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15 Best Horror Authors You Must Read

Here are 15 of the best horror authors and their most well-known works. 

The best-selling horror novels will send a shiver up your spine and leave you reeling for days, if not weeks, on end. Whether you’re looking for a classic ghost story or real-life serial killer scares, these 15 horror story authors are a great option to keep you up at night and leave you rattled during the day. Browse our list of the best books in the horror fiction niche and find where to get them on Amazon. And if horror is your thing, check out our spooky adjectives for your next story.

Best Works 

Final word on the best horror authors and their books , what do i need to look for in a great horror writer, how do i choose a horror novel to read, how scary is too scary, what authors from the 1800s inspired horror films, who are the most famous gothic horror authors, who is the best-selling horror author, best authors reading list.

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1. Stephen King

Stephen King

Stephen King is arguably one of the best horror writers on this list and one of the most popular among horror fans. His first professional sale was in 1967 for a short story published in Startling Mystery Stories . His debut novel Carrie was published in 1971, and King continues to publish short stories and horror books to this day over six decades later. King is a New York Times bestselling author and lives with his wife, sharing their time between Maine and Florida depending on the season.

  • Pet Semetary ,  $13.99
  • The Shining , $8.99
  • The Stand , $9.99
  • Carrie , $8.99
  • ‘Salem’s Lot , $8.99

2. Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker is synonymous with vampires, having written the original  Dracula.  Originally named Abraham Stoker, this Irish gothic author lived between 1847 and 1912, when he died after suffering several strokes. In 1987, the  Bram Stoker Award  was established and has been awarded every year since 1988. Popular Bram Stoker Award winners include other horror authors on this list, like Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and more. 

  • Dracula ,  $3.99
  • Dracula’s Guest , $0.00
  • The Jewel of Seven Stars , $0.99

3. Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Born in 1916, American author Shirley Jackson wrote horror books like  The Haunting of Hill House,  published in 1959, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle . The latter is regarded as one of the best ghost stories of all time. Sadly, Jackson passed away in 1965 before her work found mainstream success. Looking for more sci-fi novels to add to your reading list? Check out our round-up of the best authors, like Stephen King .

  • The Haunting of Hill House ,  $11.99
  • The Letters of Shirley Jackson , $14.99
  • We Have Always Lived In the Castle , $12.99
  • Dark Tales , $5.99

4. Clive Barker

Clive Barker

English man Clive Barker  is a well-known playwright, film director, and horror author. Clive Barker merges horror and high fantasy, refusing to abide by the traditional rules. His debut set of short stories, The Books of Blood , received high praise from Stephen King.

Several of his stories have been made into movies, including Hellraiser and Candyman . In addition, Barker received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on Gods and Monsters , a period drama published in 1998 about the last days in the life of another esteemed film director, James Whale.

  • Books of Blood, Volume 1 ,  $3.99
  • The Hellbound Heart , $11.99
  • Weaveworld , $3.99

5. Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz is another popular New York Times bestselling author with some of the best horror novels and novellas under his belt. It’s hard to decide which book of his is the scariest; there are so many to choose from.

Whether you’re looking for a horror story about phantoms, ghosts, serial killers, or even horror novels with a bit of science fiction thrown in, Koontz is an ideal choice. Koontz’s horror books read quickly despite their intimidating volume, keeping readers on their toes and guessing about what may be coming next. You might be interested in exploring horror books, such as the best Michael Crichton books .

  • The Other Emily ,  $2.49
  • 77 Shadow Street , $9.99
  • The Lost Soul of the City , $1.99
  • The Servants of Twilight , $7.99
  • The Night Window: A Jane Hawk Novel , $9.99

6. Anne Rice

Anne Rice

Anne Rice is best known for her series The Vampire Chronicles , including the novel Interview With a Vampire . The first book in the series introduced us to Lestat and Louis, later played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the movie of the same name. Since 2008, Rice has sold more than 80 million copies of her debut novel, which remains one of the best books about vampires in the entire horror genre. Sadly, she passed away in 2021.

  • The Vampire Chronicles,  $8.99
  • Blackwood Farm,  $8.99

7. Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allen Poe is perhaps one of America’s most beloved poets and short story authors, having written classic works like The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart . Poe lived between 1809 and 1849, with his death being just as mysterious as his life. A great deal of speculation surrounds his manner and cause of death, which is technically marked as “phrenitis,” a condition that caused brain inflammation and was often used in cases where the actual cause was unknown.

  • The Raven ,  $0.00
  • The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories , $2.99
  • The Fall of the House of Usher , $0.99

8. H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft  is an acclaimed short story author from Rhode Island, born in August of 1890 to parents Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft. H.P. showed an early interest in the English language, reciting poetry at just two years of age.

He began reading a year later at the age of three and writing his own work at around six. Lovecraft suffered from severe mental illness throughout his life and later supported himself through ghostwriting and revising work for other authors. He died in March of 1937 of intestinal cancer. 

  • The Call of Cthulhu ,  $3.99
  • At the Mountains of Madness ,  $7.89
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward , $3.99
  • H.P. Lovecraft Tales of Horror , $7.99

9. Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is one of the most awarded authors in the horror book genre. He has been awarded the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association, and the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention. Campbell is described by The Oxford Companion to English Literature as “the most respected horror writer” in all of Britain. He currently resides in Merseyside.

  • The Darkest Part of the Woods
  • Born to Dark
  • The Searching Dead
  • Alone With The Horrors

10. Richard Matheson 

Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson is a popular science fiction, horror, and fantasy author and screenwriter. Many of his books have been adapted for the big screen, some more than once, such as  I Am Legend,  most recently starring well-known actor Will Smith.

Matheson published his first short story at just eight years old, inspired by the 1939 movie  Dracula . After serving during World War II, he attended the University of Missouri, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. Matheson died at age 87 in his Los Angeles home in 2013. 

  • Hell House ,  $11.99
  • I Am Legend , $0.99
  • What Dreams May Come , $11.99
  • A Stir of Echoes , $11.99
  • Somewhere In Time , $8.99

11. Peter Straub

Peter Straub

Peter Straub  is a famous American poet and novelist with dozens of horror fiction books under his belt. Having co-written  The Talisman  with fellow horror author and close friend Stephen King, Straub has left a significant mark on the genre.

His unique works have enjoyed literary success, winning the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Straub enjoys spending time with his family in his Milwaukee brownstone in his spare time. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Straub’s adult children also found careers in writing and film. 

  • Koko (Blue Rose Trilogy Book 1) ,  $8.99
  • Mystery (Blue Rose Trilogy Book 2) , $2.99
  • The Throat (Blue Rose Trilogy Book 3) , $8.99 
  • Ghost Story , $9.99
  • Floating Dragon: A Thriller , $7.99

12. Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury  is a cherished American author of short stories and poetry. Born in Illinois in 1920, Bradbury spent his childhood in small towns, an aspect of his life that he would use to flavor his work throughout his lifetime.

He died in Los Angeles, California, in 2012 after a long career of successfully publishing more than 50 novels and over 400 short stories. Bradbury is best known for  Fahrenheit 451 , a dystopian novel named after the temperature at which books burn, depicting a future society where literature is illegal.

  • Fahrenheit 451: A Novel ,  $12.99
  • The Martian Chronicles , $9.49
  • The Illustrated Man , $10.99 
  • Dandelion Wine (Greentown Book 1) , $15.99
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes (Greentown Book 2) , $3.99

13. Dan Simmons 

Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons is an American writer of horror books and science fiction literature. He began his career by publishing his work in the  Twilight Zone Magazine,  winning first place. Simmons has since won the World Fantasy Award for his work on  Song of Kali,  the Locus Award for his  Seasons of Horror  series,   the Bram Stoker Award, and has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award. One facet that separates Simmons’ work from other horror authors is that he often blends genres to create wholly unique worlds that transport readers somewhere else entirely. 

  • Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) ,  $3.99
  • The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 2) , $5.99
  • Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 3) , $7.99
  • Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 4) , $8.99
  • Children of the Night: A Vampire Novel , $11.99

14. Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne Du Maurier

Born in 1907, Daphne Du Maurier  is the author of the esteemed horror novel  Jamaica Inn , a thrilling mystery about a woman who moves in with her Aunt and Uncle to a home located in a dangerous part of town. Although Du Maurier is most well known for her romance novels, most of her writing has elements of horror and the paranormal woven in to create a multilayered work of fiction. Du Maurier, aka Lady Browning, passed away in 1989.

Looking for more? Check out these essays about Frankenstein .

