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The Pen Is Mightier: Scary 101 - How To Write A Good Horror Story

Posted on April 23, 2013 at 6:40 PM

Guys, I am an occasional peruser of Creepypasta, short horror, and Slenderman stories. I love horror stories, I love reading them, writing them, and seeing other people's reactions to them. As I've said before on this blog, I prefer psychologically horrific stories to stories that rely on gore and violence, or on too many monsters. The former is why I watch slasher films to root for the bad guy, and the latter is part of why, while I do admire the Fear Mythos and even find some of the beasties therein really damn cool (The Intrusion squicks me in so, so many ways and Wooden Girl is an awesome concept for a fear of being controlled, and of course Slendy and the Rake are in there too), I don't feel as much of a connection with it as I do with the Slenderverse. You can mail me your hatred now or later, preferably in the form of a Creeper, since nothing really says "I hate your guts" like a walking bundle of TNT.

You shouldn't have, guys. No really, you really shouldn't
have, I haven't slept in my own bed recently!

But I digress. As a horror author, I very often see young horror authors make... mistakes, and those mistakes lead to poorly written, unscary stories. I can't tell you how many times I've had my suspension of disbelief broken in a Slenderman story by something silly like describing his facial features as "faceless face" or something like that. I once read a relatively decent Slenderstory where they had him sitting at someone's kitchen table. Not standing. Sitting. With his legs kind of awkwardly stiff in front of him and his hands dragging on the floor. I literally laughed for three minutes as I imagined dear old Mr. Thin looking up at his latest target and saying, in that derptastic voice a certain LittleKuriboh gives him, "HIIIII GUUUUYYYS, ARE WE HAVING PANCAKES FOR BREAKFAST?" And if you wouldn't laugh at the idea of Slenderman asking you about breakfast foods, then you, dear reader, have no understanding of what "Narm" means.

Point is, the wrong choices in writing horror can ruin your scary moment fast, perhaps faster than in any other genre. Just like writing a sex scene incorrectly can kill the fantasy fuel instantly for your reader, so too can incorrectly written suspense and horror kill any sort of tension and fear your reader has built up. For example, done correctly, the Slenderman scares the living fuck out of me, because I have actually experienced the kind of worry and paranoia he inspires in his victims and the idea of something subtly, patiently screwing with my head freaks me out so damn much. But if not written correctly, I'm more liable to snark at him and want to give the guy a hug, even if he's ripping your protagonist to bloody little shreds. Done correctly, the idea of a tiny spider slowly inching towards me on a thread would terrify me, but normally I am not scared of spiders, at all (gasp! A girl not scared of spiders? What is this blasphemy?!). Good horror builds and builds, offering no hope of release from tension until the author wants to let you go. As a horror reader, you are ideally at the mercy of the horror author - you're their captive audience, their willing victim, and they as a result get to screw with your head for the duration of the story... that is, if the story is good and they do a decent job of putting you in the right frame of mind.

This brings me to the point of this blog entry. While pasta-binging, I stumbled across the Creepypasta Wiki's how-to guide on writing Creepypastas, and thought it was a good read. Good enough that I feel it should carry over for all horror writing, and even for writing in general. If you'd like to read the whole thing in their words, that's right here. But as for this site, here's my paraphrasing of their guide and some added explanation. These are rules you really should follow and consider with any writing, but since it focuses on horror writing, that's what I'll stick to.

We'll start off like the guide does by pointing out the three basic types of fear you can instill in a reader:

  • Shock: The simplest, and most often abused, way to scare a reader is to shock them emotionally. This can be anything from a jumpscare to gore. Shock horror is great for the twist ending, that last stab-in-the-gut when the reader least expects it. However, it's often abused for the sake of cheap scares, and is best used as a resolution to other types of fear.
  • Paranoia: Paranoia is that sense that something is not quite right, that they might not be alone when they think they are or that they might not be able to find a good resolution. Paranoia is used to unnerve the reader, to make them doubt their own surroundings and, if you're really good, even their own beliefs about things. This type of fear is good for slow tension-building and psychological horror stories.
  • Dread: This type of fear is the horrible sense that something bad is definitely going to happen, but no resolution has occurred to answer that hanging, awful question of "Well, what is going to happen?" It happens when a reader connects deeply enough to the story that they themselves begin to fear the events therein. Inspiring dread in a reader is tricky, since not everyone fears the same exact things, but it is a powerful type of fear, the type of things that grow in your nightmares and that you can transplant into the reader's if you're really good.

