A Guide to Writing Horror Stories

Horror stories are nothing new, and our elders have passed down oral tales of ghosts, monsters, witches, and demons since the beginning. 

However, creating a new horror story from scratch isn’t as easy as it sounds- especially in our less-superstitious age- so writers need to get creative when trying to thrill and chill their audience. 

Here’s how!

Begin with something Familiar

Fear comes from an absence of comfort, so starting your story in a familiar place can increase the anticipation as your reader waits for the other shoe to drop. 

Familiarity also increases your reader’s emotional attachment to the character because they know the comfortable, familiar world is about to change dramatically, and there’s nothing they (or the character) can do about it. 

Focus on One fear at a time

For your story, pick a fear from one of these three categories: 

  • Instinctive fears (based on biology)- spiders, drowning, heights, small spaces, etc. 
  • Supernatural fears (based on legends and uncertainty)- vampires, ghosts, werewolves, aliens, etc. 
  • Social fears (based on traditions)- racism, religion, taboos, marriages, abuse, laws, cults, culture clash, etc. 

You can mix categories, but try not to use too many fears at once, or you risk overwhelming and confusing your reader. 

Some well-known combos are instinctive and supernatural (Monsters in the Attic), social and supernatural (the Cult of Cthulhu), and social and instinctive (Swimming a witch).  

Another option is to incorporate your personal fears into the story. That way, you can write the character’s reaction to the fear in a grounded, realistic way. If your reader shares that fear, it’ll draw them into the story and make the horror more intense- which is what you want. 

Reveal the stakes early on

To get your reader invested in the story, they need to know what’s at stake. Are your characters fighting for survival? Do they long to protect a loved one? Or are they at risk of losing everything they’ve worked to achieve? 

By establishing the stakes, you can direct the reader and keep them engaged by reminding them what happens if the characters fail. 

Add some foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is when you let the reader know something is important or about to happen without giving it away, and it’s one of the best tools for creating horror stories.  

However, you can’t foreshadow EVERYTHING.

One technique to keep in mind when foreshadowing is Chekhov’s Gun. It comes from nineteenth-century author and playwright Anton Chekhov, who stated, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”

Basically, whatever you foreshadow needs to happen before the end. A locked door should open, a mysterious stranger introduced, and a threat dealt with (or completed). 

That way, your reader can experience the comfort of closure (or the fury of a cliffhanger) by the end. 

Mess with reality

Reality is mostly perception, and messing with that perception can inspire great horror in your readers. By altering the senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell), you can shift the reality of your character and put them in some frightening scenarios. 

For example, in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the main character experiences a slow madness by watching the wallpaper of her house shift and change in the light. There are other factors, of course, but the wallpaper- an ordinary and familiar object- is the main focus of the spine-tingling story. 

Another example is John Cheever’s story, The Swimmer. It begins with a man’s dream to swim in every pool in the neighborhood until he’s back home, but his perception begins disintegrating with each new location. Then, we see the horrible truth. 

Messing with reality is an easy way to add more horror to your story, and you can make it as subtle or obvious as you wish. Just remember to follow through! 

Check your Point of View

How you tell the story is crucial to the fear factor, so write it in the right POV

First-person POV is usually preferred for horror stories because it draws the reader into the character’s mind and gives them a more intimate experience. 

On the other hand, third person limited lets you see what the character sees while also having the ability to narrate and describe scenes outside the character’s mind. 

The right POV is essential for creating fear, but you should also consider your tense. For example, writing in past tense could lessen the drama because the reader knows your character survived, while present tense is more intense and can lessen their sense of hope for the outcome. 

Both tense and POV will determine how your reader perceives the story- and how scared they are by the events.

Choose carefully!

Horror stories may come from years of legends and oral tales, but creating something original takes far more imagination if you hope to terrify your reader. These tips will help you face your fears, organize your thoughts, and give your readers a story they’ll enjoy. 

Do you have any tips for writing horror stories? Let me know in the comments! 

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