  • Jamaica Inn , $14.40
  • Rebecca , $14.86
  • Frenchman’s Creek , $12.66
  • The House on the Strand , $7.99
  • The King’s General , $2.99

15. Jack Ketchum

Jack Ketchum

Jack Ketchum  (real name Dallas Meyr) is a popular American novelist with a penchant for writing best-selling horror. Stephen King has called Ketchum “the scariest guy in America.” Ketchum spent time as a lumber salesman, teacher, performer, and literary agent to make ends meet between publishing novels.

Five of Ketchum’s books have been adapted to the big screen, and his work  The Crossings  was mentioned in a speech at the National Book Awards in 2003 by Stephen King. Sadly, he died in 2018 after a long battle with cancer at the age of 71. You might also be interested in these articles about Frankenstein .

  • The Girl Next Door ,  $1.99
  • Off Season ,  $3.99
  • Offspring , $3.99
  • The Woman , $4.99
  • Red , $3.99

If you fancy trying your hand at writing fiction, check out our list of the best books to help you along the way.

Read one of these great horror books by some of the genre’s most well-known and beloved writers if you’re looking for a great scare. Good horror authors will be able to draw you into their original storylines and thrilling plots, regardless of which book or short story you select. Social Media is a great place to connect with your favorite horror authors. Check out our post on the best authors to follow on Twitter .

FAQ on the Best Horror Authors

The greatest horror writers aren’t always the ones with the most published novels. Instead, seek authors that employ topics you enjoy, like romance or science fiction components. Book reviews are a great way to find out what other people have to say about the work but beware of potential spoilers.

To begin with, you shouldn’t judge a book by what’s on the cover. So ignore recommendations, imagery, and even the title. Instead, skim through the first few chapters to see whether you enjoy the horror writer’s style and if you can immediately envision the characters, setting, and other key horror story elements.

There’s no limit on the scariest of scares. Horror authors are constantly pushing the boundaries of thought-provoking literature, delivering chills and thrills with every novel. Reading reviews can help you identify any potential triggers to avoid books with particular themes that may be especially upsetting. 

Horror isn’t a new phenomenon, with some of the classic books within the genre even going on to inspire some contemporary horror films. For instance, Frankenstein was first published in 1818 and there have been at least 20 movies made that were inspired by the story . Dracula (1897) is another iconic 1800s horror novel that has inspired its fair share of film adaptations .

Bram Stoker is probably the most famous classic horror author. His masterpiece, Dracula, continues to inspire writers within this genre. There is even an annual festival dedicated to his work in Dublin each year.

When discussing best-selling authors, it is difficult to look past Stephen King. It has been estimated that King has now sold over 350 million books. His work has also had countless television and film adaptations.

Best Historical Fiction Authors

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Best Romance Authors

story writers horror

Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.

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Try These Books on Writing to Make Your Horror Fiction Bleed

Write what scares you.

books on writing horror

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re in, writing—and doing it well—is a challenge. Your job is to bring characters to life in ways that evoke emotions in your reader. And when it comes to horror, one of the primary emotions you seek to provoke? Fear. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll bring a lot of other emotions to life if you’re writing a fully developed story, but at the heart of a horror story is an exploration of what scares us the most.

So how do you create vivid monsters and captivating villains and scenes that drip with tension? We went through piles of craft books and found seven books that have the best advice, interviews, tips, tricks, and analyses on how to write compelling horror stories.

Essential Tips for Aspiring Horror Writers

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association

By Mort Castle

There’s nothing better than getting writing advice from the greats, and this book has some of the biggest names in horror to guide you. 

On Writing Horror is not as much a step-by-step lesson on craft, but more a broad perspective on horror as a genre and industry. Voices like Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, and more offer a wide range of thought and explore the essence of horror from a variety of viewpoints. With 58 essays, there is something for every writer at every stage of their career.

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association

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The Horror Writer: A Study of Craft and Identity in the Horror Genre

The Horror Writer: A Study of Craft and Identity in the Horror Genre

By Joe Mynhardt

If you’re looking for the ultimate book diving into everything from craft to rejection to finding your creativity while under pressure, this is the book for you.

Filled with essays from Bram Stoker Award winners and bestselling authors, The Horror Writer offers insight into how to handle rejections, elevate your craft through effective scenes, create vivid and realistic characters, and avoid cliché horror tropes. Sprinkled between essays are interviews in which authors delve into the challenges they’ve faced and give a glimpse into their own creative process. It’s a fantastic guide for every horror author from indie to commercial, short fiction to novels, and everything in between.

The Horror Writer: A Study of Craft and Identity in the Horror Genre

40 Best Stephen King Quotes That Every Horror Fan Needs to Read

best stephen kings books

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King

There really is no one better to turn to for advice than the King of Horror himself. Part memoir, part craft master class, On Writing takes you through a variety of tools that Stephen King learned and used throughout his career. By sharing his own experiences, King manages to take an intimidating subject and make it approachable.

Whether you read it for the craft or to learn about the reality of life as one of the world’s most successful horror writers, this is a book you’ll return to again and again as your writing evolves.

best stephen kings books

Writing in the Dark

By Tim Waggoner

If you’re looking for a textbook on the horror genre, Writing in the Dark is it. Each chapter is structured to delve deep into how to compose a horror story, writing truly terrifying monsters, avoiding cliched tropes, leaning into the physiology of fear, and so much more. A teacher himself, Waggoner knows how to construct a lesson effectively and efficiently.

Woven within each chapter are also tips from some of the industry’s leading authors. But what makes this book stand out are the critical evaluations, ideas to help with developing your character arcs and plotlines, and references to help you with further research.

Writing in the Dark

8 Emerging Horror Authors Who Are Changing the Face of Horror

Where Nightmares Come From

Where Nightmares Come From

By Joe Mynhardt & Eugene Johnson

The first in a series of craft books from Crystal Lake Publishing, Where Nightmares Come From features articles and interviews exploring how to take an idea from its raw form into a finished horror story. The authors and editors inside these pages cover everything from short fiction, graphic novels , films, and novels.

Perfect for writers in all stages of your career, this is a go-to guide for ideas, new views on structure, exploring different types of fiction, and more.

Where Nightmares Come From

Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films

By Nina Nesseth

It might seem counterintuitive to study films instead of writing, but understanding the anatomy of what makes horror films work can help elevate your fiction. Nightmare Fuel is a deep analysis of the psychology and physiology of fear through the lens of horror films. Nesseth dissects why these movies either follow through with their promise to terrify you or fall flat. By the end, you’ll have a new way of looking at fear and will understand how audiences respond to stories in visceral ways.

Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films

On the Boundless Catharsis of Horror with Award-Winning Author Zin E. Rocklyn

Writing Scary Scenes

Writing Scary Scenes

By Rayne Hall

Sometimes the ideas you have in your head fizzle out on the page. Understanding how to insert the right amount of tension into a scene in a way that evokes a physical response is hard. Hall tackles how to insert fear into any scene by showing you techniques that will play with the readers' expectations to get the biggest emotional punch. Is your villain not scary enough? Is your climax not climactic enough? This short but powerful book will give you specific examples and applicable tips to take your draft from bland to memorable.

Writing Scary Scenes

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Horror Story Writing: 9 Tips for Writing Horror Fiction

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When I first started writing , I didn’t set out to be a horror genre writer.

I’ll admit I always loved genre fiction the most, and it still holds true.

Action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and yes, horror, but the latter in smaller doses.

Perhaps it was too many sleepless nights with the covers pulled up over my head after watching a scary movie on TV that kept me from fully embracing it at a young age.

But somewhere in my early teens, I discovered that the best way to dispel the ideas of the unknowns lurking in the dark was to embrace them .

To create them myself. I could control them, shape them to be whatever I wanted, and in doing so, discover the means to defeat them.

Horror movies and novels went from scary to exciting almost overnight, and I found my voice well suited to telling stories about otherwise ordinary people battling the extraordinary and supernatural. And the more I shared my ideas with others, the more I heard the same kind of response.

It wasn’t the monsters that they gravitated towards – it was the people and the struggles, both inner and outer, that they had to overcome in order to defeat those monsters.

horror monster

It’s the human condition that draws in horror lovers and the catharsis that comes with putting a name or face to our own fears. Like our protagonists , we may not always win, but just facing the unknown is enough of a victory in and of itself.

So if you find yourself writing a horror novel , short story, screenplay, or short film for the first time or the hundredth time, you need to know that it takes more than scares and monsters to craft a good horror story.

During a conversation with Konn Lavery on the All Outta Bubblegum Radio Show , we discussed great tips for writing horror stories. The following are our best tips for horror story writing!

