Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Writing Tips Wednesday: Tips for Writing Horror from 5 Horror Masters

It’s October, which means it is the scariest month of the year! Today, I am going to talk about how to make writing sound scary- in case any of you are interested in picking up some horror writing tips.

Now, I am not talking about writing that is scary because the grammar and spelling is so bad. Nope, today, we are going to dissect some of the writing from the horror masters and see what it is about their writing that makes them successful.

Now, everyone probably has their own personal interpretation of what makes writing scary, but I have identified five categories below that many horror writers employ. These categories are suspense, unexpected things, weird things, and gross things.

Many of my favorite horror authors, including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, and HP Lovecraft employ these elements in their stories.


If you state something abruptly, there isn’t time to develop fear for it. Suspense is a necessity in any horror story. The Tell-Tale Heart is quite short, but it spends at least half of the story building up suspense. Take a look at this passage- this is just after the narrator has come into the room to murder the man:

“Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief --oh, no! --it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself --"It is nothing but the wind in the chimney --it is only a mouse crossing the floor," or "It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp." Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel --although he neither saw nor heard --to feel the presence of my head within the room.”

The Unknown

What is the scariest thing? Fear. And if you know what something is, you fear it less. So, the longer a story goes without telling you want the scary thing is, the scarier the final reveal will actually be. The Turn of the Screw is a prime example of building up the fear of the unknown:

“But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with me restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room to take in the whole picture and prospect; to watch, from my open window, the faint summer dawn, to look at such portions of the rest of the house as I could catch, and to listen, while, in the fading dusk, the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard. There had been a moment when I believed I recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself just consciously starting as at the passage, before my door, of a light footstep. But these fancies were not marked enough not to be thrown off, and it is only in the light, or the gloom, I should rather say, of other and subsequent matters that they now come back to me.”

Unexpected Events

When something unexpected happens, it is scarier. This is a common technique employed by horror writers. One of my favorite examples is from The Lord of the Flies:

“Maybe there is a beast… maybe it's only us.” 

The idea that every person is capable of indescribable horrors is one of the most terrifying ideas of all.

Weird or Shocking Things

Most characters in horror novels are insane. Their insanity makes them unpredicible, which is why they are terrifying. Most of these insane characters have sadistic views and twisted likes. For example, take the character of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho:

"My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape."

Gross Things

Gross things are always scarier than non-gross things. That is why, for example, a mummy is scarier than a leprechaun. Take for example, this passage from The Road:

“He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.”
This scene has many gross words that incite all the senses: stench, coldness, damp, nakedness, stumps of flesh, burned skin, stained mattresses, and flickering light bulbs. You can’t help but be frightened by all the ugliness and gross. 

And to wrap things up, the horror master himself has this to say about what makes a story scary:

“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

What are your favorite scary passages from literature?

Brenda is a fellow book-lover and coffee-addict. She is a freelance writer, punctuation nerd, and grammar enthusiast. Her favorite book genres are Science Fiction, Fantasy with a Twist, and Dystopian. Brenda blogs about books, writing and more at Daily Mayo. Find her here on CaW for Writing Tips Wednesdays the first Wednesday of every month.

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  1. Oh, the Turn of the Screw... perhaps the scariest thing I've ever read. It's fantastic, for sure, but unsettling.

  2. I don't know that I have a favorite passage but IT is one of my favorite books. I first read it when I was a teenager and have read it at least twice since. Terrifying, Stephen King knows his stuff.


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