It is ironic that writing horror is not for the faint hearted, as the same can be said for those who read it.
To do the latter is to open yourself up to a world of ghosts, demons, ghouls and nightmares that infiltrate your sleep.
To do the former is to open yourself up to widespread criticism if you miss the mark, as a poorly written horror story is one of the easiest things to mock, invoking laughter instead of the desired screams and gasps.
So how does one write a great horror story and what separates the great from the good or average?
Hopefully that is where this article can come in as we take a deep dive into the horror genre, take a look at some of the most notable examples and finally provide a detailed five step guide for writing great horror.
This guide on how to write horror fiction contains:
- What is horror fiction?
- Notable examples of horror fiction
- How to write horror fiction
- How to write horror fiction – final thoughts
What is horror fiction?
Horror fiction is a genre of storytelling designed to evoke disturbance, fear and unease within its audience.
The genre frequently branches into sub-genres, notably psychological horror and supernatural horror, both sitting within the broader literary space of speculative fiction.
In 1984, literary historian J A Cuddon provided a definition, characterizing the horror story as “a work of prose fiction with varying length… that elicits shocks, fear and possibly even feelings of aversion or disgust”.
The primary aim of horror is to create an unsettling and disturbing ambiance for its readers. Frequently, the core threat in a horror narrative can be interpreted as a symbol representing broader fears within society.
Notable examples of horror
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Shining by Stephen King
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Psycho by Robert Bloch
The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
It by Stephen King
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
How to write horror fiction
Step 1 – Understanding fear and emotion
Understanding fear and emotion should be one of the key considerations for writers of effective horror fiction. Successful horror writing taps into primal instincts and visceral emotions, such as fear, anxiety and dread. By recognizing these emotions, writers can create stories that truly strike a chord with readers.
For instance, consider the fear of the unknown in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” Lovecraft exploits the fear of cosmic insignificance, writing a tale where humanity is powerless against ancient, malevolent cosmic entities. This fear of the unknown combined with the insignificance of humanity, strikes at the core of existential dread, leaving readers haunted by the idea that there are forces beyond their comprehension.
Exploring various forms of fear, from the tangible to the abstract, allows writers to connect with their audience on an emotional level. By skillfully manipulating these emotions, writers will be on the path to creating a great work of horror fiction.
Step 2 – Building atmosphere
Building atmosphere within the story is an essential aspect of writing horror fiction. By taking time to go into the details of the environment, mood and tone within the book, writers can immerse readers into a world that is both unsettling and chilling.
Take Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” as an example. Through detailed descriptions of the house’s architecture and the relentless sense of dread, Jackson creates an atmosphere that becomes a character in itself. The ominous creaks, the dark corners and the whispers in the walls contribute to this atmosphere of constant tension, which ends up consuming both the characters and readers alike.
By utilizing evocative language and sensory details, writers stand the best chance of ensuring that readers feel like they are part of their story.
Step 3 – Character development
Effective character development is crucial for engrossing horror fiction. Readers need to feel a connection with the characters, empathizing with their experiences and being able to imagine themselves in the characters position.
Stephen King’s “It” is one of the best examples of doing just thus. The Losers’ Club, a group of children and later adults, are richly developed with distinct personalities, fears and vulnerabilities. King takes a deep dive into their personal traumas, making them relatable, which only serves to intensify the horror when they eventually confront Pennywise.
Well-rounded characters increase readers’ investment in the story’s outcome. By establishing relatable traits and vulnerabilities, writers will create a stronger emotional impact when these characters face the evil characters or villains. The readers’ empathy for the characters makes the scares more intense, and they become emotionally invested in their survival.
Step 4 – Pacing and tension
Mastery of pacing and tension is another key component of well written horror fiction. A well-paced narrative controls the release of tension, keeping readers engaged and anxious for what is to come.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” demonstrates this as well as any book within the genre. Through the narrator’s careful and considered recounting of a murder, Poe orchestrates a gradual buildup of tension, which culminates in the most impactful climax possible. The deliberate pacing heightens the suspense, making the reader aware of every eerie detail.
Strategically timed reveals and unexpected twists are also powerful tools for sustaining tension. Writers can manipulate pacing to control the rhythm of the narrative, allowing periods of respite before diving back into the horror. By maintaining this balance between anticipation and catharsis, writers can create a story that is not linear in its emotions but instead pushes and pulls readers throughout the course of the book.
Step 5 – Imagination and the unknown
It is often said that the imagination can come up with things that are far more terrifying than anything a reader is told. Harnessing this power of imagination and the unknown is a hallmark of great horror fiction.
By leaving certain details to the reader’s imagination, writers engage their audience’s deepest fears and insecurities. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is a great example of this idea. Lovecraft gradually reveals the spooky secrets of the town, dropping hints and allusions that allow readers to create their own horrifying images. The lack of explicit descriptions only serves to exacerbate the sense of dread, as each reader’s interpretation becomes uniquely terrifying to them.
How to write horror fiction – final thoughts
In conclusion, writing great horror fiction requires an understanding of the principle components that make up a well told horror story.
Acknowledging the wide range of fear and emotion is vital to resonate with readers, luring them into the story and playing on their own fears.
Creating a creepy atmosphere enhances this immersion, setting the stage for the story to unfold around it.
Developing relatable characters furthers reader engagement, allowing them to imagine themselves in their situation.
Skillful pacing and tension will ensure that readers remain captivated throughout, unable to guess what may happen next.
And lastly, by harnessing the power of the unknown, the writer can ignite readers’ imagination, leaving them to fill in the blanks and project their own fears onto the story.
Writers can also study some of the great works of horror fiction, to learn and take inspiration from, which when combined with our above guide will place the reader in good stead to write the best horror fiction possible.