  • Create Relatable Characters
  • Observe People’s Fears
  • Leverage News Stories
  • Incorporate Family Themes
  • Use Fear to Drive Choices
  • Evoke Impending Doom
  • Employ Darkness as a Theme
  • Explore Loss of Control
  • Add Depth to Your Horror Plot

This video was made by me using Pictory’s AI video editing software .

Horror Story Writing: 9 Tips for Horror Authors

1. create relatable horror-genre characters.

Horror Story Writing - Write Relatable Characters

A great horror story is a character-driven piece.

First, you get a sense of that person, then you start to relate to them, and finally, you put yourself in their shoes.

I find that isolation is key in this regard.

Explore the idea of your main character(s) being cut off from the world in some way during their adventure – this could be:

  • Physically – such as in a remote location or trapped inside a building or losing their means of communication
  • Mentally – such as having a break from reality or struggling with internal flaws, shortcomings, or inner demons and being unable to connect with others.

That way, when the scares begin, there’s nowhere to turn for help. The struggle becomes more personal and internal, and by default, more real. Then ask yourself:

  • What would I do in this situation?
  • How would I cope?
  • Would I be able to keep it together?

If you can relate to your character(s), then your audience will as well.

2. Pay Attention to People Around You

How to Write a Horror Story - observe people's fears

Find out what scares others. Start small and work your way up.

Think about and notice what little things scare people, such as phobias, which can be rational (such as fear of heights) or irrational (such as fear of cats).

Consider also what they say they don’t like because dislikes tend to lead to fear for many people. In addition, a lot of our negative emotions, such as anger or hate, come from that initial concept of fear, trickling all the way down to distaste.

The people around you will spark ideas that you may not have thought of before, both in what they do and what they say and especially in what scares them and how they cope with that fear.

3. Pay Attention to the News

How to Write a Horror Story - Leverage News Stories

The news is filled with frightening images and stories on a daily basis, from the local level to the global.

Whether it’s a small-town deviant preying on one or two people or a dictator bent on world domination, there’s always something both topical and frightening in each news cycle.

Use these real-life news stories as inspiration for your own horror story!

Just remember to temper your stories by gauging public interest. If there’s something that’s dominated headlines for a long time, people might be sick of hearing it by the time you craft a story around it.

horror news

So can you do something different?

Can you take it in a different direction or give it a unique spin?

If you simply rehash the news, even unintentionally, then your audience might just roll their eyes and lose interest before they’ve even started reading. Make it fresh!

4. Use the Theme of Family in Some Way

How to Write a Horror Story - incorporate family themes

Most people can relate to the theme of family.

Regardless of good or bad relations with those close to us, most people love their families (or at the very least stay connected with them in some way).

The biggest fear for most of those people is that something bad should happen to their loved ones. Remember, family is more than just blood relations – for many, it’s the friends and colleagues that surround us daily. The people we hold dear.

So imagine a scenario where your family is in danger and how you (that is, your protagonist) would react.

What range of feelings would you go through?

What lengths would you go to to keep them safe or get them to safety?

At what point would fear give way to anger or protective instincts?

These are all questions you can project onto your main character(s) as they face the danger that threatens their world.

5. Use Fear to Drive the Choices of Your Characters

How to Write a Horror Story - use fear to drive choices

Fear drives a lot of our choices in real life.

Fear of losing a job, fear of debt, fear of safety for our kids, fear of bad grades, fear of bullies, fear of crime… the list goes on.

horror movie fear

Regardless of what stage of life you may be in, there is always something to fear, and the choices we make daily reflect on how we cope with that feeling. And let’s face it, some cope better than others.

While that can be a difficult reality to get over, we can use our fears in our written work to both motivate and hold back our characters as something to either give into or overcome. The choices are limitless.

6. Use the Feeling of Impending Doom

How to Write a Horror Story - evoke impending doom

To build on the previous tip, but in a slightly different capacity, one irrational fear shared by many is the feeling that sooner or later, luck runs out and things will turn for the worse.

One way to use this in your horror stories is to foreshadow what might happen. Give words to the worst-case scenario as a driver for both the characters and the story.

That way, the reader and characters both will spend the story wondering if that other shoe will ever drop. Whether or not it does is up to you, but as Hitchcock once famously said,

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Alfred Hitchcock

7. Use Darkness as a Theme or Element

How to Write a Horror Story - Use darkness as a theme

It’s often good to use the idea of darkness in some way – a primal feeling we all share.

It’s funny when you think about it in our modern context because, what is darkness?

It’s just the absence of light. In and of itself, it’s not a scary thing, but it’s what the darkness represents that frightens us to this day.

What’s in the dark? Is it just a pile of clothes, or is it someone actually sitting there, watching us sleep?

Is it an empty room, or is there an unspeakable terror lurking just outside the field of vision?

Tap into that primal caveman fear of the unknown that’s been passed down to us on a genetic level since we first huddled in our caves for fear of being eaten, and use it to your best advantage in your horror stories.

8. Use the Feeling of Being “Out of Control”

How to Write a Horror Story - explore loss of control

Now, more than ever, we rely on technology and others around us for everything from food to heat to transportation and entertainment.

But what if you have no one to rely on but yourself?

Explore this idea with your characters – being cut off and having to face the unknown without help or technology or even a decent skill set.

We all feel in control thanks to the conveniences of the modern world, but what if you take those conveniences away?

Are you still in control?

darkness in horror writing

There’s a universal horror theme at play here, with which most people can relate because, though we’re not facing monsters or aliens in real life, all the daily challenges that we go through come down to our own abilities and willingness to face them.

And face them head-on.

9. Don’t Be Afraid to Add Depth to a Horror Plot !

How to Write a Horror Story - add depth to your plot

Great horror writing is more than just jump scares and gore.

Not to take away anything from good slasher fiction, which arguably peaked in the 80s, but it’s also what created a stigma around horror in general.

It’s good to shock your audience, but you need depth to keep them interested in the entire story.

Really dive into the complexity of emotions that your characters undergo over the course of the plot.

Write against type.

Avoid cliches.

Give us twists and surprises that subvert expectations more than just conjure up cheap scares!

Explore the genre in ways others haven’t considered, and flex your creative muscles!

Bonus tip: Go to horror or pop culture conventions to motivate yourself to write more stories for your readers!

Conventions are a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded authors and fans alike, make new friends, share ideas, and get a handle on the current trends, expectations, likes, and dislikes of your core audience and the industry as a whole.

And it’s a great way to showcase your work and introduce new fans to your horror novels and stories!

Check Out My Horror Novel, Iron Dogs

Iron Dogs Novel

Set in 1873 New Mexico, my novel, Iron Dogs , tells the story of six outlaws on the run who find themselves trapped in an abandoned town with a nightmarish creature that seemingly can’t be killed.

A stoic leader, a loyal blacksmith, a rebellious youth, a regretful bandit, a drunk trapper, and an injured comrade, each at odds with the others and fighting for their own survival as much as for the group.

And on the other side of that coin lie merciless bounty hunters, desperate cannibals, and an unstoppable force that preys on them all at will.

An otherwise classic Western turned on its ear to present a horror story unlike any other.

Available on Amazon as an ebook and author-narrated audiobook !

Final Thoughts: Tips for Writing Horror from a Published Horror Author

Writing great horror stories can be rich and rewarding.

You have the opportunity to take a premise built around simple drama or action and create something that’s at once complex and truly unique. And the best part is, you can scare your readers while doing it!

Horror writers know that great horror is about facing fear, and if the protagonist can do it, so can you, both a reader and a writer. So be inventive, be creative, and have fun.

Give us characters, situations, or creatures we haven’t seen before, but never lose sight of the humanity at the core of your story.

Make us feel more than just fear – make us care. Do that, and you’ll craft a great story, horror or otherwise!

And, if you’re having difficulty coming up with exciting plot points or descriptive characters, try using artificial intelligence (AI) story generator software programs!

These are fantastic at helping writers get through periods of writer’s block and find their creativity again!

Frequently Asked Questions about Writing a Horror Story

How do you start a horror story.

The key to starting a successful horror story is to create a feeling of dread in your reader. You can do this by establishing a dark and suspenseful atmosphere from the very beginning. Begin by setting the scene, introducing your characters , and giving readers a sense of what’s at stake. Then, raise the stakes by adding details that make the situation even more frightening. Be sure to keep the tension high throughout the story so that readers are constantly on edge, waiting to see what will happen next!

What are the 5 elements of horror?

The 5 elements of horror are suspense, fear, violence, gore, and the supernatural. These elements are used to create an atmosphere of horror and terror . Suspense builds tension and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Fear is used to invoke feelings of dread and terror. Violence is used to shock and repulse the reader. Gore is used when describing graphic and bloody scenes. The supernatural is used to create a sense of unease and horror. These elements are essential for creating a successful horror novel or short story .