Now, I mentioned that not everyone has the same fears, and that's true. But there are some fears almost everyone finds scary, and that can be useful no matter what horror tale you're telling to instill the above types of fear in the reader:

  1. The biggest thing, and what I'd argue almost all fear stems from? The unknown. People are terrified of not knowing the answer to something, of not comprehending something, of not having anything to explain what's going on. As I've said before, this is the reason the Slenderman is scary - we can't explain him, we can't read him, and we don't know for sure what happens to his victims. If you stay ambiguous enough, you can hit the reader with a sudden gut-punch of a revelation at the end of the story, giving an otherwise lame shock ending the power it needs to impact the reader. By extension, anything not clearly defined can be terrifying. If you give vague descriptions, or if a photo is blurry or static-obscured, your reader has to draw their own horrific conclusions...
  2. Things happening to the body - gore, disease, mutilation, body horror. Parts where there shouldn't be any, missing features that should be there, the injury of sensory organs (especially eyes and fingers)... there is a lot to tap into there. The potential to disturb and strike fear into the viewer here is immense, and if you're descriptive enough, it can be downright nightmarish to read. People fear this because it reminds them of their vulnerability and of death, which in turn reminds them of how scary the unknown is...
  3. Science, technology, and the new. It evokes a lot of fears - to name a few, you can use technology to evoke the fear of losing pace with the world, of being replaced, of being injured, of being out of control of your world, of treacherous images, of being exposed... or of being forgotten. Pictures, as a subset of this, are quite creepy when they show things they shouldn't, or move when they shouldn't. Hell, even cameras are scary if you think about it, since they capture your image at one point in time, a point in time that could be crucial... is it any wonder that some people think these ever-present, mechanical eyes might steal pieces of your soul upon use?
  4. Mirrors and lllusions. When we look in a mirror, we don't see a real object - we're seeing an image. That is, something not really there, or worse... something we didn't know was there before. Mirrors can distort and bend our image, mirrors can be used to confuse. Illusions, whether optical or otherwise, show us that we can't trust our own eyes some of the time, that our brains are easily fooled. If you're surrounded by Illusions, it brings up the nagging question of, "What exactly is reality, and what exactly is imaginary?" As you'd imagine, you can really, really milk this for psychological horror and paranoia.
  5. Abandonment. People don't like to know they're alone, isolated, that they have nothing and nobody to turn to. It evokes the fear of being helpless and vulnerable, or even of being forgotten entirely. Abandoned places are that way for a reason. We wonder about those abandoned places, and in our wonderings, we can think up some pretty nightmarish things. Children around that private section of woods keep disappearing. There are strange noises coming from that old, abandoned house. Something in the old crawlspace we don't use keeps whispering and scratching at the walls. Why? That's where you, the horror author, comes in, providing the worst possible scenario to answer those questions...
  6. Faces. Whether your monster has a normal one, an abnormal one, or none at all, you can describe teeth, eyes, faces, and even facial expressions in such a way that it scares the shit out of your reader. The more descriptive you get, the more your reader can imagine what it looks like, and they are as a result forced to visualize it.
  7. Children, especially little girls. "Creepy Child" is a trope for a reason, folks: if you have a child, especially a little girl in your story, it becomes creepier. The big reason for this is that people associate children, particularly female children, with innocence, and tampering with or otherwise twisting that innocence is not just creepy, it's downright horrifying. As with any expectation, the moment you invert it, it becomes creepy. Just be aware that creepy children are rather overused...

This is all just a starting point, remember, so don't be afraid (pun semi-intended) to use what scares you as a jump-off point for your story!

So, now that we know what kinds of fear there are, and what things can be considered scary, how do you get these feelings to show through the storytelling? That's where tension-building comes in. Now, you probably have a lot of questions about how to do this, such as:

  • Anonymity, or specifics? The short answer is that you should describe things well, but keep details subtle until your big reveal. The long answer, well...
    • Anonymity can be good if you're trying to keep certain things vague for the sake of tension-building (for example, never showing the antagonist's face to set the reader up for a horrific face-revealing turn at the end), but beware of being too anonymous! If you leave every detail vague, you end up with a story that at best, is unbelievable, and at worst, sounds too much like a cliched campfire story. If you're telling a creepypasta, be more specific, but if your story is a short tale, you can afford to leave out some specifics.
    • Specifics are useful to clarify what's happening, and to whom. You don't need to name the exact town it takes place in, or the exact time period (unless it's a period piece), but you do need to be clear enough in your description for your reader to know what's going on and where it's going on. What's scarier to you? Reading about a fictional monster? Or having enough details to think that, hey, this might actually exist... specifics are what urban legends live and feed upon. Use wisely!

