8 steps to terrifying horror fiction

Sit tight. Here are some steps you can take to write terrifying horror fiction.

You’re going to learn how to scare the holy crap out of your readers. You’re going to do it well and you’re going to enjoy every minute, every second and every nano-second as admissions to mental health institutes suddenly rise in the wake of the release of your next unholy tome. You alone will be responsible for the mass nervous breakdown of the human race.

Because that’s what we do, right? Capiche?

1. Horror writer, know thyself

First of all, drill down into your own peculiar fears and see what comes spurting out. Have a close look. Take a stiff drink if you have to, but let them out of the dark well of your subconscious and subject them to the third degree.

My point is this: until you know your own fears and why you react to them as you do, you’re not really going to scare anyone else (okay, so you might give Aunt Mildred a cause to sit up screaming in the middle of the night but she’s only read Barbara Cartland novels and didn’t know what she was getting into when she agreed to proof read for you).

2. Communicate the reality of your fear

Once you have your fears out in front of you, and you’ve become as good a friend to them as you’re ever going to be (and for sure you don’t want to get that chummy with them), start asking yourself these questions: How do I write these fears? How do I get someone to feel the same way as I do? How would I communicate it to my best friend. What specific words suit this fear?

Understand that the correct choice of words is very important – don’t just throw the old ones you’ve used over the years down on paper, find some new ones. And, listen close, we’re talking about accurately describing the thing that causes the fear not the actual sensation of fear itself (you know the sweaty palms, the bumpity-bump of the old ticker).

It’s a whole different thing.

If you’re scared of graveyards, it’s the shadows clinging to the stones, it’s the cold bite of the air, the crunch of gravel under the feet, the noise off to the right that could be a bony hand reaching out of the ground. Okay, got it? Hand shaking a bit, the words scrawled on a page? The right words and not just any old cliche (Like wot I just wrote!!)? Get the idea now?

3. Now you know your own fears well dear writer…

Choose a universal fear. People are scared of a lot of things. And a lot of people are scared of the same things. Most people are afraid of the dark. And I don’t mean a street or house at night, but pitch blackness. Put anyone in a pitch black room (okay, except a blind person) and they’ll get nervous.

Most people aren’t afraid of ice cream so a killer Cornetto isn’t going to get anyone crapping their pants (save for a few seriously mixed up individuals who shouldn’t be allowed to read horror anyway).

Better still, take something everyone feels safe with and add another element that’s terrifying. Take a bunch of lovely flowers your boyfriend bought you and put a six legged alien in it, take your own bedroom and add a strange new shadow in the corner, or put something under the bed.

That’s what we do as writers. Twist the dial so that’s it a little darker and a little scarier. So it’s the same, but not, quite. And this is where it gets tricky. Ask yourself how you transfer that fear you felt before onto this particular horror scenario.

4. Haunted houses and secluded roads

Setting is important. No shit, Sherlock, I hear you cry in unison. Every novice horror writer knows this. So where do you place your story? An old deserted house? A dark, dank cellar? They’re clichés, of course, but everyone knows what haunted houses look like even if they’ve never been trapped in one.

But what about more mundane settings?

An ordinary house for example? A supermarket? A hospital? A city street early in the morning? Any setting can be used for horror. Choose one your reader knows well and then twist it. It’s the street outside their house. But now it’s suddenly dangerous because they can sense…what? It’s the shopping mall they used to go to that is now infested with malevolent creatures. It’s any number of safe things made dangerous all of a sudden by the power of your mighty pen.

5. Five horror senses, not one

Your senses are important too. People have five senses. Not just sight. They can smell. They can hear. They can touch. They can taste. Neglect any of them at your peril. Think to yourself, which of the five adds another frisson of terror to the scene you’re writing. Don’t be afraid to play around with it. But get your head glued to the idea that that it’s not all visual. Unlike film, you can experience anything in a book, you just need to be able to describe it.

6. Ramp up the horror, baby!

Time to build all that tension. Fear is all about building tension within the reader. You can get away with a “BOOH!” in a film every so often, especially with impressionable teenagers, but us oldies are used to it. What you need to do, and this is probably the most difficult things in horror, is slowly build up the tension until your reader is at the point of screaming.

Anticipation of something nasty is far more powerful than the nastiness itself.

Then ramp it up and up. Think of fairground rides. Personally I hate them. They make me feel sick to the point where I’d be quite happy to die. But, the thing with the good rides is they have peaks and troughs. You’ll scream like hell on the down ride and then there’s the relief you survived as you go up the other side. Before you have time to count your blessings, you’re faced with trepidation again as you come to the top because you know what’s going to happen…oh yes you do…and then suddenly you’re screaming with terror again…horror books should be like that, continuously ramping up the pressure until you get to that big, final drop…and boy, should it be a drop like no other.

