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.
61 replies on “How to write a horror story: 6 terrific tips”
I’m so happy I ran across this article. I’ve read from more than one story editor that the horror genre is the most difficult genre to master.
I’m glad to hear that, JP. All genres have their challenges but I’d say the best, best, best approach is to read widely in said genre (and others). Thanks for the feedback!
Yeah, if Stephen King can’t terrify or horrify, he’ll gross us out. And he says he’s not proud. In other words, he’ll stoop to the disgust level if he can’t get the others. But this is precisely the problem with the “gross” or “disgusting.” Disgust is not fear. When we are disgusted, we know TOO much. When we are horrified, there is always something we DON’T know. I’m amazed he doesn’t know that. An autopsy gives us disgust because nothing is held back from the viewer. It is not frightening. No one believes, for example, that the body is going to get up from the autopsy table and start attacking the doctor. But if I walk into the autopsy room all by myself and see a dead body on a table, turn away from the body to shut the door, turn back to it, notice it gone, and then have the lights start dimming? Yes. Now I am scared. Why? Simply because I don’t know certain things. I don’t know why the body has suddenly disappeared. I don’t know how a dead person could have moved. I don’t know where the body is right now. I don’t know if that body (if it is actually alive) has good or bad intentions toward me. I don’t know who is dimming the lights and why. It is so much easier to disgust the reader than to horrify him. It takes more cleverness to hold back information from the character and the reader than to let everything gush forth in blood and guts. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, there is more fear to be found in the inscrutable nightly crying of the butler’s wife than in many of our modern horror films put together. Why is she crying? Why only at night? Why is she doing looking out of the window into the dark each night? The source of fear is in the unknown.
Ultimately, King does know and it is a show vs tell metaphor. You have to read his biographical On Writing because no one explains it correctly. Terror is the psychological aspect of the story. Horror is the stories physical manifestation of the terror. Disgust is the actions of horror. Showing the actions of horror kills all suspense immediately. I like to explain it to my students and listeners as if Terror and Horror are the brake and Disgust is the gas. It’s like the old story of the escaped lunatic with a hook were a young couple go out on a date. While driving to Make Out Lane there is a report on the radio about an escaped killer with a hook running around killing people that the only the girl hears. As the girl and boy are making out she sees a shadow and the boyfriend sees nothing. Then there is the screeching sound on the outside of the car. That’s terror. The boyfriend gets out and inspects his car in the dense fog. The girl loses sight of the boy as he walks toward the rear, building on the terror. There is another screech along her door, terrorizing her. She calls out the boys name and he doesn’t respond, building on the terror, possibly toward horror if the boy doesn’t return. Then he does. He leaps into the car and jerks it into reverse and pulls away from the scene at mach-5. When they arrive back at her house, they find a hook dangling from the passenger door handle, the horror. King describes this little story as the perfect short horror story. However, in some later versions of the story the girl jumps in the driver’s seat and pulls off without the boy. When she gets to her home she finds a bloody hook dangling from the door with a bit of gut on it, leaving the girl and the audience disgusted. as the tension and suspense are deflated.
This is very helpful. My 8th grade English teacher is holding a contest for writing a short (750 to 3,000 word) horror story, so I am researching the elements of horror and how to incorporate them into my work. This article is by far one of the more helpful ones I have found in finding ways to create fear, shock or disgust in the mind of the reader. Thank you!
Thank you for this feedback. I’m glad to hear you found this article useful. I hope you won the contest 🙂
“…his skin distinctly yellowish in colour.”
Far from being exemplary in any way, this is actually terrible, hack writing.
If something is “yellowish,” it cannot be “distinctly” so. It’s either distinctly yellow, or “yellowish.”
Likewise, “in color” is flabby and redundant. Could the skin be “yellowish” in shape or size? Could it be “yellowish” in cost or weight?
This page is distinctly whiteish in color.
See how weak and flabby that is?
To be fair, there is a lot of good information on this page. But Clive Barker is a dreadful writer, and should never be cited as an exemplar of good prose.
Hi Sharkio, you raise a very good point. I second your edit of just saying ‘yellowish’ and cutting in colour and am tempted to add a note on not taking the letter of his prose as exemplary, but rather the spirit 🙂 I agree that although the atmosphere and tone are there, the prose is weak in places. There’s also the question, though, of whether we can/should apply ‘literary’ standards to genre fic where these and other ‘sins’ are more widely accepted 🙂 Thanks for the thoughtful engagement with this detail.
Are you crazy? There is no writer at the top of their game as Barker was in the 70-90s. His influence is on everything today.
Thanks for sharing your perspective, H Duane 🙂 Just goes to show that everyone has different preferences. He is regarded as one of the modern masters of horror. I suppose genre fiction readers might also be more forgiving of certain stylistic choices than literary readers.
Some good tips after writing 2 love stories and a mystery now I am trying for some horrer story and this will help me such a good information
Thanks, Sidhu. That’s an interesting genre leap, but many horrors do have both elements. It’s a weird trope to me how often the romantic leads are the first to go in slasher flicks. You’d think writers would keep them to add romantic tension to the mix. I hope your story’s coming along well.
I just finished writing my first horror script/ screenplay… I checked this list just to see if I maybe left elements out that I should include or if I was on the right track and I’m proud to report that my script has it all… Once my film finally sees the light of day, I hope all horror fans are satisfied…
Hi Timothy, I hope so too! Best of luck with the next steps, please update us about what comes of it.
I am attempting to write a horror story where the main character is possessed and is writing in a diary like format as it occurs, and begins committing murders, how do I accurately capture the descent into madness?
Hi Evan, thank you for sharing that. It’s an interesting challenge. I would suggest a shift in style and tone in his writing. For example, perhaps they use stranger metaphors, repeat themselves more, their sentences become more fragmented, there’s the occasional odd word by itself on a line, lines or sentences that don’t make complete semantic sense but have an eerie undertone (I think of the classic phrase ‘The owls are not what they seem’ in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks).
I hope this helps! Good luck.
Thank you, this was very useful. I appreciate your enthusiasm and encouragement.
It’s my pleasure, Evan, glad to help. Have a great week.
Wow this was really helpful thanks
I’m glad to hear that, Rene. Thank you for the feedback!
I wanted to write a psychological thriller story for a youtube channel. I am glad I found help from here. Thank You.
It’s a pleasure, Suyasha! Thank you for reading and good luck creating your story for YouTube.
I appreciate the reference to ’cause and effect’ for any level of villainy. The more complex the villain, the more interesting the story. Anything that steps out of the dark and says, “Hi, I’m evil. I’m here to destroy everything for no apparent reason,” flattens the scene. I think your point about motivation is key to getting people engaged in the fantasy. I think that this will heighten the tension in my current story. Thank you.
Hi Deborah, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Agreed, a complex villain also tends to be less predictable which inherently builds more suspense, as (compared to a Bond villain, for example), they’re more textured and unknowable, less of a trope or archetype. I’m glad you found these ideas helpful to your current story, good luck as you proceed further!