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What makes a good horror story? Is it the shocking gore, or the slow burn of psychological torture that the reader is subjected to? In my experience, both types of horror can have similar effects—it is how the author constructs the story that matters.
With the Underground Writers Horror issue fast approaching, it felt suitable to give our prospective authors a few tips on how to terrify their readers.
According to Popcorn Horror, the genre falls into four main subcategories: killers, monsters, paranormal, and psychological. These then branch off into more niche categories, similar to the way thrillers do. You can also combine genres and create a unique story by cherry picking tropes from each one. Think Shaun of the Dead; the film combines gore with comedy, zombies, and survival!
Characters & Characterisation
The cast of characters within a horror story typically relate to the niche genre you are aiming for.
Slasher stories lend themselves to ensemble casts, whereas stories within the psychological subgenre are more likely to have a central character. Short stories may not suit an ensemble cast, as there is not enough time within the word count to adequately introduce each character and thread a plot through their interactions. As is the case with any short story, too many characters will confuse the reader. When there is a limitation on the length, focus on a few core characters and build the story from there. Keep in mind that in the horror genre, the setting and inanimate objects can also come to life and become characters within the story—the characters do not always have to be people.
The setting of a horror story has become its own niche genre. Haunted houses, ghost ships, forests, hospitals… the list goes on. Setting could be the first thing to consider when writing horror fiction, as it provides a framework for other tropes that fit in the genre. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson exemplifies the idea of the haunted house, and other horror stories have borrowed from real life accounts of demons and ghosts to create the haunted house cliché. The Amityville Horror franchise is based on a true story, so it would be a good idea to research real-life stories that may spark some inspiration! True crime is a great place to look, as it offers a variety of settings that lend themselves to horror writing. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction!
Setting is also a great way to set up a creepy atmosphere within your story. Once you have chosen a setting, sit down and brainstorm the five senses in relation to where the story will be set. What colour is the house? Has the paint peeled and chipped away? Is it made of wood? How does the exterior feel when you run your fingers across it? Does it smell damp and mouldy? Have your characters explore and engage with the setting. Ruth Ware’s latest release, The Turn of the Key, involves the main character living in a ‘smart home’; consider giving your story a uniquely modern twist.
Language, Tone and Research
Research is important, even if the subject is a bit stomach-churning. Most readers of body horror (i.e. gruesome deaths and lots of gore) will have some idea about the realities of death. Unless your story has paranormal elements, a dead body has limitations. There are certain things that are physically impossible and it is important to not distract from the story. This goes for thriller and crime writers, too. I recently watched the 2018 Halloween movie and marvelled at how Michael Myers couldn’t kick open a toilet stall door but could obliterate a man’s skull with a single stomp! Keep certain aspects in mind, such as how long it takes a body to decompose, what rots first, and what animals will scavenge and what they leave behind. Decomposition also has a very distinct and unforgettable scent. Research weapon types and the kinds of injuries they inflict. Research psychology and ways to infiltrate someone’s psyche. Have a look at previous paranormal cases (such as poltergeists, demons, and haunted objects) and make note of who was affected in the cases. Poltergeists often target young children going through adolescence, so keep that in mind when building characters!
Rather than a consistent tone that is tense and overwhelming, consider adding a bit of comedic relief at certain points. Timing is important however, so think about natural breaks in the tension rather than springing it on the reader—dialogue is a great way to achieve this. Alternatively, work on pacing the plot in a way that slowly builds the claustrophobia to the point where it is unnoticeable to the reader, until the action is ramped up by a shocking plot twist. The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton is a phenomenal example of a plot being quietly horrifying. The subtle nature in which Burton introduces the horror elements is brilliant and will stay with you for a long time after finishing the story. It is just paranormal enough to be unsettling, but still creepily realistic and believable.
Be aware of language use, especially if you’re considering setting your story in a past era. The language of the Victorian era will be different to today, so consider this when writing dialogue and describing characters. This is where research will also come in handy, as knowledge of gothic elements will translate into your writing and transport the reader back to another time period. Also think about if you need to use jargon within the story; detectives and other professionals will have different elements of language that you may need to consider.
Most importantly, just have fun! Horror is the kind of genre where the only real limitation is your imagination. Don’t be afraid to go all out with body horror. The grosser the better. But also remember that the more subtle elements of horror can be the most unsettling. Grab the reader by their worst fears and make them come true. Claustrophobic? Bury them in a coffin. Terrified of the ocean? Haunted submarine. Scared of dense forests? Make up a new cult and set a funeral pyre alight. The possibilities are endless.