What are some creepy names?

There are many ways to create creepy character names for a horror story. One approach is to choose names reminiscent of classic horror authors or stories that sound like they could belong to sinister or dangerous people. For example, you might use names like “Bram” or “Raven” for your characters. Another approach is to choose names that are unusual or out of the ordinary or that have dwindled in popularity. For example, names such as “Aldous” or “Coralena”, which were fairly popular once, or more exotic names such as “Anubis” or “Kali,” who are also well known in other cultures.

What makes a story scary?

The author must tap into our deepest fears to create a realistic horror story. Whether it is fear of the dark, fear of heights, or fear of spiders, horror stories exploit our primal instinct to survive. By playing on our natural fears, horror stories can create a world of suspense and terror. In addition, horror stories often rely on jump scares , unexpected noises, or gore to startle readers and heighten the sense of fear.

What are story elements that belong in a horror story?

The first element is a strong story structure . A horror story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with each section building on the last to create a sense of suspense and tension. The second element is well-developed characters. The reader should be able to empathize with the protagonist and understand their motivations. Otherwise, it will be difficult to care about their fate. The third element is a sense of rising action . The story should gradually become more and more suspenseful, leading up to a dramatic climax . Finally, the falling action should provide some resolution , but leave enough unanswered questions to keep the reader thinking after they’ve finished the story.

All Outta Bubblegum Radio Show #8 with Konn Lavery

Listen to the show at All Outta Bubblegum on Sound Sugar Radio – Episode 8

All Outta Bubblegum Neil Chase

On today’s show, I was joined by Konn Lavery .

Konn is a Canadian author whose work has been recognized by Edmonton’s top five bestseller charts and by reviewers such as Readers’ Favorite , Literary Titan , and The Wishing Shelf Awards . His work has also been curated into the Edmonton Public Library’s Capital Press collection.

Konn Lavery

He started writing stories at a young age while being homeschooled. After graduating from graphic design college, he began professionally pursuing his writing with his first release, Reality . He continues to write in the thriller, horror, and fantasy genres.

His literary work is balanced alongside his graphic design and website development business.

Konn’s visual communication skills have been transcribed into the formatting and artwork found within his publications, supporting his transmedia storytelling fascination. The previous works have also included musical scores primarily composed by Konn with occasional collaborators, also found within his audiobooks.

Selected Links from the Episode – Writing for Horror

Connect with Konn Lavery : Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Bookbub | Website | Podcast | Amazon | Patreon

3 Fantastic, Underrated Horror Movies That You May Not Have Seen

30 days of night, event horizon.

how to write a horror story

If you’re hoping to create your own horror story, check out my list of fantastic scary story prompts to get started!

Love the horror genre? Check out these other helpful articles!

Horror vs. Thriller: What’s the Difference For Movies & Books?

25+ Ways to Brainstorm Movie Ideas

How to Write a Story with Three-Act Structure [with Examples!]

The 40+ Best Horror Gifts for Horror Movie Fans

How to Write a Horror Story

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Neil Chase is an award-winning, produced screenwriter, independent filmmaker, professional actor, and author of the horror-western novel Iron Dogs. His latest feature film is an apocalyptic thriller called Spin The Wheel.

Neil has been featured on Celtx, No Film School, Script Revolution, Raindance, The Write Practice, Lifewire, and MSN.com, and his work has won awards from Script Summit, ScreamFest, FilmQuest and Cinequest (among others).

Neil believes that all writers have the potential to create great work. His passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, he's here to help!

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Brandon Cornett

How to Write Horror Fiction: Tips & Advice from the Masters

by Brandon Cornett | September 25, 2021

Want to know how to write horror fiction? Want to gain some insight and advice from true masters of the genre?

You’ve come to the right place. Below, I’ve gathered some writerly tips and advice from some of the best horror writers of past and present.

From the Pros: How to Write Horror Fiction

Keep the story moving. Write scenes that scare you. Channel your own pain. Embrace the unknown and uncontrollable. According to the masters, this is how to write horror fiction. So let me turn over it to them…

Stephen King: Keep the Ball Rolling

Stephen King headshot

We might as well start with the reigning king of horror fiction, Stephen King. Having written somewhere around a gazillion novels, King has some hard-earned wisdom to share on the craft of writing horror fiction.

His 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a riveting read. True to its title, much of the book is about his life as a writer.

But it also offers some insightful tips on how to write horror fiction — or any type of fiction, for that matter.

One of King’s suggestions is to keep the story moving, by using description sparingly.

As he puts it:

“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

Sure, there’s a time and place for details and description. But too much of it can bring a story to a grinding halt. So be selective. Above all, keep the story moving.

Dallas Mayr: Scare Yourself, if You Want to Scare Others

Dallas Mayr (who wrote under the pen name Jack Ketchum) knew how to write some truly disturbing horror fiction.

Sometimes his “monsters” lived right there in the neighborhood, as in The Girl Next Door . Sometimes they were cave-dwelling cannibals who hunted human prey, as in his novels Off Season and Offspring .

Dallas Mayr headshot

Some of his works might be too disturbing for some readers. But trust me when I tell you he was a master of the genre who is missed by a legion of fans. The man knew how to write.

Through his past interviews and correspondence, Dallas Mayr offered a wealth of advice on how to write horror fiction. One of his best tips for aspiring writers — scare yourself .

If you want to write scary-good horror fiction, you have to create scenes that scare you as the author. Your story should thrill and chill you. After all, how can you expect your work to frighten readers if it doesn’t even frighten you?

Here’s how Mayr explained it, in a 2011 interview for This Is Horror :

“I figure if I don’t scare myself, if I don’t feel that dread of what’s coming up next, I probably won’t scare you. But the same is true of any emotion or feeling I try to get down right on the page. If I’m doing comedy, I damn well better make myself laugh. If I’m doing tenderness, I want to feel that too—I want to bleed a little.”

That’s some sage advice for those who want to write horror fiction.

Anne Rice: Go Where the Pain Is

story writers horror

Anne Rice, the undisputed queen of vampire fiction, prefers to write about her own obsessions and personal pains. In addition to being a cathartic experience, this approach can help writers produce more meaningful fiction.

We all have pain in our past. We all have shadows that follow us, ghostly echoes of previous traumas or tragedy. Believe it or not, these things can help us write better horror fiction.

This isn’t so much a “technique” as a natural tendency. It’s a gravitation. The mind just goes there, all on its own.

Anne Rice says she is drawn to her own obsessions, including the dark chapters from her past. She incorporates these forces within her fiction.

Here’s how she puts it:

“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”

Her advice fits in with the theme of this article, how to write horror fiction. But it’s broader than that, too. Writers of all genres could benefit from adopting this philosophy. What pains lie in your past? How can you bring them into your story or novel?

Shirley Jackson: Analyze Your Own Fears

Gothic horror legend Shirley Jackson used a writing technique similar to what Anne Rice described above. The author of The Haunting of Hill House (and many other great works) said that she tried to understand her own fears and to channel them into her writing.

Shirley Jackson author photo

Want to know how to write horror fiction? This is where it begins.

You have to understand fear if you hope to evoke that kind of emotion in the reader. And where better to look than your own psyche?

Many horror writers take this approach to fiction writing. After all, our writing is a direct reflection of who we are and what we’ve been through in life. It mirrors our inner selves.

Here’s how Shirley Jackson described it:

“I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.”

Think about a time in your life when you were truly afraid. Think about the nature of your fear — how it was born, how it affected you, and what you were like on the “other side.” Channel that into your writing.

Victor LaValle: Write Until You’re Convinced

Victor LaValle, author of The Ballad of Black Tom , believes authors should find their own scenes and characters convincing. If you’re not convinced by some element of your story — if you don’t believe or accept it — you should see it as a red flag. You have more work to do.

Victor LaValle author photo

This isn’t necessarily a “how to write horror fiction” pro tip, but rather one author’s personal methodology. Still, it fits into the overall theme of this article.

Besides, any writer can benefit from this kind of self-criticism.

Think of this way: If you’re not convinced by a certain element in your horror story, how can you expect the reader to accept it?

This is how LaValle put it, during an interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books :

“There are plenty of times when it’s obvious to me that a scene, or a chapter, or a character, isn’t working. By that I mean they’re unconvincing. It doesn’t matter if we’re on Mars or in Montana, I simply don’t believe these characters in their actions, thoughts, or dialogue. That’s the easiest to deal with, in a way, because if I can see it’s false then I know other readers will, too.”

