11 Tips On Writing Horror From The Greats Of The Genre, Including Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, And Tananarive Due
As the autumn mists roll in, and prestige horror movies make their triumphant return to cinemas, it seems like the perfect time to settle in with your beloved word processor and your favorite hot beverage and write some ghost stories. But how does one make a piece of writing scary? Where's the line that turns a cheesy people-eating demon into the stuff of nightmares? How does a writer create a spine-tingling atmosphere of tension and fear while staring at a computer screen and eating cereal directly out of the box? Here are a few tips from the horror greats for writing creepy fiction (and quite possibly terrifying yourself in the process).
Of course, as with all writing, there is no one-size-fits-all method for crafting a great horror novel. You might be a person who is entirely unfazed by classic monster movies, and who rolls their eyes at creepy campfire tales. Or you might be someone (like me) who routinely has to hide their novelty clown-shaped pencil cup for fear that it will spontaneously come to life. Your fears and your writing methods are all your own. But no matter what your approach, these horror-writing tips will give you a few extra thoughts to mull over as your write your tales of terror:
1. Delight in what you fear
In Let Me Tell You, a book of essays, stories, and writing advice, Shirley Jackson has the following to say on writing horror: “I delight in what I fear.” The Queen of Terror was all about finding the joy in her own personal fears, as well as saving up scraps of real life experiences for use in her writing:
"One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever get wasted. It's 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. A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday."
2. Make sense of the insensible
“Sometimes fiction is the only way to make sense of the insensible,” according to Tananarive Due's personal blog. In a post on hate crimes in Trump's America, Due points out that horror can actually be a comforting genre. It can personify real world bigotry into a demon that can be defeated, giving a face to a faceless evil. Fictional horror can explore the complex ideas brought up by real life horrors:
"I was 14 when Miami burned in insurrection after police officers were acquitted for murdering black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie in 1980, and I discovered that writing might save my life when I wrote a utopian prose poem called “I Want to Live”—simultaneously envisioning the better I future I wanted and staking my claim in it. I also tackle the inter-generational cost of racism in my novel The Good House, where a demon again shoulders at least some of the blame."
3. Find horror in the familiar
It's fair to say that Stephen King knows his way around the horror genre fairly well at this point. He's written volumes on the craft of writing and the nature of fear. One of his very best tips, however, is that good horror fiction isn't just about a fear of the unknown... it's about the unknown showing up within the confines of everyday life. He writes in Danse Macabre:
"…horror fiction is a cold touch in the midst of the familiar, and good horror fiction applies this cold touch with sudden, unexpected pressure. When we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we’re locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in…with them."
4. Break taboos
All good horror deals with the breaking of some sort of a taboo, even if it's just the simple taboo of monsters shouldn't show up in real life. Clive Barker points out that all this taboo-breaking serves to point out how little control we actually have on our surroundings. He writes in the introduction to The Bare Bones:
"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."
5. Keep the emotions real
Helen Oyeyemi writes beautifully in a number of genres, including horror and wonderfully creepy magical realism. When it comes to writing outside the realm of the ordinary, Oyeyemi focuses on emotions and lets go of the strict laws of physical reality. In "Up Front," she writes:
"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."
6. Add spots of light
Jac Jemc's novel The Grip of It is an intensely creepy new take on the classic haunted house. In writing her story, though, Jemc made sure to go back and ease up on the darker aspects of the plot, especially towards the beginning. In "Can We Even Trust Ourselves?: A Conversation with Jac Jemc" published to The Rumpus, she says:
"The story started with the hidden compartments, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them. In thinking about tone, the first draft was a lot darker and more intense. In subsequent drafts, I tried to provide some spots of light because that seemed more realistic. People wouldn’t stay in a house if they weren’t convincing themselves that things weren’t as bad as they seemed, so I attempted to thread some humor throughout to show the ways that James and Julie are trying to make the situation work."
7. Show that nightmares can be defeated
Neil Gaiman's horror advice is, in this case, aimed at people writing for kids. But unless you truly have your heart set on a terrifying downer ending, I think it's good advice for all ages. In "Watch This: Neil Gaiman's Imaginative Favorites," he says:
"Kids are so much braver than adults, sometimes, and so much less easily disturbed. Kids will make their nightmares up out of anything, and the important thing in fiction, if you're giving them nightmares, is to demonstrate that nightmares are beatable."
8. Fear is personal
We all have our personal demons. When it comes to writing horror, though, Sarah Langan wants to make sure that we give our characters their own personal fears to play off of, too. From “How to Scare Your Reader”:
"What readers fear in their fiction is specific to their own experiences. It’s as personal as their senses of humor. That’s not just true for this side of the page, either. It applies to the characters, too. For horror to pay, it’s got to hit home by messing with a character’s fears, ambitions, loves. Say your main’s had a tough life, but has always held onto one perfect memory of a perfect day with the person they once loved most. Now let them find out the memory’s not true. Then push it farther, and make that person they loved a monster. So mean! Your reader will cringe! Horror fiction ought to be exactly that personal."
9. Just keep reading and writing
Bram Stoker Award winning author Linda Addison has some classic advice for all writers, horrific or not. From "Linda Addison On Winning A Bram Stoker Award":
"Write, write, write. Write every day, even if only for a few minutes. I believe most writing happens in our subconscious so if we sit down each day the subconscious gets to know, ‘ah so I can show up now’ and it will pour out what it’s been mulling over... Read (all kinds of writing, even the kind you don’t do), listen to music, go to art shows. There is such energy from creating and it’s important to feed all the senses."
10. There's no formula
Beloved ruiner of childhoods, R.L. Stine, is here to remind us that there's no one way to write a horror story. But it does help to really get into your characters' heads. In "R.L. Stine: ‘Everything That Ever Happened To Me Was an Accident,’" he says:
"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."
11. Give form to the dark
And then, of course, there's Mary Shelley, the original goth teen and more or less the mother of all modern horror novels. Shelley wanted her readers to know that horror isn't about creating terrifying monsters out of thin air. Rather, she draws from existing fears and gives them new shapes. Mary Shelley, introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, writes:
"What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow... Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself."