If you want to write a truly chilling horror story that scares the bejeebers out of readers, there are a few key elements that need careful consideration. It can be easy to assume that all you need to do is push the limits. However, if you read some of the best authors in the genre, you will see that more gore is not always the key to writing great horror.
What is Horror to You?
Instead of trying to generalize what is really going to scare, shock, or appall people, most successful horror writers begin by identifying horror for themselves. This helps the horror writer think in more precise terms and avoid falling into typical clichés. By becoming involved in your story, you create a strong foundation for success. You don’t have to manifest a basis of fear because it comes from within.
Once you feel comfortable with this inside-out approach to writing horror, these next five writing tips can help you craft a hair-raising tale that will keep readers up at night.
1. Read Horror Stories
More specifically, read authors who do it well. If you're writing in this genre, you most likely read in this genre too. Which authors have you read that made you fall in love with the style and what was it about their work that triggered your fear response? Try to think of how those authors may have inserted themselves into their stories.
Try to avoid using other writers to gleam ideas for content. Instead, look to see how they use the different writing elements—tone, setting, characters, etc.—to create feelings and compel the reader. Take notice that there are different types of horror. A good horror story lands on a defined type of horror that, in most cases, works to convey only one or two strong themes.
2. Pick Your Type of Horror
When you decide on what kind of horror you want to write, whether abductions or a sociopathic serial killer, don’t go overboard with horror tropes. For example:
The ghost of an alien species who inhabited earth prior to humanity is possessing creepy children and making them sacrifice their parents to resurrect an ancient demonic being who is the cousin of the devil, twice removed.
There is a lot going on in that story and the readers can be easily lost, or even worse, just not take you seriously.
3. Concentrate on Character Development (Especially the Antagonist)
Give your antagonist a backstory. They need some kind of motivation. But be careful to not let their backstory mitigate their malevolence. This also applies to characters who are the subject of the antagonist’s evil deeds. The characters made some decision whether innocent or corrupt, past or present, that can explain why they are being terrorized. Most prolific horror stories include an element of cause and effect, a tragic turn of events. This leads to the next point, theme.
4. Have an Underlying Theme
A good horror story needs meaning or it is somewhat empty. For instance, the whole idea behind giving treats at Halloween comes from the Galiec festival of Samhain. During this time (the end of harvest), people set out food and drink to satisfy the spirits and make sure everyone, including livestock, survived the coming winter.
The theme here: Don’t be selfish and ghosts won’t terrorize you.
It doesn’t have to be a moral, but does need to have some kind of connection to the realm of human experience, whether metaphorical or direct.
5. Craft Your Tone
Language is important in all genres, but even more so in writing a good horror story. Your language supports the reason they continue to read, character actions, settings, and themes. Use language to build tension, anxiety, suspense, and mystery.
While this list isn’t complete, these suggestions can provide a strong foundation to work from, and will help you avoid writing a horror story full of horror clichés.
Don’t stop here though. Explore other tactics employed by other successful horror writers. Channel your inner M. Night Shyamalan and add an unexpected twist. Or take a page from King’s playbook and make connections to real-world experiences, history, and lore. Follow these writing tips and your horror story is certain to have the wanted effect.