Writing Effective Horror (i.e. Scaring The Crap Out of People)

As my last post (from oh…two or three months ago) suggested, I have been working on a novella. I won’t divulge the plot or the title yet because it isn’t quite finished. However I would like to talk about it for a little bit. Without giving too much away, it is a horror story. It’s an old-fashioned monster romp, but I am also trying to put a huge emphasis on the emotional factor (which is obviously the key to writing a legitimately good story). All of this being said, I’m afraid that the story thus far isn’t doing what I want it to do most.

I’m afraid it isn’t scary.

Despite my emphasis on character development and motivation, as well as my natural desire to make some sections artsy and hopelessly pretentious, what I want most from the story is for the story to frighten. I want people to lie awake at night, too afraid to close their eyes because my monsters have invaded their imagination.

(After typing that, I realize that’s kind of fucked up.  “Yes,” I say to myself, “Let me into your mind.  Your thoughts are so succulent, and I am so very, very hungry for them.”

I might have problems.)

Anyway, after thinking on this for weeks, I have developed a short list of things that I think are absolute musts in creating an effective horror story. So buckle up, kids. And bring a fresh pair of underpants cause we are talking about the most effective ways to scare the shit out of people.

THE THREE SIMPLE RULES OF WRITING HORROR

1. Write About People, Not Sacks Of Meat Waiting To Be Murdered

If you want to write good horror than you need to write about people and their predicaments (No not real people you, nit. But if there is someone you have a particular distaste for, don’t be afraid to model a character after them). Characters drive story, and they are the conduit readers use to engage themselves in the story. Horror is not an exception this formula. Many writers, at least the knows I know, sacrifice characterization for shock value, and it doesn’t work. Characters aren’t walking sacks of meat waiting to be torn to shreds. They are people with real world problems and real world motivations. If you want to scare readers, you need them to care about the characters and what is happening to them.

I recently read Revival by Stephen King, and I feel it is a good example of this idea. While it wasn’t my favorite King story, I felt the characters he created in the book were real and authentic. By having those real characters, the actual events of the story had weight: value. When you create authentic and believable characters like the ones in Revival, you are setting the stage to deliver some hardcore scares, and that’s what you want more than anything.

2. Don’t Always Scare

There is more to horror than the jump scares and big events, and horror writers would be wise not to overlook them. By focusing on scenes with little to no horror in them, you can focus primarily on character development. It will also give you a chance to set up more insights into the world of the story, and (if needed) provide some exposition.

More importantly, though, it will give you the chance not to scare your reader. Remember when you started watching Dexter and you were horrified by the amount of blood and dead bodies? But, as the show went, you got used to it and the show suddenly became less interesting?

(Is that why the show sucks? Because I became desensitized to the violence? Or was it the bad writing? Or the dumb character arcs? Or the uninteresting story? Eh, this is all stuff for a later day. Just roll with it for now.)

It’s because you got used to it. The violence didn’t bother you anymore because you saw it so much, so its inherent value became lost. The same is true for horror. If you want your horror to be effective, you need to know when to scare, and when not to.

This is another thing Revival did right. When I really think about it, there were only a handful of moments that were genuinely frightening in the book. These moments, for the most part, were effective because there were so few of them. King spent so much time talking about the characters and their lives that when something actually happened it had that much more punch to it. Which leads us to the final point…

3. When It Comes To Scares, Don’t Hold Back

Don’t pull any punches when the big moments finally arrive. When shit hits the fan, make sure you use every violent, gruesome, gut-wrenching, gag-inducing sentence you can. Leave no word unsaid, because this is the moment. This is everything the reader has been anticipating since the story began. And if you don’t deliver on this one thing, your whole story will suffer and you will lose the reader. Push the absolute limits of what can be said, at least in your first draft. It will be much easier to tone it down than ramp it up.

This is something Revival failed on, in my opinion. The book had these incredible characterizations, beautiful storytelling, and well-paced scares. But, when it came to the big moment it fell flat on its face. I mean, sure, the last moment was frightening, but not enough. It didn’t justify the wait the reader went through to get to it. If King had gone just a bit further, described a bit more, it could have been a truly awesome moment. It could have been one of the most horrific pieces I have ever read. But, because it didn’t go far enough, I can only call it pretty scary rather than immensely terrifying.

Learn from this. It’s better to make it too big, and have to bring it back. It’s much harder to add more to what is already there. So let the little psychopath in you flourish, and make your work as bloody and frightening as possible when the time comes for it.

That’s it for this week. Perhaps next week I’ll discuss more on what I liked/disliked about Revival. Or maybe I will complain more about Dexter (trust me, there is plenty to talk about). Either way, it’s sure to be a grand old time. Make sure you come back.

What are your thoughts on horror? Do you write it? Do you even like it? What do you think makes an effective horror story? Let’s chat about it in the comments.

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Caleb Clark

I'm simply a young writer out to make his mark on the world. I particularly enjoy works of fantasy and horror, but I read a wide variety of topics and genres. I am a freelance writer, and I have regular posts on several sites, namely TechVise and Tech Malak. I try to upkeep my blog, where I talk about writing and theater mostly while cracking terrible jokes.

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