When you think about it, the horror genre makes no sense at all. We sit and stare at pieces of paper with words on them, imagining monsters that we know are entirely made up... and that somehow makes us so scared that we have to sleep with the lights on? Seriously? Writing horror that's genuinely scary is no mean feat. If you're an aspiring horror writer (or even just an enthusiastic campfire storyteller), you might want a few pointers on how to take your stories from slightly scary to spine-chilling nightmare fuel. Here's some writing advice from horror authors, so you, too, can terrorize everyone you meet.
Of course, most general tips for writing apply to writing horror as well. Read widely. Try to write everyday. Write stories that matter to you, and ground them in real emotions. But horror comes with its own specific challenges as well. I mean, how do you know what makes something scary? How to you capture that scary thing and put it into your own writing? Are clowns truly played out as a horror trope?
Every author's process is different, and everyone has a different set of deep, dark fears. But these tips on writing horror will help you find your own method of adding fear to the world:
1There are three types of terror
When you get down to it, there are only three things that can truly freak someone out. At least, according to Stephen King:
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
2Use your own fear
Shirley Jackson believed that one is always writing, filing away little moments and snippets of dialogue for later use, "a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish." She paid special attention to the things that scared her:
“I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.”
3Get inside your narrator’s head
R.L. Stine frightened an entire generation of children with a very simple rule: get inside your narrator's head. If we're seeing through the eyes of a character in a scary situation, we start to feel like we are in a scary situation (also, ventriloquist dummies are universally evil). He told AdWeek:
“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”
4Don’t worry about being “legitimate”
There will always be literary snobs out there to tell you that horror, like all genre fiction, is not as important or "legit" as real fiction about middle age men who cheat on their wives. Tananarive Due suggests that you stop worrying about trying to be a "legit" writer, and just write what feels right to you, even if it involves ghosts:
"...I'd had it drummed into my head in creative writing workshop courses that one could not expect to be a respected writer when writing commercial or genre books. Legitimacy has always been very important to me... Finally, though, I said the heck with all of it. I wasn't going to try to be Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates, I was just going to be me, and I was going to write about the people I know..."
5Take your nonsense seriously
On a similar note, you have to take your ghosties and goblins seriously, because even the goofiest of evil clowns still represents a very human fear of the unknown. Ray Bradbury thought that writing should be enjoyable, and that writers should be selective about which criticisms to listen to:
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
6Go where the pain is
Anne Rice has some truly chilling advice for horror writers: go where the pain is. Write about the one thing that you can't get over, because that's where true horror lies:
“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I'm writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”
7The scariest thing is feeling out of control
For Clive Barker, horror comes from the realization that we are not in control. Excellent horror writers don't just go for gore and shock value, they remind their readers that everyday life is always right on the edge of dissolving into chaos:
“Horror fiction has traditionally dealt in taboo. It speaks of death, madness and transgression of moral and physical boundaries. It raises the dead to life and slaughters infants in their cribs; it makes monsters of household pets and begs our affection for psychos. It shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
8Just start writing and fix it later
Horror writer and poet Linda Addison suggests that you silence your inner editor for that first draft, and just let all the horrific weirdness of your subconscious flow out onto the page/screen:
"Know that even when you’re not putting words on paper/computer you’re writing. Living is writing. Everything we do feeds creativity, even in the most un-obvious ways. Don’t edit while writing first draft, just get it out. This is a rule I often struggle with because I know the quality I want, but I also know it’s important to write it from beginning to end and the editor mind doesn’t help that for me."
9Tell your own story
Write in your own universe, not someone else's. Make up your own monsters. That's what Neil Gaiman does. From a podcast interview with Nerdist:
"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."
10Keep it real (kind of)
Helen Oyeyemi's writing blends realism with magic and horror—but to her, that doesn't make her writing unrealistic. As long as the emotions are genuine, you can let go of concerns about sticking strictly to reality:
"I tend to prioritize emotional realism above the known laws of time and space, and when you do that, it's inevitable that strange things happen. Which can be quite enjoyable, I think."