20 tips for the perfect short horror story

short horror story

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The key to writing the perfect short horror story is not to panic!

  1. Pick something that could happen to your reader.
  2. Pick a location that’s familiar to your reader.
  3. Eat, drink, sleep the horror that you have created before you actually begin to write. Lie back in a darkened room and really visualize it. Scare the pants off yourself.
  4. Go to your location or one that looks like it and sit there quietly for a while. If your story takes place on a quiet street in the early hours, find one, get up in the early hours and drink it up. Take a pad and write down some notes about what you see and how you feel.
  5. Try to see the story from three or four different views even if they won’t be in the final version. Choose someone timid, someone thick skinned, someone religious. The choice is yours.
  6. Take your time, build up the pressure, slowly but surely. This may be a short horror story but you’ve got more time than you think to lay out your stall.
  7. Stay focussed. Don’t get bogged down in back story. In fact, try giving back story a miss altogether.
  8. Anticipation is nine tenths of the horror story battle – let your reader know something bad is going to happen, lead them there by the hand.
  9. Dig deep into that horror. Choose one that scares you. If it doesn’t scare you, how do you expect it to scare the hell out of your dear reader?
  10. Throw a few red herrings in there, twist them on their heads. The old cat jumping out of the fridge is a bit of cliché but you get my drift.
  11. If you’re scared of heights, go and stand on the edge of a tall building and lean over, if you’ve got a spider phobia, go and put one on the palm of your hand. Remind yourself how real fear feels.
  12. Don’t overload your reader with gore. It becomes boring and they quickly attain sensitisation. A splash of blood here and there will do fine.
  13. Don’t over describe. You’re not Dickens. Give your reader some credit that they can imagine your ultimate horror. Don’t be afraid that they won’t get the point.
  14. Keep the monster/horror hidden for as long as possible.
  15. Read the best and the worst of horror. Reread the passages that got your heart racing and try to see how the author did it. Look at the way you reacted and imagine that’s what you want your reader to feel.
  16. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles. Write a couple of different versions of your short horror story to see how it comes out.
  17. Leave your first draft for a decent amount of time so that you come back to it fresh. For some people that’s a couple of days. For others it’s a couple of months.
  18. Always, always read your draft through once without touching it before you sit down to edit.
  19. Check you have the right vocabulary to scare. Choose the words to describe your fear with care. Make sure they fit and sound right. Try not to use unusual words that your reader won’t readily know the meaning to. It will break the flow. You’re trying to build fear not a larger vocab.
  20. Don’t forget that your short horror story isn’t written in stone. It can change. It can evolve. It can be totally different from the original. Don’t be afraid to delete stuff that doesn’t belong.

Got a tip of your own for writing a short horror story? Add it in the comments section below.

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30 thoughts on “20 tips for the perfect short horror story

  1. Describe bodily reactions to fear, it can provoke those same reactions in the reader.

  2. Great advice! I can hardly wait for the mist to rise in the snowy woodland at twilight 😉

  3. I love these, especially the tip on avoiding over description. I work under the theory that the more room the reader has to let their imagination run wild, the scarier my writing is going to be.

    1. I never thought about it that way. That’s an awesome tip/theory. I tend to overdescribe.

    2. me too i way too much over describe, then i forget what the topic is and i write a happy story. its weird…

  4. Great tips! I’m printing these out to keep them handy. 🙂

  5. Great advice – have been planning to try horror for a while so these are very useful. Agree that too much gore can be boring – too many stories read as amateurish because it just lurches from one lovingly-described scene of blood and guts to another with only the faintest webs of plot in between.

    1. me is sick about all those childish zombie stories. preserved bodies are much better.

  6. lol! Perfect tips to write a horror! Love the 3rd one… too funny! Thanks for sharing.

