It was a dark and stormy night. The monster under the bed reached for my dangling arm. Little did it know, I was waiting for it instead.
And that’s how you write a horror story. Well not really, but the little piece of micro fiction above uses basic elements I include into all my horror stories. In today’s segment, I will be breaking down the story to show you how I write horror.
Remember, this isn’t the only way or the best way to write horror, it’s my method for building the foundation of a horror. Right, let’s get into it.
It’s All About Atmosphere – It was a dark and stormy night.
Atmosphere is such an important aspect of horror. It creates the mood of the story and helps put the reader’s frame of mind into the right state. Subconsciously, the reader knows the story is going to be dark. You see it on TV and in movies. The Blacklist is my favourite TV series. It has a dark grungy tinge to it compared to NCIS Los Angeles where everything looks hued in gold (ugh). If you watch horror films, you’ll notice that there’s a dark tinge to everything, even during the day.
Which is why the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” became so popular in writing. People knew immediately that what was to follow wouldn’t be good. Because good things never happen during stormy nights.
Vocabulary Is Important: I am a descriptive writer. I want you to have a strong image of the world, characters, mood, and world as you read. Each word I use must convey something. Whether it is unease, foreboding, anxiety, apprehension, or tension. From describing the world to describing the character. Atmosphere is my scary soundtrack playing in the background, building you up for the scare.
At night however, the park was a void surrounded by dark, silent husks, watching over the emptiness.
Fear Factor: The monster under the bed.
Everyone has a fear. It could be spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, clowns, snakes and various other things. There are movies and books for each of those fears I’ve listed. The greatest fear however, is the fear of the unknown. You may not be afraid of spiders because you’ve had a pet spider and you think they are adorable. But what if the spider started acting in a way you’re not used to. Uncharacteristically. Malicious. Vicious. Dangerous. Would you be afraid then?
Then of course you have the occult and that’s a whole different set of unknown variables.
Create the Fear: When I write horror, I do not know what everyone’s fear is. In that case, I will either use my own fears, or find a situation that could induce fear with the right elements. Things like:
- I’m home alone… but there’s a noise in the house.
- I find an old journal… but it starts filling itself out.
- I wake up… it’s the middle of the night and there’s a shadow at the foot of my bed.
Occasionally I will use real-life experiences (sleep apnea – sleep paralysis) or really creepy facts, for the basis of my horror.
Did you know that when you wake up at around 2-3AM without reason, there’s an 80% chance that someone is staring at you?
The Characters Are Flawed – …reached for my dangling arm.
Some horror writers use subtle descriptions to show a character flaw, something as mundane as hair, nails, a smile, eyes etc. These specific details become the medium to show how characters digress during the course of the story. We are shown that they are “real” people. At the same time they begin to fall into a character type. Things like artificial features create a character trope. The flawless cheerleader equals killer fodder. The grungy outcast equals the hero. The religious zealot equals crazy misunderstood sub-antagonist.
Also, when someone is in a stressful situation they may lose their sense of self, letting themselves go, lack sleep etc which may cause them to make bad decisions. Actions may also show a break in their character, like leaving an arm dangling over the edge of a bed (bad mistake) when they would have snuggled into their blankets. When someone is put into an unknown situation, they may react differently to their usual self. Fear does that. The teen getting chased who goes upstairs. The kid who tries to get over their fear by going to the basement. The character who stands to fight instead of running.
Describe Their Digression: Characters barely start off insane (unless you’re writing from the “killer’s” perspective.) I’ll start off with the character being “normal”, doing the right things and being a productive member of society. Then slowly I let the paranoia sink in. Something as routine as opening the wardrobe becomes an anxiety inducing experience. The sense of “safety” vanishes and the characters have nervous breakdowns during regular everyday occurrences. The fear becomes irrationally real. When done right, you too as the reader will feel their apprehension.
It was a door. Just a door. Wood. Golden handle. Keyhole. A door. Nothing seemed to exist past the door; not the voices from the television set in the lounge, not the incessant banging from the brat in the adjacent apartment, and not the beep of the microwave stating its completed cycle. Only the door.
~ Current WIP
The Twist – Little did it know, I was waiting for it instead.
Horror is a delve into the darker, perhaps more realistic side of humanity. The side where bad things happen to good people. Adding a twist to the story can create strong tension between the reader and the unfolding story.
Foreshadowing works wonders when creating clever, unexpected twists. For instance, there might be a monster that appears under a bed. You show a new character buying a new bed and bringing it home. At night they go to bed and they hear scratching below. The reader anticipates the monster but when the character checks under the bed, there’s nothing. As they rise back to get into bed… BOOM monster is under the sheets.