Adding to that, I would stress the importance of putting your work aside for a while, before editing or revising. When writing the first draft of a horror story or novel, writers tend to get caught up in the moment. We might write a scene and think it’s brilliant, simply because it’s fresh and new. A month later, we might review that same scene and see a dozen things that need fixing.

You’re probably here because you want to know how to write horror fiction — how to start a story and see it through to the end. But don’t overlook the importance of rewriting it.

Clive Barker: Embrace the Chaos

story writers horror

Clive Barker, the playwright and novelist who brought us Hellraiser , Candyman and the Books of Blood story anthologies , believes that horror fiction speaks to a lack of control.

With our technology, our science, and our relatively high brain-to-body-mass ratio, we humans like to think we’re in control. We think we have a pretty good grasp on things. (Most of us, anyway.)

But what happens when that control slips away? What happens when the universe throws us a curve ball or pulls the rug out from under our feet? Horror happens.

Here’s how Barker expressed it:

“Horror fiction has traditionally dealt in taboo. It speaks of death, madness and transgression of moral and physical boundaries. It raises the dead to life and slaughters infants in their cribs; it makes monsters of household pets and begs our affection for psychos. It shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”

This insight adds a universal element to our “how to write horror fiction” theme. Chaos. Helplessness. Lack of control. Most of us fear these things on a deep, primal level. We are born with such fears. They’re part of our DNA. So they certainly have a place within horror fiction.

P.S. If you’re an aspiring horror writer, but you haven’t yet read Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series, you might want to give them a look. Some of those stories are creepy. Some are downright gruesome. All are wonderfully written. They might teach you a thing or two about how to write horror fiction.

Lightning Round: Quick Tips on Writing Horror

Need more advice on how to write a horror novel or story? Welcome to the lightning round!

  • Come up with an original story idea readers haven’t seen before.
  • Or, put a fresh spin on familiar horror tropes (e.g., a haunted cruise ship).
  • Take the time to develop your characters before you introduce the horror.
  • Create authentic, three-dimensional characters (with flaws).
  • Reveal your character’s inner thoughts and fears, to help readers connect.
  • Horror isn’t about monsters, but the character’s reaction to monsters.
  • Give your story emotion. Let us know what the protagonist wants, and why.
  • Raise the stakes. Make sure your protagonist has a lot to lose.
  • Make the “monster” or villain mysterious for a while, to prolong suspense.
  • Remember that people are often the scariest monsters (see Buffalo Bill ).
  • At some point, force your protagonist to confront the evil / monster / threat.
  • The big “showdown” should come toward the end of the story (climax).
  • Leave some things to the reader’s imagination. Don’t over-describe.
  • Feel free to disorient your characters (and readers) by twisting reality.
  • Rewrite your scary scenes until even you find them frightening.
  • Be yourself. Channel your own fears and experiences into your story.
  • Read, read, and read some more. It will help you learn the craft.

So there you have it, a crash course on how to write horror fiction. I hope you found some useful tips, techniques and strategies in this article, and wish you well in your writing endeavors.

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How to Write Horror Featured

  • Scriptwriting

How to Write Horror — Horror Writing Tips for Fiction & Film

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S o, you want to learn how to write a good horror story? Whether you want to know how to write a horror movie or how to write a horror book, the four steps outlined in this guide will get you started on the appropriate course of action and help you to align your creative goals. Writing horror isn’t all that different from writing for other genres, but it does require the right mindset and a creepy destination to work towards. Before we jump into the first of our four steps, let’s begin with a primer.

How to write horror

Before you get started.

The steps outlined in this ‘how to write horror’ guide assume that you already have a grasp over the fundamentals of writing. If you do not yet understand the basic mechanics of prose, screenwriting , or storytelling, then you might not get everything you need out of this guide. Luckily, we have a litany of informative resources that can bring you up to speed on everything you need to know.

If you intend to tell the  horror story  you have in mind as a screenplay, then the best way to fast track your screenwriting education might be to read through some of the  best screenwriting books  or to enroll in one of the  best online screenwriting courses .

Our guide to writing great scenes  is another good place to start, and our  glossary of screenwriting vocabulary  is a great resource if you encounter any unfamiliar terminology. When you’re ready to start writing, you can get going for free in  StudioBinder’s screenwriting software .

Now, we’re ready to jump into step one of our how to write horror guide. But, be warned, if you don’t already have a basic story concept in mind, you should consider that Step Zero.

There’s no concrete way to generate story ideas, but you can always look to creative writing prompts  and  indie films to kickstart inspiration .

HOW TO WRITE A HORROR MOVIE

Step 1: research and study.

Writing horror often begins by consuming great horror . We look to the stories of the past when crafting the stories of the present. Someone who has never read a horror novel or seen a horror film is going to have a much harder time writing horror than someone who is a voracious consumer of horror stories. By watching and reading, you can pick up plenty of tips for writing scary stories.

Before writing your opening line, be sure to do your research. It can be worthwhile to explore all manner of horror media. But for the purposes of this step, it’s best to focus in on the type of material you wish to create.

If you want to learn how to write a horror novel, then read as many horror novels as you can get your hands on. Our list of the  greatest horror films  ever made is a good place to conduct your research if you plan to write a horror screenplay. You can also check out our rundown of  underrated horror films for even more research.

Here are tips on how to write horror from the master himself, Stephen King. And, while you're at it, might as well catch up on the best Stephen King movies and TV based on his work!

How to write good horror  •  Stephen King offers horror writing tips

It’s important to go beyond simply reading and watching horror and to begin to analyze the material. Drill down into why certain decisions were made by the writer and try to figure out why certain elements work or don’t work. It can often be worthwhile to explore material you consider bad as well as what you consider good, so you can learn what not to do.

Check out our analysis of Midsommar   below for an example of how you can break down and explore the horror films that inspire you. You can also download the Midsommar script as a PDF to analyze the writing directly. You should check out our Best Horror Scripts post for more iconic script PDFs.

Midsommar Script Teardown - Full Script Download App Tie-In - StudioBinder

How to Write Horror  •   Read Full Midsommar Script

When consuming material to learn how to write a horror story, pay particular attention to the pacing and structure of the stories you’re inspired by. For example, if the style you find yourself most drawn to is slow-burn horror, then you might want to aim for a much slower pace than average with your story as well, but the build-up will become even more important.

Horror story writing

Step 2: decide your type of horror.

So, you’ve decided you’re writing horror, congratulations, you’ve settled on a genre. Now, it’s time to pick your sub-genre (s) and to decide on the specific avenue of horror to explore. There are many horror sub-genres to choose from. Just take a look at our ultimate guide to movie genres for quick rundown. And, check out the video below to see horror sub-genres ranked.

Ranking subgenres for inspiration  •  Horror story writing

Keep in mind that genres and subgenres can be mixed and matched in a multitude of combinations. For example, The Witch blends together the horror and historical fiction genres. From Dusk Till Dawn fuses action, crime-thriller, and vampire elements. And Shaun of the Dead fuses the horror and comedy genres by way of the zombie subgenre.

Our video essay below offers insights into Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s creative process. Check out our ranking of Edgar Wright’s entire filmography if you want even more.

How Edgar Wright writes and directs his movies  •   Subscribe on YouTube

Step Two is also the time to decide on the specific avenue you will exploit when writing horror. By “avenue of horror,” we mean the primary source(s) of tension and scares. Witches? Zombies? Cosmic horror? Body Horror ? Social Horror? These are all different avenues that your horror story can take on, and just like with genres and sub-genres, mixing and matching is encouraged.

A horror story that exploits kills and gore as its avenue of horror will be written in a much different manner than one that focuses on a sense of creeping dread and leaves more to the viewer or reader’s imagination.

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Step 3: Mine your fears and phobias 

You have decided on your genre and your avenue of horror, now it’s time to get more specific and drill deeper. For Step Three, go beyond asking what makes a story scary and instead figure out what makes your story frightening.

Depending on what you chose in Step Two, this might already be baked into your sub-genre and avenue of horror. For example, the home invasion sub-genre by nature mines a very real phobia that many people share.

The best home invasion films

However, if you chose to go with the zombie subgenre for example, you may need to work a little harder to discover what it is about your story that will scare audiences. Zombies on their own certainly hold the potential to be frightening, but audience overexposure to them throughout the years has gone a long way to lessen the scary impact they once had.

For examples of how to do it right, check out our rundown of the best zombie films ever made . And, for a different yet equally effective take on the sub-genre, check out our list of the  best zombie comedies .

How to write a horror story  •  Exploit common phobias

The above video breaks down the statistics surrounding a number of phobias. One common piece of writerly wisdom is “write what you know.” When writing in the horror genre, we can tweak that advice to, “write what scares you.” Mine your own fears and phobias when crafting your horror story; there are sure to be others out there who get creeped out by the same things.