7. Writers and the fear response

Your job is to elicit a response not to describe one. Describing your lead character’s heart pumping like a piston is not going to make dear reader’s heart do likewise (and by the way, if I see one more description of heart beats or goose bumps I’ll fry my own brain in garlic and olive oil).

If you’ve done your job, you won’t need to describe those emotions to the nth degree. Okay, you can put a smattering in here or there, but if you’re touching the core of someone’s fears, they’re going to do it for you. Trust me, I’m a doctor…

8. Horror writers should always deliver on terror

Finally, and this is true of every book ever written, DELIVER what you promise. Don’t cop out just because you can’t find the right words or the perfect scene or you’ve run out of the fear stuff. Your reader will never forgive you if you allow your hero to stutter down dark corridors for pages on end only to find the next door leading out to Sainsbury bread section.

If you’re heading for a massive confrontation with the abominable snowman then make it the biggest, most terrifying moment in the whole book. If your protagonist isn’t challenged to breaking point and beyond, the reader is going to feel cheated…and so he/she should. It’s like taking home a packet of Jaffa Cakes to find the it contains broken Custard Creams. You started this crazy journey…you have no choice but to deliver.

And if you don’t…well, frankly, you should be ashamed my young scribe of the dark naughtiness.

The darkness deserves to be treated with more respect than that..

Now, obviously, I’m just sitting down letting my horror shit pour forth as I normally do, so I guess I may have left a few things out here. Which is why it’s your turn to add your choice literary  tip of the day.

Let me know of any other ways to pile on the fear…Come on guys. Let’s help all those little horror writers out there to become better scary people before they lose their wills and become serial killers or some such thing…

12 thoughts on “8 steps to terrifying horror fiction

  1. A little whimsy isn’t completely out of order. Stephen King is a master of building up the tension then throwing in something that has you ROFL. Get the character’s heart rate up, feeling the goose bumps, then sliding in a puddle of olive oil and falling on his @$$…

  2. Excellent post and great advice.

  3. Thanks Ziggy. Once again, you have given us great advice. One small thing I’ve recently learned from my editor is that it is better (sometimes) to leave out sounds, such as “Boom!” or “Aaaaaaa!” or “Crash!” and let the reader imagine the noise, or replace it with a metaphor such as “The dagger plunged into his flesh like a syringe in a vein, smooth and hot, burning until his life had ebbed away.” Okay, that may not be the best example, but the point is to leave out the obvious and let the reader use your words to stimulate their imagination!

  4. Excellent advice, but one of the main things I like to tell people is nothing is more horrifying than history itself. To think that it had happened, that your fellow man could go out into the world and be the single cause of death for countless others…still makes me shutter.

  5. Very awesome treatment on building fear and tension for horror. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Jeff, I’ve never done a Boom! in my life….

  7. Great suggestions! I especially like the one about describing the impetus for the fear more than the character’s fear reactions.I would only add that sometimes less is more with descriptions of terrifying things.I’m reading Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter right now, and when he tells you that a character saw a tower of dead children, that’s all he needs to say. Your mind builds it instantly, and he lets you carry that image like something too dreadful to look at closely for any longer than it would take to identify what it is.If he had gone on for a paragraph of description, the reader’s own visualization might be undermined by his presentation. But then, after letting you live with your own version for a couple hundred pages, he finally does describe it with one sentence that reads like a laundry list of horrific details.Man, is it creepy!

  8. Great post, but I’d also say a little uncertainty can go a long way. Is this really happening, or is it all in the protagonist’s head? Obviously POV counts for this, but if you look at something like The Haunting of Hill House, there’s continual doubt over whether the house is haunted, or Nell is just “imagining things”.

  9. Good points and very useful – thanks very much, I’ll definitely be reading your blog more often. I don’t know if this counts as a tip, but a lot of horror I enjoy reading works well because there’s a get out clause – and this is the important bit – a get out clause that the protagonist cannot use because of some fatal flaw. A solution they cannot see, a saviour they cannot trust, a key just out of reach, that sort of thing. For me that helps ramp up the tension, and the irony.

  10. Good comment, Shannon, about the horror that can be caused by our fellow man. Sometimes the real horror in a story is not so much embodied in the monster, but in the supporting cast of the story. The real story is how those diverse characters act and react to what’s happening around them. That’s when even worse monsters may make an appearance – in the character of our characters.

  11. Hey, thanks for this. Saving the link. Makes me go all eldritch inside 🙂

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