  7. There are eighteen excellent points here. Unfortunately, the first two are not so hot. I have been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately and often he definitely does not choose places his readers readers could know (like Antarctica in the “Over the Mountains of Madness) or events that could happen to them (as in “The Call of Cthulu” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth”). In fact, his gift is to take readers through these events and places and help them suspend their disbelief so that they feel as if they were there. The other eighteen are some excellent, beautiful points expressing some wonderful insight into writing and human nature as well.

    1. I don’t believe that the location was referring to it had to be some ungodly place like that, or any where in between. I think that location could be as simple as going to the bar, or walmart. Just as long as the reader feels comfortable in the setting and can easily adapt to it. While your goal as a horror writer is to take them out of that familiarity, and show them how terrifying things are. Remember it’s all about location, location, location.

    2. it doesn’t have to be something to happen to the reader either. i can’t believe there are no trolls here. to me the scariest horror stories are those that gives you an other worldly feeling.

  8. Great tips. Also, when you say something about the character, like that they can’t breath, the reader will also feel like they can’t breath. It really helps a story.

  9. dont decribe the horror too much

  10. Nice tips

  11. If you wanna get straight points about writing a horror story then follow these instructions.First of all, imagine if you were the person being haunted o maybe go out in the backyard and think up or note that might scare you to death or whatever. Then you draft your story and punctuate it and read it twice or so and lastly write it if your writing looks good or type it! How simple is that!! No need for these awkward and weird tips!!!??

    1. u r so right! OMG !

    2. I disagree. Some people may have that kind of charisma, but not all of us. Often short horror told in such wise is frowned upon– even ridiculed. An author need not be ground to a powder for not taking precautions to be certain that their work is up to snuff, the world is already too unfriendly.

    3. For some people, yes, it very much is that simple to come up with something horrifying, or spine-tingling, with just looking into their deepest fears and writing about them on paper. But, for others, they need to think outside of the norm of their own night terrors or fears. It’s better to think outside of the box than in the norm, to be truthful. I think the most horrifying things are ones that we know nothing about, not something that is a general fear.

  12. Great tips! I’ve always just imagined myself as the main character or whichever character is about to scream, then do whatever it takes to scare myself into I feel like rolling into a ball and rocking myself in the corner. It really works, especially when you place yourself in a chilling atmosphere. For example, I turn off all lights except for a lamp to write by, put creepy background music that gives you an air of mystery and suspense, and try to imagine how the scene will play out.

  13. Here’s an additional tip: Manipulation is good.In my story, “Black Bird Forest”, a girl by the name of Carine enters the forest of that name. At the same time, another girl in a long, flowing dress treads in timidly. The story then progresses into what went on in the girls’ minds, how Carine wonders about her problems in her life, how the other girl ran around in endless fear… and when the two meet I revealed to my readers.. the nameless girl in the story is Carine’s doppelganger, an embodiment of Carine’s bottled up feelings. She proves to be evil when her union with Carine drove her past the brink of insanity, and ultimately to her death when the ravens of the forest attacked her.I portrayed the doppelganger as a normal character initially, intending to give the readers some room to explore the connections between the two girls. The most common possibility would be that the two will help each other out. However… I gave the girl a sinister twist, and actually made her a being who lived in the forest, and was made Carine’s doppelganger from numerous bodies of live ravens, making the being a deceptive one from the very beginning. As seen, the deception not only applied to Carine in the story- it applied to the readers too.Think about how your readers will view the characters in your story.. then give them a twist into something completely unexpected.

  14. Good tips, though once in a while try to surprise the reader. Sometimes it is good to do something expected like anyone could expect that one character gets hurt or dies, but not many can expect something that is not normally written in most stories. Some read other people’s stories to give them a idea and allot of horror stories have at least one character getting hurt but try to think up something unexpected once in a while.

  15. I totally agree with tip number 7! Staying focus on what you are doing can really be a good thing. But, it would be good to have a break every once in a while when doing thesis writing to help refresh your mind and relieve stress. Anyway, this would certainly help a lot.

