8 Steps to Terrifying Horror Fiction Writing
How to Be the Next Stephen King...
You’re going to learn how to scare the holy crap out of your readers. You’re going to do it well and you’re going to enjoy every minute, every second, and every nano-second as admissions to mental health institutes suddenly rise in the wake of the release of your next unholy tome. You alone will be responsible for the mass nervous breakdown of the human race.
Because that’s what we do, right?
1. Horror writer, know thyself.
First of all, drill down into your own peculiar fears and see what comes spurting out. Have a close look. Take a stiff drink if you have to, but let them out of the dark well of your subconscious and subject them to the third degree.
My point is this: until you know your own fears and why you react to them as you do, you’re not really going to scare anyone else (okay, so you might give Aunt Mildred a cause to sit up screaming in the middle of the night but she’s only read Barbara Cartland novels and didn’t know what she was getting into when she agreed to proofread for you).
2. Communicate the reality of your fear.
Once you have your fears out in front of you, and you’ve become as good a friend to them as you’re ever going to be (and for sure you don't want to get that chummy with them), start asking yourself these questions: How do I write these fears? How do I get someone to feel the same way as I do? How would I communicate it to my best friend? What specific words suit this fear?
Understand that the correct choice of words is very important—don’t just throw the old ones you’ve used over the years down on paper, find some new ones. And, listen close, we’re talking about accurately describing the thing that causes the fear not the actual sensation of fear itself (you know the sweaty palms, the bumpity-bump of the old ticker).
It's a whole different thing.
If you're scared of graveyards, it's the shadows clinging to the stones, it's the cold bite of the air, the crunch of gravel under the feet, the noise off to the right that could be a bony hand reaching out of the ground. Okay, got it? Hand shaking a bit, the words scrawled on a page? The right words and not just any old cliche (Like what I just wrote!!)? Get the idea now?
3. Now you know your own fears well dear writer...
Choose a universal fear. People are scared of a lot of things. And a lot of people are scared of the same things. Most people are afraid of the dark. And I don’t mean a street or house at night, but pitch blackness. Put anyone in a pitch black room (okay, except a blind person) and they’ll get nervous.
Most people aren’t afraid of ice cream so a killer Cornetto isn’t going to get anyone crapping their pants (save for a few seriously mixed up individuals who shouldn’t be allowed to read horror anyway).
Better still, take something everyone feels safe with and add another element that's terrifying. Take a bunch of lovely flowers your boyfriend bought you and put a six-legged alien in it, take your own bedroom and add a strange new shadow in the corner, or put something under the bed.
That’s what we do as writers. Twist the dial so that’s it a little darker and a little scarier. So it's the same, but not quite. And this is where it gets tricky. Ask yourself how you transfer that fear you felt before onto this particular horror scenario.
4. Haunted Houses and Secluded Roads
Setting is important. No shit, Sherlock, I hear you cry in unison. Every novice horror writer knows this. So where do you place your story? An old deserted house? A dark, dank cellar? They’re clichés, of course, but everyone knows what haunted houses look like even if they’ve never been trapped in one.
But what about more mundane settings?
An ordinary house for example? A supermarket? A hospital? A city street early in the morning? Any setting can be used for horror. Choose one your reader knows well and then twist it. It’s the street outside their house. But now it’s suddenly dangerous because they can sense...what? It’s the shopping mall they used to go to that is now infested with malevolent creatures. It's any number of safe things made dangerous all of a sudden by the power of your mighty pen.
5. Five Horror Senses, Not One
Your senses are important too. People have five senses. Not just sight. They can smell. They can hear. They can touch. They can taste. Neglect any of them at your peril. Think to yourself, which of the five adds another frisson of terror to the scene you're writing. Don’t be afraid to play around with it. But get your head glued to the idea that it’s not all visual. Unlike film, you can experience anything in a book, you just need to be able to describe it.
6. Ramp it up, baby!
Time to build all that tension. Fear is all about building tension within the reader. You can get away with a “BOOH!” in a film every so often, especially with impressionable teenagers, but us oldies are used to it. What you need to do, and this is probably the most difficult things in horror, is slowly build up the tension until your reader is at the point of screaming.
Anticipation of something nasty is far more powerful than the nastiness itself.
Then ramp it up and up. Think of fairground rides. Personally, I hate them. They make me feel sick to the point where I’d be quite happy to die. But, the thing with the good rides is they have peaks and troughs. You’ll scream like hell on the down ride and then there’s the relief you survived as you go up the other side. Before you have time to count your blessings, you're faced with trepidation again as you come to the top because you know what’s going to happen...oh yes you do...and then suddenly you’re screaming with terror again...horror books should be like that, continuously ramping up the pressure until you get to that big, final drop...and boy, should it be a drop like no other.
7. Writers and the Fear Response 101
Your job is to elicit a response not to describe one. Describing your lead character’s heart pumping like a piston is not going to make dear reader’s heart do likewise (and by the way, if I see one more description of heartbeats or goosebumps I'll fry my own brain in garlic and olive oil).
If you’ve done your job, you won’t need to describe those emotions to the nth degree. Okay, you can put a smattering in here or there, but if you’re touching the core of someone’s fears, they’re going to do it for you. Trust me, I'm a doctor...
8. Horror writers should always deliver!
Finally, and this is true of every book ever written, DELIVER what you promise. Don’t cop out just because you can’t find the right words or the perfect scene or you’ve run out of the fear stuff. Your reader will never forgive you if you allow your hero to stutter down dark corridors for pages on end only to find the next door leading out to Sainsbury bread section.
If you’re heading for a massive confrontation with the abominable snowman then make it the biggest, most terrifying moment in the whole book. If your protagonist isn't challenged to breaking point and beyond, the reader is going to feel cheated...and so he/she should. It's like taking home a packet of Jaffa Cakes to find it contains broken Custard Creams. You started this crazy journey...you have no choice but to deliver.
And if you don't...well, frankly, you should be ashamed my young scribe of the dark naughtiness.
The darkness deserves to be treated with more respect than that...