  • How should I start out building the tension? Generally, there's two scenarios you can use:
    • In Media Res. This phrase is Pretentious Latin for "In the middle of", in this case, in the middle of the action. Be careful with this, I can't overestimate that enough for you! If written poorly, you end up starting a story about a character we haven't even met and therefore don't care about. If written well, however, you can begin with a real attention-grabber. Just don't make it too blatant and use your words right to establish some of your protagonist's character, and you should be alright.
    • Reel-'Em-In. I call it this because you start slow and build the horror. You begin semi-normally, maybe injecting a few little details to indicate that something isn't quite right here as bait for the reader. Then, once you have them hooked and reading, you reel them in by building suspense slowly, higher and higher, more and more, and then hitting them with the punch at the end. You can do this as a slow, steady build, or in stages. That is, you can continuously reel the reader in... or you can reel in a reader, hit them with a little punch, reel them in more, hit them with another little punch, reel them in more... you get the idea.

  • How detailed should the story be? The answer is, as detailed as you can make it without becoming tedious. You don't need, for example, to explain someone's walk to the store to buy bread in ten paragraphs if it's not a core part of your story. Does something important to the main plot happen on that walk? If not, then you can summarize it. Is the whole story taking place during one walk to the store? If so, add many details, but don't add details to things that are unnecessary. If the Slenderman is standing under a streetlight across the street from your protagonist, don't waste time describing the leaves on the tree next to the streetlight, the goddamn Slenderman is standing across the street from your protagonist! The best thing to do when describing stuff is to describe as well as you can, as if you're viewing it in real life. Describe all the little details. Give all the little nuances. Give sensory images - what does it smell like, feel like, sound like, etc.? But don't use pretentious words for the sake of using pretentious descriptive words, that's called purple prose and it's unrealistic that a character would describe things with that amount of detail.

  • How long should the story be? That really depends on the story. Creepypasta is best when it's not too long, and in fact it's a form of microfiction, but short stories in general shouldn't drag on either. Don't, as I stated above, focus so much on extraneous details that you lose progress of the plot. Think of your plot as a river - it needs to flow well to progress downstream to the resolution. Now, when you add a bunch of extra stuff to the river, like rocks and dirt and sand, what happens? You impede the flow of your river and at worst the river overflows the banks and floods out nearby houses. Water can't flow through a clog, and a story can't flow through unnecessary details. If you can explain something minor in a few sentences, for the love of all things holy, please do it. If you don't, it gets tedious to read and your readers will get bored.

  • Should I use death in my story? Death's scary, right? Well... yes and no...
    • As an ending, it's not scary. People... died. And then?
    • As a subject, it's overdone. Yes, death is scary, but people die all the time in horror stories. Death is cheap in horror stories.
    • Murder is not shocking either. Serial killers? Not shocking, unless you have a really, truely sadistic torturer as your serial killer, and even then it has to push the limits. Slashers are overrated. There's a reason people watch those films - 1) to get nookie from easily scared overly girly girlfriends, and 2) to root for the bad guy. I watch Friday the 13th to see Jason kill teenaged morons that look like they're 20 years old. Not to be scared.

  • Should I have my characters try to fight the horrific being/events? The answer to this is another question. Would it be feasible to do so? Most of the time, no, it wouldn't. I'm going to once more take the Slenderman as an example.
    • Yes, fight him. Okay, that would probably end in horrible failure. If they defeat him, it diminishes his power because it makes him look defeatable, which is probably not ideal for several reasons. You can try to pull this off if there's a catch; I did that with my short Slenderfic The Hunted. However, this isn't realistic. Think of it this way - would you, in real life, run up to an 8-foot-tall faceless tentacle monster and punch it? If you wouldn't, and you probably wouldn't, then neither should your protagonist. Unless you're doing this as a set-up to...
    • No, don't fight him, try to avoid him instead. This is a lot more realistic and provides more mileage for Slendy (in this case) to become more and more difficult to avoid or ignore. It makes him seem more threatening, because he's persistant as all hell. There's nothing more terrifying than a monster that just won't stop attacking or following you even if you're far away from it, because it implies predatory intent.
    • They can't fight it, because they don't know he's even there. This is pretty difficult to pull off with Slenderman since half of his fear is him being in places you least expect, but I suppose if you do a story where you have him not show up until the end while dropping hints that he's there, or make it look like he's there but never is until, BIG TWIST!, he was watching the whole damn time. But anyway, you can do some heavy tension building with this, because while you're aware, the protagonist never is. Be careful though, because it can easily become narm if done wrong.

