So, you want to write something that will inspire fear in someone – something that will legitimately scare people. Something to perhaps wrench our stomachs in fear, crawl up our spine with that little feeling of being watched, make our hearts beat like fear is pumping into it through our veins. But you may run into a problem that I see a lot in those who want to write horror – you might be unsure of what to write about that can both be enjoyable for you and have a product that has the ability to inspire fear in people.
That’s what I’m here for, today. To give those tips that those of you who want to write a convincing scary story and want to enjoy writing it as well, or in my case, feel at least a tad bit of fear while writing it yourself – although, to me, personally, fearing while writing a horror is enjoying writing it – but need a little help figuring out how to do so, or simply need some inspiration on new ways to do so.
I write creepypasta (for those who don’t know creepypasta, it’s pretty much short stories of the horror genre) in my free time, for two reasons. The first one being I like to write a bit of horror when I get the chance, the second being I want to string together a story that can actually scare people, since most of the pasta I see floating around the internet isn’t written in a way that it scares me, personally, and in the eyes of a horror loving reader, that’s not really a good sign.
So, I decided to try to piece together what made the horrors that actually inspired fear in me scary, and why the ones that didn’t simply… didn’t. Now, everyone is afraid of different things, so I can’t assure you that following my tips will make a story that scares everyone who reads it shitless, but the thing about these tips is it doesn’t outright TELL you what to write about, it only does what this is for: tips. Tips on how to make the fear realistic, the story convincingly written, something that you yourself can enjoy and/or fear at the same time and still be your own unique product.
So, without further ado, this is a brief list of some of the reasons I’ve found with why some horrors don’t come off as scary to me or in the opinions of others I have seen:
- It’s not written in a way that it really convinces and engages someone.
- It doesn’t seem like the writing style shows fear.
- The subject matter isn’t something that seems like it would really scare many people.
Now, as I said earlier, everyone has different fears, therefore not everyone will be scared by your story. However, there are people that share fears, and that will come to your advantage. Here is my personal check list for when I write horror – feel free to bend and break it to your will, you’re a writer, you have every right to do that – that is inspired by things that actually have reception of scaring many people, and my observation of common fears.
- Project your own fears into your writing. I cannot stress this point enough. If you aren’t scared, chances are, you won’t be able to make it seem scary in the writing, so your readers have a high chance of not being scared. This is a big part of making the story convincing. Channel your own deepest fears, be it a combination of your largest fear mixed with your other lesser fears or just a certain fear you have, into your writing and make something that YOU would be scared of. This tends to give it a more effective, scary feel. The first and perhaps funnest thing for many people to write about is something that they know about, be it from research, experience, or however it is they know of it, so it would make writing it much more easier on you and enjoyable, although by all means, step out of your comfort zone as much as possible (writing a horror story about something you fear may already be this) – a feeling of discomfort may be pushed into your writing, but it will make it even more convincing – as challenges always help you improve.
- Try something you know others fear, especially if you, too, fear it. Let’s face it – a lot of people have similar fears. This is what makes popular horrors popular – the common fear. Many people fear the unknown – that’s why so many people fear things such as the popular fear, death, the dark, and paranormal creatures that you may or may not know as such as The Slender Man. They don’t know what happens after death and what they will face, they don’t know what could come out after them in the dark, they don’t know paranormal entities/eldritch abomination’s like Slender Man’s motives, weaknesses, or true modus operandi. Find something that you know other people fear, and you fear at least the tiniest bit, as well.
- Alternatively, take something that people know well and/or find comforting and throw it into the uncanny valley – twist it into something unnatural and/or intimidating. Imagine, something people see every day. It’s perfectly normal, perhaps even comforting to see. Then they realize that there’s something off about it. Something so normal that it’s not, that it becomes something alien and intimidating to them. This is like combining something people know well and combine it with the unknown. Changing something that should be normal or comforting and turning it inside out, twisting it into something unnatural and intimidating, can be scary. Again, take The Slender Man for example. A tall, thin man in a business suit isn’t something most fear. But there’s just something so wrong about him/It, something so wrong that it’s left tons of people scared shitless after getting into the mythos. Perhaps you can take something so normal and push it into the uncanny valley, combine it with factors that people and you yourself tend to fear beneath it’s ‘normal’ surface.
