Tips from Horror Authors to Scare Your Readers
Different writing genres each have a certain set of criteria to follow in order to appeal to the readers of said genre. These are not hard and fast rules by any means but there are certain tropes expected within the realm of each genre which brings readers back for more. While the traditional writing nuances like “show don’t tell” lend themselves to horror it takes a skilled wordsmith to craft prose that will scare the bejesus out of the reader in a compelling way.
They come in the form of knife wielding psychos, cannibals, your wildest dreams and your worst nightmares. A certain amount of tension is needed to keep pages turning, but in horror your readers are expecting a certain amount of nail gripping fear when they invest their time in your novel.
In this video go deeper into what it takes to make horror novels scary: Horror Novels - What Makes Them Scary?
In the video we learned that characterization and pacing takes your horror from mediocre to menacing. One of the most important questions you can ask when writing each scene is
This question will continue to propel the story forward but also establishes a certain amount of depth to the scene, rather than the hack n' gore for shock value most slasher films employ.
When developing your antagonist remember that the implication is for the reader to be creeped out. This can be developed in a number of different ways such as pacing out a scene so that the beats of tension rise and fall with the imminent peril of the character hanging in the balance.
As mentioned in the video above, I really enjoyed Jack Ketchum's novel Off Season because of the way the tension played out in each scene. You are introduced to the danger element immediately, though you are not shown exactly what it is until later. And, once you are shown, Ketchum actually takes you into the mind of the killers which in and of itself is terrifying because when you get back to your hero clan you know exactly what type of diabolical maniacs they are facing and you do in fact fear for them. I'm being vague here in case you haven't read Off Season, which if you haven't I highly recommend it not only for a good read but as a case study in exactly what makes a good horror novel.
Each author will approach their writing in their own way but these tips from some of the most prolific horror writers known today will help you find your own voice in the horror genre.
1. Stephen King – On Terror
According to Stephen King there are three ways to truly enhance the level of horror in storytelling.
“The 3 types of terror:
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
The Terror: when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
2. Ray Bradbury – Ignore the critics
There will always be literary snobs out there to tell you that horror, like all genre fiction, is not as important or "legit" as real fiction about middle age men who cheat on their wives. The suggestion is that you stop worrying about trying to be a "legit" writer, and just write what feels right to you, even if it involves ghosts.
On a similar note, you have to make your creatures of the night feel like a serious threat even if you’ve created something that’s bizarre. Ray Bradbury thought that writing should be enjoyable, and that writers should be selective about which criticisms to listen to:
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
3. Anne Rice and Shirley Jackson – Embrace the pain & tap into what scares you
Anne Rice’s advice to horror writers is to tap into pain of the past and draw it out on the page in sublime angst.
“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I'm writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”
Chances are if something terrifies you, and you relate it to the page with as much conviction, you’ll be able to instill the same type of fear in the reader. As Shirley Jackson points out: “I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.”
4. Clive Barker - The scariest thing is feeling out of control
For Clive Barker, horror comes from the realization that we are not in control. Excellent horror writers don't just go for gore and shock value, they remind their readers that everyday life is always right on the edge of dissolving into chaos:
“Horror fiction has traditionally dealt in taboo. It speaks of death, madness and transgression of moral and physical boundaries. It raises the dead to life and slaughters infants in their cribs; it makes monsters of household pets and begs our affection for psychos. It shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
5. Neil Gaiman - Tell your own story
Write in your own universe, not someone else's. Make up your own monsters. That's what Neil Gaiman does. From a podcast interview with Nerdist:
"Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you."
6. R.L. Stine - Get inside your character’s head
The Goosebumps author told Adweek: “There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.” He also explains that writing horror for young adults has one key difference from writing horror for adults: a happy ending is essential. Children’s horror books are supposed to be like roller-coasters— frightening, but with an understanding that everything will be OK in the end. “They’ve been through all these monsters and horrible things, and they’ve been chased, and they have had all these creepy, terrible adventures. They want relief from it.”
Here are a few other guidelines for writing horror stories for young adults or children from the mind of R.L. Stine:
Create a good plot. Some of the best young adult horror stories read more like adventure novels. Most children’s adventure stories have a similar plot structure: A group of kids are placed in danger, and they need to find a way to safety. However, someone (or something) is trying to prevent them from completing their “mission,” whatever that may be. The book is about the kids using their wits to complete their mission—this is plot-driven storytelling in its most basic form.
Invent interesting, relatable characters. The best way to create fun, engaging characters that young readers will relate to is to ask questions and write down your answers. For example, is there a monster in the story? If so, what is it? What does it look like? Who is the villain? The main character? What’s the story’s major conflict? In what kind of situations will your characters land themselves, and how will they get back to safety?
Instill a sense of fun. A young adult horror story needs to be fun to read. The kids in the book should be funny, as should the conflicts they face. Technically speaking, you want to write short chapters full of easy-to-read words. Give younger audiences fast-paced, plot-driven stories that are full of cliffhangers. They’ll feel much more inclined to read your books.
Add tons of twists and cliffhangers. A cliffhanger is a device that compels readers to find out what happens next in a story. Writing great cliffhangers is key to making your book a page-turner and it’s one of the easiest ways to make your writing more suspenseful. Small twists and turns are also a good idea to maintain a playfully spooky atmosphere and keep young readers engaged by directing them away from what they might think the ending will be.
Don’t let the daunting task of crafting a horror story scare you. With the help of accomplished horror authors you too can build terror, suspense, and spooks into your fiction writing. As any writer knows, regardless of what genre you are writing, you should read and read alot. This will only help you to develop your writing voice and from there you can begin to develop your own style of writing horror that will scare the pants off your readers.
Questions? Comments? Let me know!