I started off reading horror, and maybe a lot of people my age did, too. It was called Goosebumps and you’d have to be pretty disconnected to have never heard of the series. They were books for children, the literary equivalent of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark. R.L. Stine was the master of children’s horror, partly because they were more fun than anything (what parent wants their kid not to be able to sleep at night?). And for that, I am grateful. Otherwise, I might have been scared away too soon.
I’ve always found this genre intriguing. It stems from the simplicity of monsters and ghosts and things that, as they say, go ‘bump in the night.’ But the appeal is the added element of a book that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. You can find romance in a fantasy novel, or drama in a comedy, but most likely an author won’t break into the supernatural realm unless they are willing to go all the way. I’ve found that the best horror books are also great books in general. They have the same characterization and ‘out of this world’ wonders that make reading so great, but they spark something new in us. Something that is responsible for the same human desire to go on roller coaster rides or jump out of planes, sometimes even with parachutes.
And that thing is fear.
So you want to write some horror, you say? Great choice. Here are some tips to get you started.
1) Characterization over monsters.
Yeah, a 100-foot-long spider that shoots sulfuric acid-covered lines of silk and likes to eat its prey from the feet up is pretty scary, but the reader won’t care if they can’t identify with the victims. It is important to set up your characters like you would any other novel before getting to the main horror. Focus on developing your characters fears, just enough so that the reader gets an idea of what makes this person tick. When the central conflict comes around, the reader will hopefully have identified with the character so much that the character’s fears temporarily become their fears too, making the work all the more scarier.
On a similar note, monsters can be scary but there’s nothing better than a perpetrator who can talk, plan, and think. Making Godzilla is easy, but can you create a person who is so horribly twisted yet so undeniably human? Make your reader see parts of your antagonist in themselves…and make them afraid of it.
2) Surround sound.
We’ve been over this already: you have to read if you want to be a writer. Let’s take that a step further: you have to read horror if you want to write horror. There’s no better way to get a sense of what scares people than to read all you can in the genre and see what gives you nightmares versus the junk that is laugh worthy. Also, be sure to watch for pacing and how successful authors set up their characters, scenes, and ‘money shots.’
3) Grab the mirror.
Write about what scares you. Arachnophobic? Try a short story or two about a spider infestation. Are you a parent? Sounds like it’s time to explore what happens when a child is kidnapped. We all have things we are immensely afraid of and–unless you have deep trepidation towards butterflies–I’m willing to bet someone else out there can relate. Writing what you know will allow the words, descriptions, and ideas to come more naturally. You’ll find yourself immersed by being able to imagine exactly what you would feel like if put in that situation. Establish this, and the words will come.
This will help you familiarize yourself with creating frightening environments and scenarios, and then later you can write outside of your own personal scare-box.
I’m not going to dwell on this too much, since it is a common rule of any form of storytelling: be original. Dark and stormy nights are fun and all, but don’t bank on that for your scare. Using these types of conventions will make your reader imagine something from their already pre-existing memory banks and you will lose control of their emotions, fears, and sensations. You don’t want that.
5) Movies are for the theaters.
When you go to the movie theatre, about 90% of the horror flicks will have at least one scene where something jumps out and the music gives you a nice loud BOOM that is usually more startilng than anything you actually see. It’s been used a billion times, but it will continue to be used because it works. Plain and simple.
Things are different in writing. You can’t exactly startle someone enough to make them jump out their seat, even if you do try your hardest with BOLD CAPITALIZED ITALICS at the top of the next page. It just doesn’t work. Your job is to set the mood so that your reader will be so engrossed that their imagination is what gives them the heeby jeebies. Give them the scares little by little, slowly revealing them to the situation at hand. If it’s a ghost, start with small occurrences that could just be the imagination. Flashes of imagaery here and there. Spend time on parts when there really isn’t much to be scared of at all but the character has been so moved that a simple walk downstairs in a dark house has them crapping their pants.
There’s nothing more satisfying than writing a story, having a friend read it, and having them tell you they peed the bed that night. What, you’ve never experienced that? Try harder…or get wimpier friends.
6) Scare yourself.
Try writing in an environment that makes you slightly uncomfortable. For example, I wrote a horror novel once while in the jungle, under a mosquito net, in the pitch black with only a book light. Make it a goal to freak yourself out at least one good time while writing.
These are just quick tips, and all won’t work for everyone. Find what helps you the most. The most important part is getting feedback. Remember, we’re aiming for pissed pants here!