There was a time when horror was one of the most popular genres. But while it’s still popular, its literary star has somewhat waned. Like all things, though, books go through cycles, and there are still enough horror readers and fans to make writing horror a satisfying experience.
While it can be important to weigh what readers are buying against your own potential sales, planning your next book around what’s popular can sometimes backfire, with the market becoming oversaturated and readers becoming overwhelmed by the volume of books available. So, if you love writing horror, then you should be writing horror. After all, there’s something so utterly satisfying about creeping out other people, whether you’re telling those thrillingly chilling tales around a campfire or late at night, or even sharing strange, supernatural experiences with friends and seeing who has the most unnerving story. So even if horror isn’t necessarily the hottest genre on shelves right now, it’s certainly one of the oldest.
But what do you need to make a horror novel truly unsettling?
1. Consume all the horror
While there have been notable exceptions to the rule, it’s always best to become very familiar with other authors in your genre. Reading a lot of horror books can be as much a lesson about how to craft good horror as it can be a lesson on what to avoid. Are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed? Are there particular attributes that all the best horror books have in common? What makes a “bad” horror? By reading and exploring the genre, you’ll have a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t, and more important, you’ll discover that sometimes our preconceptions about certain genres can be off the mark.
2. Familiarize yourself with terror and horror
Do you know the three kinds of terror/horror? Stephen King has been writing bestselling horror novels longer than many of us have been alive, and he has identified three kinds of ways to creep out the reader. By being able to identify them and why they’re so effective, you can mix and match them in your writing:
“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.”
3. Focus on your characters
One of the more obvious faux pas in writing horror is concentrating on the creepy aspects of the novel instead of the characters experiencing it. Horror is all about psychology, which means that in order to really engage your readers, you need to draw them into the story—and your protagonist.
“You want readers to fear the key horror element within your novel, whether it be a vampire, a madman, or a serial killer,” writes Brandon Cornett in “What Makes a Good Horror Story or Novel: 5 Key Components.” “But you also want them to fear for the safety of the characters. Above all else, this is what keeps them turning pages. We’re tapping into empathy and compassion here. Empathy creates horror in the mind of a reader. When readers can relate to a character’s actions and motivations, they are more likely to care about those characters. They can relate. They feel compassion toward him. They truly care whether or not he lives or dies. If you can arouse that kind of empathy, your readers will follow you (and your story) almost anywhere. And that’s priceless.”
4. Get your readers comfortable…and then scare the *beep* out of them
One of the most effective approaches to writing horror is to get your reader settled into your book like it’s a novel about something else. Establish your character’s home, job, school, friends, stresses, and worries—all those important world-building tools. Make your readers comfortable, and make that home base seem as safe and normal as possible without making it too idyllic. Remember that anything too perfect doesn’t feel believable, so unless that’s the terror you’re establishing, make sure your book’s setup is completely normal with completely flawed (albeit likable) characters.
And then, almost gently, take that sense of safety away.
“You can shock your readers in many ways,” writes Cornett. “You don’t have to use gimmicks or gratuitous ugliness. All you have to do is take something the reader knows and understands and present it in a new way. Find the dark side of it. Pervert it.”
5. Don’t shy away from tone and atmosphere
Ever read a horror novel where you just get that uneasy sense that something isn’t quite right? It niggles at you, maybe has you curling up tighter in your chair or drawing your feet up?
According to Now Novel’s “How to Write a Horror Story: 6 Terrific Tips,” tone is “crucial” for horror writers. “Tone and mood are two style elements that affect how your story feels. Great tone and mood make readers’ spines tingle before a single character has made a terrible decision. How you describe settings, character movement and actions creates an overarching tone.”
By effectively and subtly adjusting tone, mood, and atmosphere, you can make your readers feel deliciously uneasy even from the first page. Classic gothic literature writers created an entire genre simply by playing with shadows, noise, silence, color, and even weather. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a perfect example of a world that seems utterly normal, but with a subtle play that suggests that something is very, very wrong.
6. Draw from your own personal experiences
What we consider scary can vary from person to person. But fear and terror are universal. Sometimes an effective approach can be exploring a fear or terror that almost all of us can relate to. Another approach is to take something seemingly “normal” and make it utterly horrifying .But an effective horror novel can also take an existing terror and completely plunder it by inserting your own personal experiences and sharing them.
“Effective horror is personal in that it comes from an individual imagination, not a generic one,” writes Tim Waggoner in “All the things I wish I’d known as a beginner horror writer.” “We get to the universal through the particular. Fears we all have—fear of failure, abandonment, injury, sickness, death—don’t make effective stories in and of themselves until they’re embodied in a specific situation.”
A ghost story, for instance, isn’t a truly remarkable thing. Unless, of course, like me, you’re not really a believer in ghosts…until you experience something that can’t be explained away with logic. By drawing on those experiences and specifics, you can bring the reader into your horror, your terror. And that can introduce your readers to things they may never have imagined fearing.
“Go beyond simple, easy fears in your horror fiction,” writes Waggoner, “and you’ll produce some awesomely creepy work that will get under your readers’ skin in the best way possible.”
7. Craft a strong, well-thought-out ending
No one likes reading (or watching) a horror book or film that is all premise and then a weak conclusion. The best and most horrifying experiences are not only true to the character and their journey but hit just as hard as the book itself. They leave the reader feeling distinctly uneasy and likely guarantee they’ll both recommend your book to friends and be excited to pick up your next novel.
“Dare to step outside of the proverbial box and create an ending that will leave your readers squirming in their seats,” writer Shannon Owings says in “How to Write a Great Horror Story.” “Create an end that will haunt your readers well into the next day. Really get into their minds with your ending and have it be something that can keep them up at night. Remember, as the writer and entertainer, you have all the power. So use it.”
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.