Despite being somewhat divisive, horror remains one of the most perennially popular genres around. It boasts legions of dedicated fans and readers and, at any given time, there are literally hundreds of paying markets in the form of ezines, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals, all scrambling for the best available material.
However, whilst many writers may feel themselves pulled toward the dark side, writing effective horror is far from easy. In fact, it can be downright challenging. But, like most things, it’s a skill that can be learned. As writers, we all know that words can be powerful weapons. The secret lies in knowing how to use them. With Halloween, everyone’s favorite festival of the freaky, just around the corner, there’s no better time to try your hand at writing a horror story.
Of course, we all develop our own writing process and what works for one person may not work for another. But, keep in mind that all the general writing tips apply. Top of the list is to read widely, especially the markets you plan on submitting to, and try to write every day with as much passion and enthusiasm as you can muster. Perhaps most importantly, from a developmental point of view, try to ground your stories in scenarios or emotions the reader will be able to relate to. As the master Stephen King once said, “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.”
But how do you make your writing scary? How do you make your readers’ skin crawl?
Here are some tips:
1. Avoid the obvious. This especially applies to traditional horror tropes and clichés like glittery vampires and evil clowns. It’s not that these things can’t be scary, but they’ve been massively overdone and you would struggle to find an original angle or twist. Be creative. Take your readers by the hand, and take them places they don’t want to go.
2. Make people care. For them to be truly creeped out, your reader needs to be invested in the characters you create. Develop them, and make them resonate. Without going into too much detail, explain their motivations, and introduce some flaws or fallibility to make them appear more vulnerable before putting them in danger. Whether they survive or not is entirely up to you.
3. The devil is in the detail. Atmosphere is most effective when created in layers. Don’t forget that you have five senses, so describe not only what your characters feel, but also what they see, smell, hear and even taste – the things that surround us in our daily lives. In the words of the great R.L. Stine, “Then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something truly scary.”
4. Raise the stakes. The greatest source of fear is the unknown so don’t give away too much too soon. Instead, use the reader’s imagination against them. Use a little foreshadowing, drop a few hints and utilize the power of suggestion. But, keep the big reveal – the identity of the killer or the origins of the monster – for the climax of the story, and don’t be afraid to drop a red herring or two along the way!
5. Get to the heart of the matter. Tackle your personal demons, and ask what YOU find scary or unsettling. Then, you’ll be able to use your experience, and speak from a place of authority. Anne Rice is quoted as saying, “Writers write about what obsesses them. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”
6. Don’t try to run before you walk. Pay attention to the pacing of your story. At the beginning, use longer, more descriptive passages to set the scene and mood. Then, as you build toward the climax, use progressively shorter, more punchy sentences to sweep the reader along to that terrifying finale.
7. It’s not just what say, but how you say it. ‘Loaded’ language is often used in hard journalism to influence readers by using words and phrases which have connotations far beyond their literal meaning, thus evoking a more emotional response. For example, if you’re using the word ‘reduced’ in your horror story, substitute it for ‘slashed.’ The two words share a common meaning but the latter possesses far more sinister undertones.
Now, it’s your job to move forward, and frighten the pants off your readers!
Chris Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being a collection of short fiction called X4.
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