelty have destructive, rippling cause and efffect (the frightening way the title character of Stephen King’s novel Carrie unleashes her powers due to bottling sustained psychological abuse is a good example)
- Seeing situations and scenarios from multiple perspectives can avoid a downfall (e.g. You could tell yourself, ‘That house is abandoned because the property market fell’. But also: ‘That house is abandoned because something terrible happened there (and keeps happening there) and people are afraid of it.’)
- Bravery means making a choice in full awareness of danger, whereas making choices in blissful unawareness of their potential consequences leaves people vulnerable
To write a credible horror novel, in other words, show that the horror-filled situation is dependent on a network of character choices, past or present. At its heart, horror fiction reminds us that cause and effect is real, even in the fantastical realm of storytelling.
5: Tap into common human fears
If the point of horror writing (and horror elements in other genres such as paranormal romance) is to arouse fear, shock or disgust, think of the things people are most commonly afraid of.
Live Science places an interest choice at number one: The dentist. It’s true that you can feel powerless when you’re in the dentist’s chair. Couple this with the pain of certain dental procedures and it’s plain to see why a malevolent dentist is the stuff of horror nightmares.
Making readers scared creates tension and increases the pace of your story. Even so there should be a reason for making readers fearful.
Here are some of the most common fears people have:
- Fear of animals (dogs, snakes, sharks, mythical creatures such as the deep sea-dwelling kraken)
- Fear of flying (film producers combined the previous fear and this other common fear to make the spoof horror movie Snakes on a Plane)
- The dark – one of the most fundamental fears of the unfamiliar
- Perilous heights
- Other people and their often unknown desires or intentions
- Ugly or disorienting environments
Think of how common fears can be evoked in your horror fiction. Some are more often exploited in horror writing than others. A less precise fear (such as the fear of certain spaces) will let you tell the horror story you want with fewer specified must-haves.
6: Know the difference between terror and horror
To learn how to write horror novels, it’s useful to understand the difference between horror and terror. ‘Terror’ describes a state of feeling. Oxford Dictionaries simply define it as ‘extreme fear’. To ‘terrorise’, means to use extreme fear to intimidate others.
Horror, however, also suggests elements of disgust and surprise or shock. Thus the word ‘horror’ describes not only extreme fear but also revulsion and a sense of surprise and the unexpected.
Horror writers share different ways to understand the difference between terror and horror:
For Stephen King, terror is a feeling the author tries to evoke in the reader before resorting to shock tactics such as surprising with the extreme or unpleasant:
I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud.
King’s quote suggests that if you can create terror in the reader before there’s even a gross-out moment or sickly reveal in your horror novel, you’re winning.
Develop a great horror story idea and profile creepy characters.