This is also the step where you should try to discover your X-factor. What is it that sets your story apart from similar horror stories? If the answer is “nothing really,” then it might be time to take your concept back to the drawing board.

How to write a horror story

Step 4: keep your audience in mind.

From this point on, you are ready to start writing your horror story. Much of the writing process will be carried out in the same way as you would write a story in any other genre. But there are a few extra considerations. Put all that research you did in step one to work and ensure that your prose or screenwriting is well balanced and doles out the scares at a good pace.

You will want to find a good middle ground between sacrificing story and character development and going too long without something to keep your audience creeped out.

Narrative pacing is important in every genre, but horror writers also need to worry about pacing their scares, similar to how someone writing an action film needs to deliberately pace out their big action sequences.

How to write a horror story  •  Keep pacing in mind

Decide on who your target audience is from the jump and keep them in mind while you write. There can be a significant difference between horror aimed at teens vs. horror aimed at a mature audience. In film, this can mean the difference between shooting for a PG-13 rating instead of an R rating.

In fiction, this decision might manifest as a plan to market directly toward the young-adult crowd. Horror aimed at children, like Frankenweenie or The Nightmare Before Christmas , is drastically different from other types of horror aimed at older audiences.

Use your target audience as a guiding star that informs all of your narrative decisions as you write. Now, it’s time to put everything you just learned about how to write good horror stories to use.

The Greatest Horror Movies Ever Made 

If you are stuck on step one and looking to find some inspiration, our list of the greatest horror films ever made is a great place to look. You are sure to find something to get your creative juices flowing within this lengthy list. Writing great horror starts with consuming great horror, coming up next.

Up Next: Best Horror Movies of All Time →

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“ the gingerbread cookies ” by aaron chin.

The Gingerbread Cookies Let’s go downstairs and bake some cookies, like mother used to make. The warm smell sits right at home in your nostrils, invading them like wild ax-murderers hacking and slashing their way through endless miles of human bodies that stand in the way of their inhumane, carnal desires. Shhh, shhh, but that’s too dark. It’s Christmas after all. So let’s go down...

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story writers horror

How to write a horror story: Telling tales of terror

Learn how to write a horror story, with insights from Stephen King, John Carpenter, the script opening for The Exorcist, and more, and discover ideas for telling a more chilling tale.

  • Post author By Jordan
  • 71 Comments on How to write a horror story: Telling tales of terror

story writers horror

Learning how to write horror is a useful for any writer. The genre contains storytelling elements that are useful beyond it. Read a concise guide to horror. We explore what horror is, key elements of horror, plus tips and quotes from masters of horror film and fiction.

What is horror? Elements of horror

The horror genre is speculative or fantastical fiction that evokes fear, suspense, and dread.

Horror often gives readers or viewers the sense of relief by the end of the story.

Stephen King calls this ‘reintegration’. Writes King in his non-fiction book on horror, Danse Macabre (1981), about the release from terror in reintegration:

For now, the worst has been faced and it wasn’t so bad at all. There was that magic moment of reintegration and safety at the end, that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt. I believe it’s this feeling of reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear, and monstrosity, that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical … that, and the boundless ability of the human imagination to create endless dreamworlds and then put them to work. Stephen King, Dance Macabre (1981), p. 27 (Kindle version)

A brief history of the horror genre

Horror, like most genres, has evolved substantially.

Modern horror stories’ precursors were Gothic tales, stretching back to the 1700s. Even stretching beyond that, into gory myths and legends such as Grimm’s folktales.

In early Gothic fiction, the horrifying aspects (such as ghostly apparitions) tended to stem from characters’ tortured psyches. For example, the ghostly shenanigans in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898). It was often ambiguous whether or not supernatural events depicted were real or imagined by a typically unreliable, tortured narrator.

More modern horror turned increasingly towards ‘psychological horror’. Here, the source of horror is more interior. Or else an external monster or supernatural figure is no figment but completely real.

See Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror : Or, Paradoxes of the Heart for further interesting information on the genres history, as well as Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.

Jordan Peele on how to write a horror story - go where you shouldn't

8 elements of horror

Eight recurring elements in classic and contemporary horror, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to the contemporary horror films of Ari Aster, are:

  • Suspense (the anticipation of terror or bad things). Horror builds suspense by evoking our fear of the known (for example, fear of the dark). Also fear of the unknown (what could be lurking in said dark).
  • Fear. The genre plays with primal fears such as fear of injury, accident, evil, our mistakes, whether evil faces accountability (see Thomas Fahy’s The Philosophy of Horror for more on the philosophy of horror and moral questions horror asks).
  • Atmosphere. Horror relies extensively on the emotional effects of atmosphere. Just think of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship, the aliens’ human-hunting paradise, in the Alien film franchise.
  • Vulnerability. The horror genre plays with our vulnerability, makes us remember it. Horror often asks ‘what if the other is overtly or insidiously malevolent? In asking this, it reminds us of the values of both caution and courage.
  • Survival . Many horror subgenres explore themes of survival, from zombie horror to slasher films. Like tragedy, survival stories explore the rippling-out consequences of making ‘the wrong choice’.
  • The Supernatural. Horror stories also plumb the unseen and unknown, terrors our physics, beliefs and assumptions can’t always explain.
  • Psychological terror. Horror typically manipulates the perceptions of readers/viewers (and characters) to create a sense of unease. ‘What’s thumping under that locked cellar door?’
  • The monstrous. Whether actual monsters or the monstrous possible in ordinary human behavior, horror explores the dark and what terrifies or disgusts.

Further elements and themes that appear often include death, the demonic, isolation, madness, grief and revenge.

What does horror offer readers/viewers?

In The Philosophy of Horror (2010), Thomas Fahy compares horror to a reluctant skydiving trip taken with friends, referencing King’s concept of reintegration, the ‘return to safety’:

In many ways, the horror genre promises a similar experience [to skydiving]: The anticipation of terror, the mixture of fear and exhilaration as events unfold, the opportunity to confront the unpredictable and dangerous, the promise of relative safety (both in the context of a darkened theater and through a narrative structure that lasts a finite amount of time and/or number of pages), and the feeling of relief and regained control when it’s over. Thomas Fahy (Ed.), ‘Introduction’, The Philosophy of Horror (2010).

Horror also appeals to the pleasures of repetition. The darkly amusing absurdity and existentialism of how characters are bumped off one by one in a slasher film, for example.

Audiences also flock to horror for tension (produced by suspense, fear, shock, terror, gore and other common elements), personal relevance (the way horror explores themes we can relate to), and the pleasure of the surreal or unreality.

What do you love about the horror genre? Tell us in the comments!

How to write horror: 10 tips (plus examples and quotes)

Explore ten ideas on how to write a horror story:

Jump scares and sudden gore might punctuate the story, but if they appear every page they risk becoming predictable.

Who in your ensemble will your reader or viewer want to survive or triumph over horrifying events, and why?

Often horror flips between everyday fears (a young couple’s fears about becoming parents, for example) and a symbolic, scarier level.

Great horror stories often live on in reader/viewer debate about what ‘really’ happened. They reward rewatching.

Horror stories make terrifying events (such as an author being abducted by a homicidal superfan in King’s Misery ) seem plausible. We believe their worlds.

Who can forget the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho ? Horror often scares us where we think we’re safest.

Play with multiple layers and levels of fear – fear of the known, unknown, of real monsters and the make-believe monsters of perception.

What will create that feeling that something’s just a little off, unexpected?

Some horror subgenres (e.g. splatterpunk or slasher horror) go all-out on gore. Violence isn’t the only way to unsettle your reader, though. Play with the fear of the unseen – imagination can supply the possibilities.

Focusing solely on scaring readers may end up with a story that is more style and provocation than substance. Think about character and story arcs, using setting to create tone and atmosphere, other elements that make up good stories .

Pace the big horror scares for suspense

Let’s explore each of the preceding ideas on how to write horror. First: Pacing.

As in suspense, pacing is everything in horror. Good pacing allows the build-up, ebb and flow of tension.

See how the script for the classic 1973 horror film The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name) begins? Not with immediate, obvious demonic possession, but the suspense of an archaeological dig. There are no jump scares, and no gore – just quiet unease.

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Pacing in horror-writing example: Slow-building tension in The Exorcist

EXTERIOR- IRAQ- EXCATVATION SITE- NINEVEH- DAY Pickaxes and shovels weld into the air as hundreds of excavators tear at the desert. The camera pans around the area where hundreds of Iraqi workmen dig for ancient finds. […] YOUNG BOY (In Iraqi language) They’ve found something… small pieces. MERRIN (In Iraqi language) Where? The Exorcist screenplay. Source: Script Slug

This is a long way – geographically and tonally – from a young girl walking backwards downstairs or her head turning around like an owl’s.

