24 tips and tricks for writing horror 🎃
For Halloween 2021, I challenged myself to tweet a piece of horror writing advice every hour throughout the spookiest day of the year on #24hoursofhorror. To save you searching through Twitter to find them, I’ve collated them all here too.
If you’d like to read or reply to the tweets (and other useful/silly stuff) on my Twitter profile, you can follow me @kateegner.
1) Get personal. The most effective horror is written from the heart. Forget the classic themes, what scares you?
2) The stuff of nightmares. Our subconcious runs wild when we sleep, which makes dreams a great place to find inspiration for stories. Keep a notebook or notes app close to capture any images or feelings as soon as you wake, or risk them slipping away.
3) Another great way to come up with ideas is to think about the things you love most, rather than the things you fear. How could your pet or child or favourite food be corrupted to make them horror material?
4) The things that scare us are just as likely to live in the dark places inside of us. Vampires, skinwalkers, and ghosts can be terrifying, but most of us are just as likely to fear losing our minds, losing control, humiliation, or loneliness.
5) We’ve talked about some of the more traditional subjects for horror, but there’s plenty of scope to be creative too. Almost anything can be terrifying in the right context – a piece of furniture, a computer game, even a trip to your grandma’s house.
6) It almost goes without saying, but… read as much as you can. Read different genres of horror (of course!) but read in other genres too. You can find inspiration and great writing in all kinds of unexpected places.
7) Don’t hold yourself back, especially with ideas and first drafts. Horror can be disturbing and uncomfortable – that kind is often the most cathartic. Just make sure potential readers are aware of sensitive content so they can decide whether to read or not.
8) Don’t worry too much about being “original”. The classics are classics for a reason and readers actually like stories that feel familiar. You don’t have to invent a whole new genre, just try a new setting, unusual characters, or mixing in different tropes.
9) Your concept is important, but execution is key. You might have created a terrifying monster, but how you incorporate it into a story will have the biggest impact on how scary it really is. Experiment with different forms and POVs to find what works best.
10) Choose your setting carefully. There’s a reason characters in horror are so often trapped or isolated – whether it’s in a basement, a small town, or a forest they can’t escape from. If they can just call an Uber and go home, where’s the real fear?
11) The stakes are important – and not just when there are vampires. Make sure the reader can see what the character has to gain (to help with their motivation) and what they have to lose (to help us feel their fear). Is it life or death, or something worse?
12) Readers must be emotionally invested in what happens to the character. If they don’t care whether they live or die, they’re not going to feel the fear along with them. Make them care by giving your characters vulnerabilities, goals, and realistic motivations.
13) Don’t forget the familiar (and not the animal kind). Establishing what is normal and comfortable for our characters means we can better appreciate just how disturbing and uncomfortable the events of the story are for them.
14) Don’t go up there! It’s okay for your characters to make bad decisions (if the family moves out as soon as the trouble starts, the story will be over pretty quick!). The trick is making those bad decisions believeable for your character within the story.
15) Different POVs can make a huge difference to how the reader experiences a story. First-person puts them in right your character’s shoes. Third-person allows you to tell them things the characters may not (yet) know. Second-person is uncomfortably intimate.
16) Horror show, don’t horror tell. Describing something to your readers as “scary” or “gory” doesn’t make it scary or gory. Be wary of words like this that tell the reader what to think. Use your writing skills to make it scary, and they won’t need to be told.
17) Leave room for the reader’s imagination. Often the scariest thing is the one we don’t see. Create a character your readers can identify with and find a way to scare them to death – detailed descriptions of your monster are less important.
18) How do we create dread? It requires anticipation. Crafting a story full of dread is like stretching out an elastic band – we know we’re going to jump when it finally snaps, but the anticipation of that moment is just as bad (if not worse).
19) Make every sentence count. Tension and pacing are so important, and interrupting a slow build-up with an abrupt change of subject or unnecessary diversion can ruin the mood. Ask yourself what each sentence is contributing and be prepared to be ruthless.
20) Why so serious? There’s room for humour in pretty much any story, and humour and horror often go hand in hand. It’s a way to help your characters deal with their vulnerabilities, and it’s human nature to make jokes in even the darkest situations.
21) The big twist at the end is… not always necessary. We all love a twist when it’s done well, but it’s not a requirement. It can be just as chilling to tell your reader right at the beginning how the story will end. The fear in is the journey.
22) Let it linger. A good story stays with a reader long after they put the book down, so don’t wrap everything up too neatly at the end. Horror isn’t a mystery to be solved, it’s one that spins out of control, stalks you home, and watches you while you sleep.
23) Get some feedback. Mistakes in any kind of writing are an unwelcome distraction for the reader, but when immersion is as important as it is in horror, mistakes can kill your book.
24) Don’t be afraid. This last one is the most important… Just write. Put your fingers on the keyboard and see what comes out. Yes, it’s scary, but don’t we all like to be a little scared?