- Be subtle, but be careful about it. Subtlety is your friend in most cases. Be subtle about things. Foreshadow, but don’t make it obvious. This is something that every story needs at least a little bit at one time or another, but it’s something I LOVE to see hit right on the head of the nail in horror. It gives an unnatural “What’s going on?” feel to it while still remaining effective and convincing. Don’t use too much subtlety when it comes down to it, but don’t use too less if it can add something to your story, either. The point is, try not to say things outright sometimes, but keep giving it emotion and feel. Practice subtlety when you need to use it, so you can learn what a good amount of subtlety for your writing is when it comes in handy. Mystery is a lovely aspect for some things, especially when it’s mixed into horror. Subtlety is something that can be very hard to do right, and I’ll probably give it a post of it’s own sometime later. Until then, if you think subtlety is something that can compliment your scary story, see how you can use it for it – don’t forget to practice!
- Subtle or not, give us detail on the senses of the writing. Do not be boring, but not over the top. If you really want to scare someone and your story has a character experiencing fear, don’t just say “John was scared.” Use detail on certain things, no matter the style, if you want us to get the same feeling as the character. Compare a simple sentence like “John was scared.” to something more detailed, such as “Anxiety rose and bubbled through his body like boiling water as John’s eyes darted around the room. An unnerving sensation of unblinking eyes upon him surged through his body, his heart pounding loudly as if it were trying to escape the confines of his chest, racing against time itself. Something wasn’t right, but he didn’t quite know what it was. Confusion and fear laced his rising breath – he saw no one else alongside him, despite the unshakable feeling that there was someone there, watching him constantly.” Detail can help make the reader feel things much more easily – don’t say that he’s scared, or he’s confused or angry, show it instead. Make the reader get the same feeling that someone in the situation would. However, when doing this, like subtlety, it is important not to go over the top with detail, or it’ll just become a heap of steaming detail and let the reader know too much about the feel of the story, depending on what kind of feel you’re going for. You can try to experiment with using a lot of detail if you want to see if it can work, but I personally wouldn’t advise it. It depends on personal and reader preference.
- Whether or not you’re going for psychological horror or gore-based horror, maybe you can try to mess with our psyche just a little bit. The human psyche is something very interesting, and using horror writing to play with it at least a little bit depending on your horror genre can just be great. Messing with people’s heads in writing can be a great practice for learning styles, at the very least. We’ve got our own fears and ticks up here in our minds, why don’t you try to play with it? Mess us up a little, give us nightmares, if you want.
- Have fun with it. Make your own list of how you do things when you develop your own horror style. Don’t follow everything in this list, if anything at all, bend and break it until you find something that works for you and your genre of scary story. You’re a writer – mess around until you find something that you want. Take the tips you get and bend them around, twist them until they fit for you or don’t use some of them at all. If you want to try something someone doesn’t advise, if you want to experiment with things that are considered things that should never be done in the genre just to see how you would do it, go ahead. Do what YOU want, not what a list of tips tells you to do. This list is to help you create your own formula and give you ideas on how to help your horror writing, not tell you what to do. Be yourself in your style and be unique when you find the opportunity to be.
This is how I personally work on my horrors and what I tend to see done in ones that are successful. The key to it is finding what you enjoy doing and what really works when you try it, observing the way different things in your writing effect the piece itself and the readers, and very importantly being original, in the end. These tips can also apply for script writers who are doing a script for a horror movie and the like, not just people working on writing a fictional novel, novella or short story.
I’d like to suggest a little horror writing exercise, either to help you get inspired for something else, practice your horror writing or just your writing in particular, or maybe even just for fun – if you have any childhood fears or nightmares, use those for practice. Things based on childhood fears and the like can turn out to be very scary and fun to write about if it doesn’t bother you too much to do it.
On a last note, I’d like to suggest some of my favourite horror for you horror fans out there.
Novel: Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ is a splendid novel that is most often considered horror. It plays with psyche and experiments quite a bit. Despite it’s large size, I would definitely recommend it – it is a splendid example of psychological horror.
Web video series: Marble Hornets is the video series that started the hype over Eldritch Abomination, The Slender Man. It is inspired by the original creepypasta under the SomethingAwful thread and has scared plenty of people to unbelievable degrees. I, myself, had to cover my mirror and windows for months after watching and becoming hooked to it. However, the key to the story is to *pay attention to the background* and when you don’t see anything for a while, keep paying attention and don’t give up until you’ve at least watched up to entry 18. This is the element that causes the horror effect it has with it.
Music: ‘Haunted’ by Poe, the sister of the writer of House of Leaves, is a beautiful song that inspires me for horror writing. Although the song is inspired greatly by their father, it is also a companion piece to the novel, as the album itself is considered to be as well.
Do you have any comments, ideas, or things to add on to these tips? Leave them in the comments section if willing to do so – any insight is helpful to writers of any genre!