Edgar Allan Poe. Stephen King. Anne Rice. H.P. Lovecraft. Bram Stoker. Mary Shelley.
These are all names that most of us know from the spooky and scary stories they write. They are the masters of the horror fiction genre, thrilling their fans with stories of the unnatural, the gruesome and grotesque, and the shocking. They have helped create one of the most enduring genres in the world, basing it on ancient folklore and tales about witches, evil spirits, and the supernatural.
Characterized by creatures like ghosts, zombies, werewolves, vampires, killers, and more, horror storytelling taps into the reader’s fears in the hopes of giving them a momentary fright and thrill. But writers of horror also need to be careful not to wander down the path of cliché and turn what could be a truly frightful story into something that has been done before.
Creating a good horror story balances the ordinary with the unordinary.
Think about the horror novels you have read. A good example of combining the ordinary with the unordinary is Stephen King’s Pet Semetary. It is a great story about life and death, and the consequences of messing with things you don’t understand. We can relate to the grief of the family losing their cat, Church. When looked through the eyes of the story’s protagonist, Dr. Louis Creed, we can understand why he ignores the warning about going beyond the break in the Pet Semetary in the hopes of bringing the cat back. If you have read this book – or even seen the movie – you know how the sense of dread and fear build on each other like a Jenga tower ready to topple.
Elements of a good horror story
If we break Pet Semetary down, we have all the elements that make a great horror story (as it should be coming from the master himself). We have:
· A relatable setting, namely the family home in a small town
· A cemetery that caters to pets – we’re all familiar with cemeteries
· A kindly neighbor that tells the family all about the town and the cemetery
· A place of supernatural power – the break beyond the cemetery which is an old Indian burial ground
· Something grotesque and threatening – in this case, the resurrected cat, Church
These elements help set up the story and the fear that builds within Dr. Creed right to the very last page of the book – or frame of the movie. The story works because the ordinary surroundings are changed into something terrifying, threatening, and ultimately, grotesque.
5 tips for writing horror stories
The masters of the horror genre have honed their craft over years of practice, and they know that there are no rules when it comes to horror. This genre can take a love story and turn it into something terrifying. So how do you write a good horror story?
1. Read all the horror you can. From young adult stories by R. L. Stine to the horror classics of Poe and King, you can quickly learn what elements they use to make their stories scary and how they put them together.
2. Remember that horror can cross genres and to read some of those types of books as well. For example, one of my favorite authors Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series is about a necromancer who has been in romantic situations with vampires and shapeshifters…all while raising the dead and investigating cases as a U.S. Marshal. It’s a great example of how elements of the horror genre can cross into romance.
3. When you sit down to write your horror story, focus on what you are afraid of. Using your own fears and experiences can make for a great story. If you scare yourself when you are writing your story, then more than likely you’ll scare your readers.
4. Create characters that have a good backstory, are filled with emotions and desires, and are human. We all make bad choices. Just remember, bad choices in horror can up the fear factor.
5. Remember that things that are real tend to be scarier than things that are not. Jump scares are good for movies and haunted houses, but in a horror story, the psychological fear works even better. Think about Stephen King’s The Stand, a story about the aftermath of a deadly pandemic, and think about today’s COVID-19 world. I’ll say no more.
Horror is a legitimate genre so stretch your wings.
There are some creative writing schools out there that feel horror is not a legitimate genre to write in. I dare someone to tell King or Rice or other horror writers that. Horror is a legit genre and if it calls to you, then write it. Don’t worry about what others have to say. There is an audience for your scary story.
Take your characters seriously and use them to stand for the fear of the unknown. Whether they are ghosts, goblins, the fear of death, the fear of the dark…it doesn’t matter. Bring them to life in the most creative way you possibly can. Also, take the advice of author Neil Gaiman:
“Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.”
Do you have a scary story to tell? Then why aren’t you writing it?