Horror is based on one simple thing – fear. These fears can be universal (the most common is the fear of death; the second is the dark), common (spiders, cockroaches, snakes, etc), or personal (a fear of machines taking over the world). Without that sense of fear, horror does not work. Its themes are ones that the readers can relate to. In essence, though, nearly every story is a horror story because something happens that is bad to characters we care about and it is something we could conceivably happen to us as well. And that’s all horror is. Bad things happen to good people, and they have to cope.
Horror as a genre is just more blatant about it.
When writing horror, language is important. Horror writing is a writing of mood and atmosphere. Short sentences and short paragraphs help build the tension, if that is what is needed. Pacing is important. Build-up of dread, and then a cathartic release, but not a complete release. Then the build-up increases again, and again, and again, until a final denouement. And show, don’t tell is so important in horror. Anticipation is the horror writer’s greatest weapon. As Alfred Hitchcock described it, the audience is waiting for the bomb to go off, waiting and waiting, and so he would draw it out as long as possible before finally – BANG!
I’m not a poet, but when writing horror poetry, in general, most poets use long vowel sounds to draw out and heighten the tension, to force a slower pace. But then you can use a short, sharp sound to give a sudden fright. Some also allow the pace to become gradually quicker, as a heartbeat quickens when faced with something terrifying. Midnight Echo issues 8 & 9 have a series on writing poetry, with some focus on horror and fantasy.
And don’t forget humour. It’s a nice juxtaposition to the horror, relieves the tension and gives a false sense of security, making the next scare all the worse.
5 General Forms of Horror
– old fashioned
– everything normal, with an undercurrent or hint of badness
– grows and grows
– modern audiences don’t respond well in general
e.g. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
– explicit gore
– became more popular with the advent of the slasher films of the 70s/80s
– plot often secondary to the style
e.g. Books of Blood Volumes 1-3 by Clive Barker
3) Hunter and hunted
– also referred to as ‘the chase’
– normally starts with something nasty from the word go
– basically one is after the other
– could be from the bad guy or good guy POV
e.g. Firestarter by Stephen King
– rare to be done well
– often disguised as a thriller
– usually all mental with very little physical until the end
– often the most realistic
e.g. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
5) Gothic horror
– a combination of horror and romance
– a lot more mood-dependent, requiring good command of language
e.g. Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice
Some books, of course, can also be combinations of the two. Suspense or Psychological and Hunter & The Hunted often overlap, as do Suspense and Psychological.
“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. And the last and worse one: 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…”
― Stephen King
4 Most Common Bases of Horror
1) Supernatural (ghosts, vampires, zombies, aliens, etc)
Things not of this world
e.g. Dracula by Bram Stoker
2) Killer on the loose
Humans are the horrible things
e.g. The Shining by Stephen King
3) Science gone wild
Something man-made goes crazy
e.g. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
& Christine by Stephen King
4) Nature on the rampage (including monsters)
e.g. Jaws by Peter Benchley
Or it can be a mixture of any of these.
Don’t be afraid to steal ideas from local or urban legends.
Don’t be afraid to use a simple straw poll to find out what scares people you know and use these concepts to base your horrors upon.
Some other elements to think about.
1. An event. Something has to happen. Well, d’uh, right? But there is a certain amount of capital-L literature that appears to have nothing happen… or very, very little.
2. A horror. There has to be something that is intended to scare. A person, a monster, a rogue hair-dryer, a dream – something. And someone – even if it’s just one person – has to be threatened in some way by that horror.
3. An opening. Some will say your first sentence needs to grab the reader, some your first paragraph, some your first page, and in a novel it can be as much as your first chapter. Even if you go for the slow build up of suspense, something has to grab the reader and let them know all is not as it seems. In some genres, a really long story gestation period is accepted, but not in horror.
4. Use description. Description is one of the best ways to create horror. “The house on the hill had been deserted for years,” doesn’t cut it in a horror story. “The old house, its paint peeling through countless years of wind and rain, its window panes devoid of glass, the air rushing through with a low moan, dominated its landscape from the top of the hill upon which it had been constructed many years earlier. No longer did a family live inside its stark rooms; now only the rats and spiders called it home,” could be a better way to go. And description needs all 5 senses. Not just the looks and sounds, but the feel (slimy skin), smell (putrid swamp) and taste (warm copper).
5. Characters. The characters need to do more than just scream and/or be fodder for the horror around which the story is based. They need to react and respond and try to get out of their situation. Their basest emotions will be on show – fear, desperation, and even love, especially when it comes to protecting their loved ones. They will over-react, they will show what they are feeling. They will not be placid, even if that is their normal personality. Also, having too many characters often makes it harder for the reader to keep track of why the horror is so horrible. Having just a few where the reader can more easily relate is often a better idea. Not always, but often. But characters the reader likes have to make choices the audience hates.
6. Settings. Some will say the settings need to be eerie and scary, but that is not necessarily the case. For horror to work, the settings have to be relatable, and believable in terms of the horror presented. Even a horror set in a space station 100 years in the future can be made relatable because the claustrophobia that is inherent in a space station can be directly related to an office building, and having no escape is just that same office building on floor 20. Having said that, remember that fear of the dark. Horror does often work best at night.
7. An ending. Horror is one of the very few genres where a HEA, even a HFN ending is not necessarily the right way to go.
Some people say that horror needs a twist or seven in order to be truly terrifying. That depends on the sort of story you are writing, but it has become the norm for many modern horror writers to include what feels like at least three twists throughout their narrative.
Horror has become the modern day Aesop’s fable in some quarters, to make people read these stories in order to have a lesson learned vicariously.
It has also been said that horror works best when it has a tragedy at its core. This is theatrical tragedy, created by the flaws in character and poor choices or decisions throughout the narrative.
Other ideas that some writers use include:
– surprises in narrative are expected; don’t be afraid to go off on odd tangents.
– make minor details in description become more meaningful later (though this could said to be true of all writing). In horror if something is mentioned and then forgotten, the reader will always go back to it and it could ruin your narrative thrust. So make sure everything is tied up, even the red herrings. Horror stories are notorious for red herrings, but if they are left hanging, the reader feels cheated.
– don’t explain everything; often in horror what is left to the reader’s imagination is a lot scarier for them than anything the writer can come up with. Unfortunately a lot of modern horror, especially in movies, really does ignore this; however, so does a lot of early era written horror. HP Lovecraft was especially good at leaving things to the reader’s imagination.
I HOPE THAT HELPS.