Putting the Horror into Horror Stories – Part 1

So what makes horror stories so...horrifying?


Writing a good horror story is all about tapping into the reader’s fears. Everybody is afraid of something, whether it’s the dark, spiders, thunder and lightning, snakes, even death...there is always something that terrifies people, and the best horror stories exploit these irrational fears (or phobias).

Most of our fears come from childhood – an incident that we remember, such as seeing a spider, or behaviours and fears picked up from the adults around us. Often their fears become our fears. Additionally, there are instinctual and primitive fears – such as being afraid of large predatory animals like sharks or bears.


On the other side of the coin there is the fear caused by imagination; the monsters we create for ourselves, such as vampires, demons, bogeymen and creatures under the bed. But whether they’re primitive fears or made up ones, they all have something in common – they are all illogical – such fears make people behave irrationally. That’s because humans have always feared what they did not understand. Our minds can cause us to imagine all manner of things.


Of course, real horror does exist - the stuff we don’t have to imagine, or monsters we don’t have to create. Terrorism creates horror in us, terrible accidents create horror, psychopaths and serial killers create horror, and recently, global pandemics create a level of horror.


And all of these – real, imagined or otherwise – are all borne from fear.


You first need to know what kind of horror story you’re going to write, because that will dictate the tone and atmosphere of the story. Some writers prefer subtle or subversive horror story telling, which creates a stifled, closed-in atmosphere that uses psychological fear, and rarely, if at all, shows the monster or dark being at the root of the story.


Others prefer vivid horror and gore, with detailed visceral descriptions to shock the reader and the bad guy/monster is very much at the forefront of the story. Some writers like the gothic style of horror, like Dracula, with mysterious characters and dark settings to create atmosphere and tension and a sense of dread.


A great horror story needs a solid plot and emotionally resonant elements to keep the reader invested in the story. Even though it’s a horror story, it still needs to be believable (as opposed to being outlandish). Although Frankenstein created a monster (in the eyes of others), the story was still believable – that it could have been true, that it might happen, and that it had consequences. Sometimes writers forget that even with imaginary monsters, the story still must have a sense of reality, otherwise there is no sense of fear. If the story feels real to the reader; then so will the fear.


Even with a solid plot, it still needs well-drawn characters that need to achieve a goal. They need to be characters who the reader will want to get to know and become emotionally involved, so where characterisation is concerned, it’s worth taking the time to develop your characters, to get them established and provide the reason for their story right from the outset. Know exactly what the protagonist needs or wants and know what the antagonist needs to try to stop them. Every character has a motivation for their actions – there is always a reason behind what they do. That’s why many horror stories fail – the bad guy does stuff without reasoning, or the monster kills and eats people because that’s what it does and it just can. That will leave readers disappointed and short changed.


The reader needs to know what’s at stake – they need to know what the consequences are if the main character doesn’t achieve his or her goal. That’s part of the fear you build for them.


A good horror story also needs the correct POV. The point of view and tense will also determine the style of story. First person brings immediacy, because the ‘I’ is the narrator, and it’s his or her story. It brings more emotional depth, because the narrator is talking directly with the reader, but it is also limited because you can’t show anything from the other character’s POVs or build deeper suspense, as with 3rd Person.


Third person POV is better for those who are not confident about writing in first person. While it doesn’t have the same intense or emotional immediacy, it can use other characters to tell the story and build up suspense. It allows you to show other character POVs and thereby hide things from the main character and the reader. It gives more control of the story to the writer, and a greater depth to the reader.


In part 2, we’ll look at more elements to help you put the horror into horror stories.


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