As Halloween approaches, so too do all of the best horror stories. I haven’t spent much time discussing tips and tricks for writing specific genres, but I thought now is the perfect time to go over horror. If you’ve been wanting to learn how to write horror, read on to find out what makes a great scary story.
What Makes Great Horror Stories? (How To Write a Horror Story)
The elements of a great horror story are usually the same. An excellent horror story evokes fear in the viewer/reader, creates surprise and shock, and feels real.
To learn how to evoke fear, you must understand the different types of fear that all of us have to one degree or another:
- the unknown
- primal fears
- small spaces
- humanity’s dark side
- serial killers
These fears affect each of us in some way as it’s hard-wired into us to be afraid of what can hurt us. Choosing a fear that many people share is a great way to reach a large audience. It also helps to understand why people are afraid of something so that you can tap into those elements and amplify them.
People are afraid of spiders because they are venomous and creepy-looking. So making a giant, super creepy spider who shoots venom at its prey will definitely heighten the sense of fear in your audience.
Tension and Suspense
Horror is all about suspense and tension. The audience feels uneasy because of the tension and they stay interested because of the suspense. The fear forms the foundation of the story, but it’s the tension and suspense that work together to create a true masterpiece.
You want the audience to be on the edge of their seats for the entire story, and there are a few ways to achieve this:
By setting the story up so the audience thinks it’s told from one perspective and then revealing it’s really told from another, you create so much surprise. Think of The Sixth Sense (SPOILER WARNING), through the entire movie, we believe we are watching from the child’s perspective. All of the tension that builds is finally pushed over the edge when we learn it’s actually the doctor’s perspective we’ve been viewing.
Every story genre uses plot twists, but with horror stories, they work exceptionally well. Plot twists are another wonderful way to finally break the tension and create the ultimate form of shock for the audience, however, they can go wrong.
I’m sure you’ve read a book or seen a movie with a bad plot twist. Maybe the twist was way too easy to see coming or it didn’t make any sense to the original plot.
When writing plot twists, you must carefully plan them out from the beginning. If you think of an amazing plot twist after half of your story is written, luckily you can still incorporate it. However, you will need to revise the first half to make sure it fits well.
Also, with plot twists, you don’t want the audience to see it coming, but you do want to incorporate subtle clues and foreshadowing. You want the viewer/reader to look back and be able to see the signs.
Keep Characters in the Dark
Giving the audience more information than the characters builds enormous suspense. The audience knows the killer is in the house, but the characters don’t. So, when you see them enter the house, the suspense builds as the audience waits for the killer to get them.
You can use this method in a variety of ways to slowly or rapidly build more suspense.
Bad to Worse
The essence of every horror story is that the characters’ situations go from bad to worse. Starting the story with some hardship (like losing their job or a family member being sick) adds higher stakes as more goes wrong.
Maybe at the beginning, the character gets demoted, only to find out that their ex took over their position. Sounds crappy enough, but now add that they must interact with their ex daily. Additionally, to pull in the horror, they find out that their ex has been stalking them. The ex gets progressively more intense and more dangerous as the story continues. You’re constantly adding an extra layer to their situation and slowly creating more tension.
This is also a wonderful strategy for building likable characters. The more your audience sees the difficulty the character faces, the more they sympathize with them. And, the worse their situation becomes, the more the audience roots for them. So, when they end up winning (if they do) the audience feels more excited. And, if they don’t win, it’s a bigger blow.
Tips for Writing Horror
Now that we understand what makes a great horror story, let’s go over some quick tips to learn how to write a horror story.
Create strong and shocking plot twists by subtly foreshadowing.
Warp the perspective by using what the audience doesn’t know.
Use fear to create tension and suspense as early as possible and hold it for as long as you can.
The character’s situation should go from bad to worse by layering events to create more tension.
Remember: Every story has been done before. Try not to worry too much about creating something completely new. If you have an idea, chances are someone has already written it. Focus, rather, on putting your own spin on the story.
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