Make or Break The Cliche: Cliche’s are great because they work. The monster under/in the bed/wardrobe/basement/attic is a common component in horror. Much like the dilapidated haunted house. They work because there are a lot of unknown variables attached to them. And its dark in there.
I use cliche’s often. What I do, however, is add a twist to them just to mix things up. I direct the reader through the usual expected path, then throw in hints that imply one thing, only to reveal it to be something else. For instance, writing about a haunted house, but making the monsters inside be the victims instead. Here’s one story playing on this idea: Friday Fiction – Random Prompt
Stephen King is an example of an author who varies the stories he writes. For instance, he writes the cliched haunted house story in The Shining. On the other hand, he takes a mundane object like a car, and turns it into Christine, the car with a mind of its own.
The Beauty of Horror
While horror freaks me out, it is that very fact that makes it such a beautiful thing. That words on paper could induce as much fear and paranoia as a movie. How words can impact the mind and emotions. It’s just great.
In my next segment I’ll talk about my research. It’s quite interesting if I do say so myself and the first rule of research is… don’t get freaked out haha.
Have these points helped you out in anyway? Are there any fundamentals that you use in your writing, horror or otherwise? You got any tips of your own? I would love to know.
Why is fear so easy at the cinema and so damn hard to write? I blame the music element. Horror writing has become ram-jammed with cliché and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere fresh to go.
Eeeeeeeek… we’re trapped in the dark with every horror story ever written.
Now, how to write the music, that’s what interest me.
Haha the music is in the atmosphere and in the build up.The same way you know something is about to happen by the change of music in a film, you can use specific words, focus on the environment or how the character is feeling and things like that to build the tension. Yeah its harder for sure, but it’s not impossible.
And like I said, cliches are cliches because they work haha, they are the easiest way to get that “fear” across. You can only run away so much from the cliches, so write the cliche better would be my best advice. It’s also not easy.
True enough. In the right context, vampires are still scary.
A friend of mine recently went on a ghost tour, she said the cliches were stacked backed to back and made the whole thing funny. She was excited about seeing a ghost and disappointed not to see anything. The guide said that fear played a big factor, so in that respect it’s got to come from the readers side. I guess that’s why the ‘musical’ element is so important.
Interesting post, it has me thinking. Thanks, mate. Look forward to the next one.
Ah yes ghost tours tend to become very cheesy.
Glad that I could get you thinking. I do appreciate your comment though, it’s brought an interesting thought to the fore about writing horror. Thank you for reading 🙂
Very interesting! I’ve had my fair share of “horror” ideas over the years, but have never followed through with them. Maybe I’ll give it a shot soon. 🙂
Haha that would be interesting to see. Your writing is very YA-esque from what I’ve seen in your Short Story Sundays. You could be the next R.L. Stine combining horror with your love of mystery. Definitely give it a try yeah?
Lol, that’s true. It’s definitely something to think about and give a try at some point.
This is a great learning tool! I love that you broke the process down into sentences that stand for the components of horror. It’s so clear cut I can use it with my students.
Oh haha great I’m glad you found it useful. Everything begins with a foundation after all, the building blocks hidden in the big picture.
Thank you for dropping by 🙂
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I loved your work in progress. I think it’s a great idea to put a twist on cliches.
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I love this post. You have great insight into horror and the assets needed for a well made story. Do you have other posts of actual writings? I’d like to read some.
Hey Nathan, thanks for stopping by. I’ve been a fan of horror for a long time so my insights may seem great, but they are really just observations haha.
As for actual writings, I post a short story every Friday. Here’s a link to all of them. https://ascribetodescribe.wordpress.com/category/friday-fiction/
What movie is the last GIF from? It’s horrifying.
Haha it’s from Anchorman. Here’s a clip with sound to horrifying you more haha: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNZzt5Vcsbs
No, I meant the one with the monster on the bed and the woman reaching over it. It’s giving like a maniacal grin. I mean I’ve never seen Anchorman but it doesn’t really fit the tone of the movie. 😂
Oh Hahaha oops sorry. It’s one of those short indie movies. It’s called Bedfellows and here’s a link to it: https://youtu.be/L-6xSvKmZUw?t=642
All of the films by that guy are awesomely terrifying.
Oh are they? I have yet to watch all of them, I should look him up then.
Great tips! I’m definitely saving this to read again later!
Thank you! And thanks for dropping by 🙂