  16. I completely agree that to much gore can get boring, but just enough to chill or sicken a reader can be perfect! I think another helpful tip might to be to consider the psychological effects your character(s) might go through. Like if you say, “as I walked down the long hallway I looked down, getting that feeling someone was watching me…when I turned around nothing was there though, just dust and cobwebs.”

  17. I disagree profoundly with the advice on curbing verbiage. Extensive usage of adjectives may not be recommended, but in many cases a vastly alien word that is yet reminiscent of a certain terrifying aspect or emulates through means of enunciation the sheer nucleus of the horror (e.g. “There came forth a hellish, gut-wrenching sound from out of the dark abyss,” versus “From out the unlighted corridors of primordial chaos issued a resonance of utter pandaemonium that rends the viscera of those that harken”Furthermore, words that the reader is often not overly familiar with has the effect of creating a certain unease and mystery and ambiguity for the reader that enhances the experience of plunging headlong into an existence-threatening terror.The tip concerning location was also rather vague, and did much to stunt creative blossoming. Look at Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” – a planet millions of kilometres away with a totally foreign biome and ecosystem had us all shaking in our proverbial space boots, dreading for the very survival of mankind in so hostile a universe.

  18. Thank you! These tips are helpful

  19. Pffft, these tips are for amateur writers for sure. If you stick to the first few, your stories will probably be incredibly boring and not that much scary. “Something that could happen to your reader/location that’s familiar to your reader”? I guess that excludes the WHOLE GENRE of sci-fi/cosmic/paranormal horror (the most interesting kind of horror in my opinion). I guess not every writers has the skills for the hard work that is proper worldbuilding (something essential in this kind of story) so this list tell them to stick to the conventional and formulaic.Look, the only thing you need besides the basic style writing rules is IMAGINATION. Psychological horror is the most effective but I concede that it’s hard to do since it requires a deep knowledge of the human mind. And remember, sometimes the most chilling experience for readers is not the harm inflicted to the characters but the MENACE of said harm. Let the reader know that there’s a danger looming over the story like the sword of Damocles.And for the love of God, make an effort to flesh out your characters at least a bit. Nobody is going to be scared if they don’t care what happens to your cardboard characters. And they don’t have to be geniuses or make absolutely rational decisions all the time, but try to think what kind of reactions people would have in real life in those situations. In other words: don’t make your characters act stupid, irrational or extremely mean-spirited for no reason. You’ll only exhasperate your readers that way. It’s okay to have the archetypal madman or religious zealot here and there, but don’t make everyone in your story a freaking cliché. True, it can backfire on you if you make them too likable or sympathetic and then make too many horrible things happen to them, because then we might be entering the realms of tragedy rather than horror. But you know, it’s nice to see someone trying.

  20. Oops, I mis-spelled exasperate. Sorry.Also, there’s avoiding overly long descriptions (something I agree with) and then there’s simply lazy writing. And the readers are going to notice the difference. So if you must make the descriptions brief, don’t use generic words. Choose words that are specific and effective. You can also play with the mind of your reader describing ordinary objects evoking something eerie or repulsive and thus causing a reaction. Like instead of saying “the bedroom walls were green” say “the bedroom walls were the color of mold”. See, now your reader is uncomfortable and maybe a little disgusted. Or you can do the opposite: take something horrifying or disturbing and describe it like something mundane. This is actually related to the coping mechanisms in the human brain when witnessing something traumatic, it’s a kind of detachment. For example, in one of my stories I compared the torn and opened up ribcage of a victim to the shutters of a window, and described a human heart lying on the ground as “sticky and heavy, like a chunk of rubber covered in jelly”. The heart is a tight muscle and is covered in a viscous tegument so I think this description is accurate albeit disturbing, wich was exactly my intention. Sometimes approaching the situation with a view so clinical and impersonal is what sets the reader off. In fact, I think I learned all of this from Stephen King, subconsciously or not.

  21. Found you because I needed inspiration for my tabletop gaming, which is a bit horror themed. This is great advice. Thank you!

  22. great ideas that really help me with writing horror stories…

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