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How to Make Horror Scary
With all due modesty, I
suggest you start by reading my article, Why Horror
Scares Us. In
that article I proposed that horror scares us because the
writer has manipulated our imagination. The writing doesnt
scare us, we scare ourselves.
So, youre asking yourself.
How do I go about this great trick?
Hands up all of you who said show, dont
tell. It's funny how that old maxim
comes back to haunt us, isnt it, and like all good
hauntings, its all in the mind. The readers
Like all fiction, horror is not going to work unless you
can take your reader away into another world. The basic
tools and techniques of good writing are as critical in
horror as they are in all genres. It could even be argued
that the only difference between the genres lies in the
You are aiming to establish and then maintain a fictive
dream, that state where your reader forgets the real
world and lives only in yours. This can only happen when
you stimulate the readers imagination, but can be
broken at any time. Tis a fragile state. While you
cannot control the outside influences on your reader, you
can control the writing thats your job!
Ensure that your writing is invisible. The reader should
be seeing the images created in his imagination, not your
words. Poetic writing is fun to read aloud, and there is
great satisfaction in sharing a particularly fine phrase
with your partner, but the conscious mind, that critter
which noted the fine writing and wished to share it, is
the natural enemy of your imagination.
The writing should do no more than conjure up images in
the readers imagination.
Similarly, clunky writing, sentences that need to be read
twice, strange phrases or broken grammar, all have the
inner critic howling in its cage and the fictive dream is
Get the story right, then get the writing right. If you
dont, all you are doing is exercising an editors
the Writings Right, but
So the writings right but the story is still as
scary as last nights pasta. Whatd you do
Ask yourself, is the story right? Theres a good
chance it isnt. Perhaps its a good story but
theres no fright.
Spark and Its Gone
What is the thing most people look for in horror?
A good shock?
A good shock, while titillating, contains little
satisfaction and certainly no lasting fear. Think about
the old chef taking the axe in the movie version of
The Shining. The axe strikes from
nowhere and he falls down dead. The shock factor is
there, but the effect is gone by the time the next scene
Shock is like a spark. One flash and its gone.
Theres no fire unless it has some kindling to set
If you are going to use shock, do something with it. Its
the beginning of the scare, not the scare itself. The
suddenl- dead body is more than just a janitors
nightmare, its a source of tension and horror that
the writer has a responsibility to milk. How do the other
characters react? What else does that body do? What
does it precede?
If shock is the blunt instrument, suspense is the
surgical scalpel. Suspense is that feeling that something
still coming. Its not here but the
reader can sense it, knows its there, and while its
coming, tension is building.
Stephen King is the master of suspense. While most of us
must be content with keeping the event from the reader
and teasing them with the promise of something unknown to
come, King goes further. King has the ability to create
suspense even when we know exactly what is going to
happen. And he stretches it out for pages. You can see
the axe. You know its going to fall. And hes
keeps pushing the event further away, but you cant
miss a single word. Cant bring yourself to skip
forward to the blood letting.
Because every one of Kings words carries a message.
Nothing is there for a free ride. You cant skip
ahead because you know you will miss something. Not
you might miss something, you KNOW you will
miss something important.
Thats the power of the master story teller.
Of course Stephen King, and every other horror writer
with the power to entertain us, also knows how to hide
the coming event. The trick is to convince us that
something is coming. That breeds anticipation and that is
the core of suspense.
No matter how good your story, the suspenseful heights
and shocking lows, if the end flops, the story flops.
Endings are critical. If your reader puts your story down
with a feeling of disappointment, you story will be
remembered with that sick feeling of waste.
What Makes a Good Ending?
A twist helps, a good twist. Not some surprise that came
flying in on the last wisp of cannabis smoke, but a
genuine twist to the story that comes from the story. A
good twist is one that is inevitable but unseen. You want
your reader to sit back, shocked but convinced that this
Too many writers take the ending too far, go beyond the
point where the reader is interested. The ending is best
sculpted immediately after the resolution to the climax.
After all, the climax and resolution is what the story is
all about, what youve used all those words to
create. Theres no need to carry on past that point.
I guess weve all experimented with ending at the
resolution. It provides a stunning ending but leaves a
sense of incompleteness. The best stories resolve the
climax and then provide a neat cleaning up of the mess.