A seemingly innocent archaeological dig turns into something more sinister. A link is implied between the statue of a demon unearthed in the dig and two dogs starting to fight:

EXTERIOR – IRAQ- NINEVEH- DAY […] The old man walks up the rocky mound and sees a huge statue of the demon Pazuzu, which has the head of the small rock he earlier found. He climbs to a higher point to get a closer look. When he reaches the highest point he looks at the statue dead on. He then turns his head as we hear rocks falling and sees a guard standing behind him. He then turns again when he hears two dogs savagely attacking each other. The noise is something of an evil nature. He looks again at the statue and we are then presented with a classic stand off side view of the old man and the statue as the noises rage on. We then fade to the sun slowly setting as the noises lower in volume. The Exorcist screenplay. Source: Script Slug

The suspense in this opening builds up a sense of something horrifying being unleashed on the world unwittingly.

Use characterization to make readers care

Great horror stories may use stock character types, flat arcs. For example, in slasher films where some characters’ main purpose is to die in some creative, absurd way.

Yet subtler horror writing uses characterization to make the reader care.

Part of the truly horrifying aspect of The Exorcist , for example, is knowing that an innocent child is possessed. Tormented by evil through no fault of her own.

The care is palpable in her mother Chris’ (Ellen Burstyn) horror and anxiety in reaction. Empathy is a natural response to having an unwell child (and ‘unwell’ is putting it mildly, in this case).

We empathize with characters grappling with dark forces beyond their control. Life tests everyone with destructive or painful experiences at some point in time. The sense of powerlessness (and tenacity that emerges through that) is a testament to the human spirit, to perseverance.

A horror story itself may have a bleaker reading, of course. Yet we struggle on with the intrepid heroines in their attempts to overcome.

Three horror character archetypes that make us care

In Danse Macabre , Stephen King discusses three common character archetypes in horror and Gothic fiction:

  • The Thing – for example, Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , which expresses pain at having been created.
  • The Vampire – often represented as suffering eternal life/return (similar in this regard to ghosts and poltergeists).
  • The Werewolf – a horror character who transforms, typically against their will and usually with great suffering, into a beast.

King explores examples of these three horror archetypes from books and films such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal psychological horror film, Psycho (1960).

Writes King:

It doesn’t end with the Thing, the Vampire, and the Werewolf; there are other bogeys out there in the shadows as well. But these three account of a large bloc of modern horror fiction. King, Danse Macarbre, p. 96.

Why horror character archetypes make us care

Horror lovers care about ‘the thing’ archetype often because ‘the thing’, the monster, is misunderstood or blameless for its creation. Think of Frankenstein’s monster, who bargains with his creator for release and freedom.

‘The vampire’ is often a relatable figure because of the inevitable loneliness of eternal life. The vampire is imprisoned by limitations such as not being allowed the rest of death (or even natural pleasures such as sunlight – as glamorous as it might be to sparkle like Stephenie Meyer’s diamante vamps).

King writes about the werewolf and how it represents human duality. The respectable public persona or façade, on one hand, and a world of hidden, private horror on the other. A duality many who carry private trauma can relate to.

Each archetype is relatable on some level. This empathic element makes one care for (or at least understand) the monstrous and inhuman in more literary horror stories. Evil (though some don’t like to admit it) has a face and a backstory, a history of becoming, most of the time.

Read more about how to create characters readers can picture and care about in our complete guide to character creation .

Wes Craven quote - what's great about the horror genre

Make the known scary (not just the unknown)

Many horror movies tap into the terror of the known, the common human experience, and not only absurd (but campy and fun) nightmares like clowns hiding in stormwater drains.

Common, relatable parts of familiar human experience to mine for horror and terror include:

  • Birth and death (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby )
  • Loss and grief (e.g. Hereditary )
  • Childhood fears (e.g. It )
  • Loss of control (e.g. An American Werewolf in London )
  • Ritual and community (e.g. Midsommar )
  • Exploring the unknown (e.g. Alien )

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan writes in the script for the 2000 film Unbreakable:

Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here. That’s – that’s just an awful feeling.

Often, it is this mundane, relatable element of horror – such as the horror of not having a place in the world – that supplies the psychological or inner aspect.

For example, a bereaved family’s struggle with an occult family history (the outer horror) provides the figurative, metaphorical means to explore the painful reality of grief and intergenerational trauma (inner horror) in Ari Aster’s psychological horror film, Hereditary .

How to write a horror story - infographic

Don’t feel you have to explain everything

Although King’s concept of ‘reintegration’ applies in many horror stories where a sunnier ending promises relief, many modern horror narratives eschew tidy resolution.

It’s a classic ploy in horror series, for example, for there to be troubling alarm bells at the end, inferring that a persistent terror lives on. For example, the jump scare at the end of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) [warning: implied violence, spoilers].

The shock comes through the juxtaposition of an ‘everyone’s safe at last moment’ and terror striking from inside the house without warning, undoing the sense of resolution attained. The main character having woken from the dreams where the bulk of terrifying events occur adds to this false sense of security.

There is no graphic gore or violence. The scene doesn’t show or tell every detail. Instead, the audience has to interpret the event and what it implies about the the status of the conflict between the main characters and the supernatural villain, Freddy Krueger – whether it is truly over.

Play with the terror of plausibility

What is most terrifying is often what is plausible. For example, the crazed fan who abducts her favorite author in Stephen King’s Misery (1987), for hobbling instead of autographs. Celebrity stalking is a well-documented modern cultural phenomenon. It is hard to eyeroll at after John Lennon.

Why is plausibility worth thinking about when exploring how to write horror?

  • Suspension of disbelief. If events in a horror story seem plausible (at least for the horror world created), the audience is less inclined to roll their eyes and groan, ‘That would never happen’.
  • Relatability . A novel and film such as The Exorcist plays on the natural fear many have that loved ones will fall unwell or depart, in body, spirit or mind.
  • Tension and unpredictability: It is more tense and unpredictable when everything is ‘normal’ to start. Ruptures in the fabric of this normalcy create tension, the sense ‘anything could happen’ (that sense requires the bedrock of plausibility first ).

Scare horror audiences when they least expect

Like that jump scare in the final scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street , horror often scares the shoes off us when we least expect it.

Take, for example, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where Marion Crane is attacked in the shower.

The shower, usually associated with privacy, relaxation, is nothing like an abandoned side street, dark wood at night, or other traditionally ‘creepy’ setting. This coupled with the intensity of Hitchcock’s shots – the raised hand clutching a knife – creates a chilling scene.

Horror mastery lies in a push and pull, lulling your audience into a false sense of security, then pulling the rug out from under them when they least expect it. Tweet This

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Deepen the story with layers of fear

Horror, like other fantastical genres, deals in layers and dualities. In fantasy fiction , we often have a primary world and a secondary one. In horror, the duality is often an internal horror doing a ‘danse macabre’ with an external one.

Says horror filmmaking veteran John Carpenter in conversation with Vulture :

There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart. Simon Abrams, ‘The Soft-Spoken John Carpenter on How He Chooses Projects and His Box-Office Failures’, July 6 2011.

In a story using the ‘werewolf’ archetype, for example, the rational, untransformed side of a protagonist may fear the revelation of their monstrous side, the consequences this would have for their daily life (whether they are a literal werewolf or this is figurative). Transformed, the werewolf, like the ‘elephant man’, may experience the external horror and fear of others’ revulsion or animosity (which then feeds the internal, in a vicious cycle).

Having both internal and external conflicts in a horror story moves horror beyond simple disgust and shock tactics. The audience can connect deeper with characters, the cycles of violence they endure or triumph over.

Tapping into common fears for horror writing

If the point of horror writing (and horror elements in other genres such as paranormal romance) is to arouse fear, shock or disgust, think of the things people are most commonly afraid of.

Live Science places an interest choice at number one : The dentist. It’s true that you can feel powerless when you’re in the dentist’s chair. Couple this with the pain of certain dental procedures and it’s plain to see why a malevolent dentist is the stuff of horror nightmares.

Making readers scared creates tension and increases the pace of your story. Even so there should be a reason for making readers fearful.

Here are some of the most common fears people have:

  • Fear of animals (dogs, snakes, sharks, mythical creatures such as the deep sea-dwelling kraken)
  • Fear of flying (film producers combined the previous fear and this other common fear to make the spoof horror movie Snakes on a Plane)
  • The dark – one of the most fundamental fears of the unfamiliar
  • Perilous heights
  • Other people and their often unknown desires or intentions
  • Ugly or disorienting environments

Think of how common fears can be evoked in your horror fiction. Some are more often exploited in horror writing than others. A less precise fear (such as the fear of certain spaces) will let you tell the horror story you want with fewer specified must-haves.