  • What point of view should this story be told from? Well...
    • There's the first-person POV, where you put yourself as the protagonist. This is the type of story I most often write because I find it the easiest to write in for me. If you're writing from your human point of view, you can do a lot of detail-setting. as the Creepypasta wiki guide points out, scared people have heightened senses as part of the Fight or Flight response - the quietest sounds, the quickest movements, the slightest of winds on their face or the softest of fingertips down their back... Just make sure you only reveal what the narrator knows, not what you personally know about the story you're writing. As for writing as if you're the monster... yeah, probably not the best idea, especially for a Creepypasta. I know I did it with I, Slenderman, but the intent with that story was not really to scare so much as to explore the Slenderman as a character. Don't use you being the monster as a twist ending. It's not scary, it's just overdone.
    • Then there's Second Person, where you write from the reader's point of view. Use judiciously, it can be considered pure narm, or it can be considered scary as balls. I'd... not recommend using this POV, it's too easy to do wrong.
    • And then there's Third Person, when you write from a named character's point of view. This is an easy way to write a story, maybe the easiest POV to write in, but you need to describe well with it. You need to describe the character's actions, feelings, motives, everything, just as with First-Person.

One more thing we should discuss before discussing how to start or end a story - word choice. Grammar and punctuation, of course, are important, but word choice can make or break a horror story. What are you trying to imply about an action, scene, or moment in time? Let's take a break from Slendy for a second, and use the Rake for this one. One of the Rake's traits is that it speaks to its victims in a creepy, inhuman whisper. Consider the implications of the following lines:

  1. It whispered to me lowly in a voice like gravel and grit.
  2. It spoke to me softly in a rough tone.

Which is the more descriptive? Which is the more interesting? Which just... sounds right for the Rake's whispering, inhuman voice? Here's another set:

  1. The beast lunged at me, a roar of rage escaping its slavering maw.
  2. The creature launched itself at full speed, an angry screech tearing from between its glistening fangs.

Both of those sentences could be used for different scenarios, depending on what you want to imply about your monster in this case. Word choice can mean the difference between your monster having slimy tentacles or sticky ones, between a subtle nuance that hits the reader later, or a huge punch that hits the reader right now. Words are tools and weapons, choose them well.

And now, the really big question... how the hell do I start/end this thing, anyway? Let's break that into starting a story, and ending a story.

  • Starting your story can be one of the trickier bits of writing fiction. One of the best ways to do this is to imagine what you want to happen as your big punch in the story, your climax, and move back from there. What series of events might lead to someone discovering that their friend was harboring alien parasitic ants? What causes someone to figure out that the club they joined was actually an eldritch-abomination-worshipping cult and now they will become the next sacrifice to it? Start with a simple idea for something scary and put it in a non-scary scenario. Slenderman in a forest is not scary, we expect him to be there. Going to work, leaving to go to the bathroom for five seconds, and then returning to find the building suddenly abandoned and Slenderman in the building with you? That's actually kind of a terrifying concept. You can also try outlines or other preplanning methods; they never personally work for me, but they might work for you.
  • Ending your story can be tough because it's hard to figure out how to end on the right note sometimes. There's typically three types of endings that horror stories employ:
    • Open. This ending inspires paranoia because there's no resolution. We don't know what happened to the monster or scary thing, or to the protagonist. There's no end to the tension and that's a pretty distressing feeling. It leads people to wonder if "it" is still out there or not, whatever "it" might be.
    • Wrap-Up. If you go for this, be aware that while it gives a resolution and good end, it might not scare the reader. It's not as powerful an ending in horror as it is in other genres, because we know the definite fate of the antagonist and protagonist.
    • WTF Happened? This ending ends on a mysterious note and can be effective when it leads a reader to draw their own conclusions about the outcome. It should make the reader curious enough to wonder, but not so curious that they ask, "And then... ?" Use judiciously.

One more thing. Horror can be a genre full of cliches and tropes like any other genre. Now, Tropes Are Not Bad, but they can be overdone. So, be careful with using anything included in this list right here.

That's all! Now go forth, write horror, scare the reader... and try not to look out the window... >:3

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