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5 Tips for Writing Horror the Right Way

It’s that time of year again: The weather is cooling down, blankets are being pulled from closets, and people are settling down by their fireplaces with horror novels. Like any genre, horror comes with its own set of rules, and this month we’re going to share some tips on creating a spooktacular reading experience.

Terrorize Your Reader

Think about the best horror movies you’ve seen. The ones that truly make you look over your shoulder when turning out the lights, or clutch the phone when you hear a distant noise in an otherwise empty house. You know, the movies that keep you awake in the daytime as much as they do at night. Those movies harbor and become masters at creating tension. Your horror story should put the reader in the same position as the characters. Readers should not be onlookers while the terror happens. They need to experience that same terror.

Keep Your Villain Real

The largest difference between a quality horror movie and a silly one is the villain. Like any other story, the antagonist must be multi-layered and complex. The reader is not interested in seeing your goofiest or goriest fear realized (re: Killer Clowns from Outer Space). They want to experience the fear in daily life. This is what makes good horror. Think about Jaws: Crazed animal with multiple rows of teeth who doesn’t care about eating off kids’ arms — scary. Or Mr. Hyde: He seems like a regular guy, but he isn’t, and finds a way to actually bring his inner evil to life — scary. The villain in horror is stronger if it’s more than a two-headed monster who kills aimlessly.

Avoid Scenes That Don’t Translate in Ink

This is a novel. This is a novel. This is a novel. This is a novel. This is a novel. Like any other writing, your reader has to rely on using their eyes to take over for all their other senses. This is difficult, but not insurmountable. Each word must have a specific purpose and role. Take this great example from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline:

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” asked Coraline.

“I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother's grave.”

“Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.

“Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”

The passage is simple, yet the tension and words lend themselves easily to terrific anticipation.

Don’t Abandon the Basics

You are a writer, so you understand how to write. There must be rising action, tension, tone appropriate for the genre, strong character development, and intriguing dialogue — everything you already know about how to write well. Don’t abandon conventions because your genre is considered somewhat unconventional.

Get Personal

Typically, we’re all afraid of the same things, but mostly our fears lie in the loss of control. That’s why some of us are afraid of dying, riding an elevator, flying on an airplane, walking up to strange animals, interacting with mascots, being near insects — you name it. The bulk of our fears center on us not being able to control a specific outcome. This makes horror writing fairly easy because the author has the ability to choose one of their own fears and essentially bring that fear to life.


About Anitra Louis

An avid reader, Anitra Louis loves all things horror and often gets lost in paperback thrillers. In addition to being the Editorial Coordinator for Divine Legacy Publishing, LLC, she also teaches college English. When she's not teaching or coordinating, she enjoys watching old episodes of the Sopranos, 90210, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

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