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If you are anything like me, then you are on the hunt to find what makes a truly excellent horror story. I can honestly say that I have read my fair share of horror, novels and short stories alike, in order to dissect what makes good horror. While I might not have entirely cracked the code of creating hair-raising stories, there are a few themes that seem to run constant in top-shelf horror. Hopefully, these ideas will help you in your own horror crafting, as they have certainly helped me in mine.
Tip One: Make People Give a Damn
This first tip seems rather obvious, but I can’t tell you how many horror stories I have read where this concept has gone by the wayside. And, I believe that this element is what distinguishes, in large part, the subpar horror stories from the truly terrifying ones.
For example, one of the reasons why Stephen King is hailed as the “king” of horror, is because he truly makes us care about the characters. He might spend a lot of time setting up the backstory, but he gives us time to see what drives the characters, and what their worst fears are. Then, when all hell breaks loose, we truly feel for them, because their pain becomes our pain.
In other words, make your characters relatable, give them depth. You probably don’t want your readers rooting for your villain because he/she/it is the only interesting character.
Tip Two: Don’t Overdo the Gore
I know what some of you splatter lovers might be thinking. “The gore is pretty much essential to the genre!” Right?
Wrong! At least, when it comes to writing. Granted, in film, gore can be an effective tool in conveying horror, such as in The Human Centipede (affiliate link) and Hostel (affiliate link) lines of horror. However, for writing, it can detract from the story, especially if done badly or overdone.
For example, think of the scariest books that you have read. Were they particularly gory? Chances are, they might have had some blood and gore, but probably not an overwhelming amount. For me, the most terrifying book I have ever read was Hell House (affiliate link), by Richard Matheson. It was a little gross, but not enough to be detracting, and the gore contributed directly to the story. It was, by far, the psychological impact of the story that resonated with me, and stayed with me long after I had finished it.
Holding back the gore might seem like a completely counterintuitive thing to do, especially when crafting horror, but it does allow the reader to focus on the psychological aspects of the terror that is inherent in the written medium.
Tip Three: Contrast Fear with Humor
Humor might not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning the next big thing of horror. Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate the use of it in the horror genre.
Think about this: think about the last fake-out jump scare you encountered in a creepy movie, or the last time you went through a haunted house. Or even, the last time you rode a rollercoaster. Were you scared? Probably. But, were you laughing after the immediate danger had passed?
I’m not sure what psychological truth intertwines fear and humor together, or if the psychologists of the world even know. Perhaps it is the relief that we are still alive after riding that rollercoaster through its terrifying, hairpin loops, or maybe it’s something else. But, don’t ignore the foil that it creates when pitted against fear. If nothing else, it will create interesting pacing, and help to break the monotony of a dark tone and mood.
Tip Four: Give the Antagonist Motivation
I cannot even begin to explain to you how much it irks me when the only explanation for a (human) villain’s actions is an abstract concept that we call “pure evil.” What the hell does evil even mean, when we get down to it?
That is what I want to know, especially as a reader, and the question that remains unanswered in so many countless stories. I want to know what caused the degradation of the antagonist’s psyche, what caused them to commit such heinous acts that a regular person would not think to do. Stephen King’s The Shining (affiliate link) is probably the best example I could use here. Jack Torrance committed some heinous acts, but King gives us an indication of what made him susceptible to committing these acts, such as giving us peeks into his childhood.
In essence, I might not want the explanation in detail, or an elaborate backstory, but I want an indication of why they did what they did, other than simply being “evil.”
Tip Five: Use the Common Human Fears
Some of the scariest books I have read have to do with ordinary monsters that were turned extraordinarily hideous. A recent novel I read (beware of upcoming spoilers), The Hatching (affiliate link), by Ezekiel Boone, took spiders – an ordinary thing that most people are afraid of – and made them hellishly horrifying. IT (affiliate link), by Stephen King, does the same. People fucking hate clowns, but he made them all the more terrifying by creating Pennywise, the demented, sewer-dwelling clown.
By using the common human fears, the horror will appeal to a wide audience. But, don’t forget to be original in the use of your monsters and making them extraordinarily, uniquely terrifying. Otherwise, your story will probably fall flat into the grave of uninteresting, overdone monsters.
Do you have any other tips you would like to share, splatter lovers? Let me know in the comments!