Some of the more important threads are tied off. Some
critical information is explained.
But not all of it.
A good ending leaves one major question gaping to tease
the readers imagination. A good ending leaves the
conscious satisfied but provides the imagination with a
puzzle to play with even after leaving the author's
The killer was Grandma, but why did she bother to rise
from the dead to do it?
Endings fail when all explanations are given and the
writer drifts too far from the resolution. Ask yourself,
can I chop the last paragraph? Yes? How about the next
one? And the next?
Know That Guy
Stories are nothing without characters. Obvious isnt
it. So why do so many people get it wrong?
A character isnt someone poncing around in your
story, though many writers seem to regard them as just
that. A character is a real person.
That killer might be the bloke sitting next to you in the
pub after work. The hero is someones lover, maybe
someones Dad. If the reader cant imagine
walking into a bakery and seeing one of your characters
buying a cake, that character hasnt worked and the
story will fail.
Good stories come from the characters. Good stories arent
the plot or even the product of the plot they are
the sum of the actions of the characters. If the reader
cant believe in the character, they cant
believe the story.
This is particularly important when you are trying to
stimulate intense emotions as we are with horror. There
is nothing frightening about a fake mask, its the
monster wearing it thats scary. Make sure your
characters are real, not papier-mâché masks.
Happened to My Uncle Bill
Everyone has an Uncle Bill who has seen and done
everything. If you havent, adopt one. They are
bottomless sources of entertainment and every tall story
they tell is the utter truth
or so you believe at
Your story must have a core of granite like reality. The
reader must believe that this really happened. Without
that core, your climax is going to fall flat. That
reality forms a foundation stone upon which you mount the
climax but if that foundation stone is clay instead of
granite, the story will fall under the weight of the
This believability occurs when the characters themselves
believe it. No matter how fanciful your setting, the
characters who live there know it and trust it. There is
no need to explain or apologise for the weirdness you
make them face, just have them facing it with the same
trust that you devour your morning slice of toast.
When was the last time you picked up a horror story with
the intention being bored silly?
Nah. I dont either. I read the stuff because I want
to be entertained. I dont read King or Koontz or
good old HPL to wallow in lyrical prose and the purity of
the written word. I want a darned good yarn that takes me
away from this world and, if Im lucky, scares the
living daylights out of me in the process.
It's a bit like that roller coaster that took six years
off my life when we visited that entertainment park last
Very few successful roller coasters potter around slowly
with gentle dips and curves. Not many carry you at a
steady pace so that you can watch the adoring crowds. The
roller coaster rides we enjoy are frantic, violent things
with slow climbs that build tension, then mineshaft like
drops that accelerate us into that corner you know for a
fact is impossible to get around.
Variety, people. Put plenty of variety in your stories.
Fast and slow pace but keep it moving. Stop the action
and the reader gets up to make a cup of coffee. Make the
story boring and the reader will watch the cat food
commercial on the television instead. Action, lots of it
but in varying forms. Cut out the 98 percent boredom that
makes up most of our lives and just record the frantic
But remember, slow pace is also your friend. It is then
that your reader has the time to savour the suspense,
build the tension until all it needs is a pinprick to
explode at your climax.
All The Same Only Different
Writing successful horror is not so much different to
success in any genre. The differences lie in the emotions
we target. Read widely, across all genres. If you can
learn how to evoke pity, you can evoke fear. If you can
make a reader laugh, you can leave them horrified. The
techniques and skills are the same, its the
emphasis that changes.
Similarly, the flaws that destroy a thriller will make a
horror story bland. As well as the good stuff, read the
bad stuff. Not too much of it, theres no point
wasting too much of that precious reading time, but if
you can see why this story failed, you may be able to see
why your last story was rejected or avoid that trap with
your next one.
Learn from the masters and learn from the duds.
Then be the master, not the dud.
Richard Spurling is a
single father and professional story teller the
two tend to get blurred. His novels include horror and
thrillers for both adults and children while his short
stories are a mix of genres, most with a horror theme. He
is the author of two e-books The Easy Way to
Rewrite, the last word in crafting your novel, and Writing
Through the Black Mist, a personal guide to
depression. Samples of his work can be found at his
website at www.richardspurling.com
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