How to write horror - infographic | Now Novel

Add subtler hints of something wrong

Returning to core elements of horror – fear, suspense, and atmosphere – how do you make horror scary even when Freddy isn’t dragging anyone through a solid wood door?

Tone and atmosphere emerge in the subtle hints and clues something is wrong.

Hints and signs of horrors to come could include:

  • Unsettling sounds. Dripping, humming, chanting, singing, banging, knocking, drumming. What are sounds that imply trouble and the ghastly unknown coming to visit?
  • Creepy imagery. What are images and signs that suggest comfort (for example, a lamp burning in a window to signal someone’s home)? Blow those candles out, play with the unhomely.
  • Unsettling change. Changes in light, a companion’s tone, a pet’s behavior. Small harbingers of trouble add tension.
  • Missing objects. What is not continuous in a way that unsettles and defies expectations? For example, in the reboot of Twin Peaks , an attempt to go home again leads to the dread of everything being different, that sense of ‘you can’t go home again’.
  • Discomforting communication. Sometimes horror hinges on a repeated word or phrase (‘Candyman’), or someone saying something creepily unexpected.

The above are just a few ways to imply that something is very wrong.

Balance gore with the unseen (subgenre depending)

Gore in horror has the capability to shock, disgust, make your audience squeamish. Yet a relentless gore-fest may quickly desensitize readers or viewers to the element of surprise.

How much gore you include in a horror will of course depend on your subgenre and story scenario. Slasher stories and subgenres such as splatterpunk (a horror subgenre characterized by extreme violence) will have audiences who demand gore and may lament something tame.

Reasons to balance gore with the terror of the unseen, otherwise:

  • Maintaining tension. Periods of calm between violent scenes create suspense, nervous tension for when there’ll be blood again.
  • Deepening the story. Great stories with broad appeal take more than blood and guts – meaningful character arcs and genuine scares and horrifying scenes can coexist.
  • Artful storytelling. Relying on inference, plot twists, atmosphere, tension for fright and shock is arguably more artful than leaping straight for shock-value. Critical succcesses in the horror genre often don’t rely solely on the cheapest, easiest scares. The story often earns them by building plausibility or deeper symbolic and metaphorical resonance.

Tell a good story first, scare readers second

That last idea boils down to this: Focus on telling a good story, first.

If your sole focus is how most you can shock and manipulate your audience, some may critique this as cheap exploitation.

Some authors – deliberate provocateurs – may wear that label as a badge of pride, of course. Careers are sometimes made in attracting controversy, even bans and censorship for extreme shock value.

Yet the stories that endure often make excellent uses of all the parts of storytelling and encapsulate some of the qualities that make storytelling universal – humanity, insight, the empathy and truth-finding that imagining and exploring ‘dreamworlds’ offers.

Are you writing horror? Join the Now Novel critique community for free and get perks such as longer critique submissions, weekly editorial feedback and story planning tools when you upgrade to The Process.

Now Novel has been invaluable in helping me learn about the craft of novel writing. The feedback has been encouraging, insightful and useful. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got as far as I have without the support of Jordan and the writers in the groups. Highly recommend to anyone seeking help, support or encouragement with their first or next novel. – Oliver

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Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

71 replies on “How to write a horror story: Telling tales of terror”

[…] Similarly, the always awesome Now Novel blog has 6 Terrific tips on How to write a horror story that are worth a look. The most important piece of info there, in my opinion is # 5: Write scary […]

Great and helpful post. Its difficult to find helpful, informative posts on horror writing. Thanks.

It’s a pleasure, Alice. I’m glad you found this helpful.

I agree with Alice. This was very useful. Thanks, Bridget.

It’s a pleasure, Melissa, thanks for reading.

As always, an insightful and helpful post, especially regarding the distinction between terror and horror. Love the SK quote! 🙂

Thank you! Thanks for reading. It is a good quote, isn’t it?

Im 11 and working on a horror story with 100 or more pages. this is very helpful. 🙂

I’m impressed, Ethan. Keep going! I’m glad you found it helpful 🙂

Okay, I’m EXACTLY the same age and also working on a horror novel!! I already have 241 pages, though.

Update* im now 13 yayayayyaa owo I lost the pages and have then finished writing a script for something i cant loose. SO HAPPY ABOUT THIS

Omg hey Ethan and Malachi I’m twelve (right in the middle IG) and working on novels that are going to be between 100 and 300 pages! Good luck guys 😀

Great article. You helped me realise that the short I was working on is actually a novel. Not sure how mind you, but thanks all the same. I’ll sign up now.

Thanks, Gareth! Glad to help.

The article is useful, except for the last part, which totally messed up the beauty of the article. It’s POINTLESS trying to differentiate two things that are mostly used interchangeably. Moreover, Terry Heller’s point makes the whole sense, SENSELESS, because her definition of terror and horror are actually the same except for the subjects to where such emotion is concerned about. Terror is one’s fear for oneself, and horror is one’s fear for others? Are you kidding me? Both can be subjected to either oneself or to others. Dictionaries and encyclopedias never indicate that horror is what one fears for others alone, because it can be for oneself, too. If Terry cannot differentiate two things, which are not really meant to be differentiated because they are the ultimate synonym for each other, then she doesn’t have to make such an effort. She’s making everyone a fool.

Thank you for your engaging response. You raise valid points, and sometimes academic treatments of subjects do over-complicate matters. In light of your comment I’m updating the post since I see now that the distinction isn’t perhaps particularly useful here.

Thanks for the tips. Writing a horror novel for my 1st NaNoWriMo project. This was extremely helpful 🙂

I’m really glad to hear that, Ashley. I hope NaNoWriMo is going well.

I am 12 and have been working on horror since I was 7! So exited to actually get some good info! Thanks!

It’s a pleasure, Aurelia. It’s great that you’re already so committed to your love of writing, keep it up.

Thanks! I am exited to do Nanowrimo and I am am hoping to write a long novel this November. This really helped and extra thanks to the helpful comment!

It’s a pleasure! I hope your NaNoWriMo is going very well.

This has given me more quality advice on the genre than a three year creative writing degree. Best start reading the stuff first then! Thank you.

Thank you, Neil, high praise indeed. Good luck with your horror book!

… How does one get rid of writers block? My brain always blanks out when I try and start writing. So annoying! >:c

Sometimes listening to songs with a creepy tone helps

Great advice, Allee. I love listening to music while I work myself.

My advice is to literally just write what comes into your brain, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not, that’s what first drafts are for, as long as you’re writing in some shape of form, be it poor or good quality, it’s practice

Thank you. … My brain is weird. Just now, I’ve been shaken out of my sleep by an intense dream. Seriously. I don’t know what goes on up there, but it’s mad.

Good advice! Maya Angelou said similar about her writing process. Here are some additional tips on moving past a block: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/banish-writers-block/

I’m so happy I ran across this article. I’ve read from more than one story editor that the horror genre is the most difficult genre to master.

I’m glad to hear that, JP. All genres have their challenges but I’d say the best, best, best approach is to read widely in said genre (and others). Thanks for the feedback!

Yeah, if Stephen King can’t terrify or horrify, he’ll gross us out. And he says he’s not proud. In other words, he’ll stoop to the disgust level if he can’t get the others. But this is precisely the problem with the “gross” or “disgusting.” Disgust is not fear. When we are disgusted, we know TOO much. When we are horrified, there is always something we DON’T know. I’m amazed he doesn’t know that. An autopsy gives us disgust because nothing is held back from the viewer. It is not frightening. No one believes, for example, that the body is going to get up from the autopsy table and start attacking the doctor. But if I walk into the autopsy room all by myself and see a dead body on a table, turn away from the body to shut the door, turn back to it, notice it gone, and then have the lights start dimming? Yes. Now I am scared. Why? Simply because I don’t know certain things. I don’t know why the body has suddenly disappeared. I don’t know how a dead person could have moved. I don’t know where the body is right now. I don’t know if that body (if it is actually alive) has good or bad intentions toward me. I don’t know who is dimming the lights and why. It is so much easier to disgust the reader than to horrify him. It takes more cleverness to hold back information from the character and the reader than to let everything gush forth in blood and guts. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, there is more fear to be found in the inscrutable nightly crying of the butler’s wife than in many of our modern horror films put together. Why is she crying? Why only at night? Why is she doing looking out of the window into the dark each night? The source of fear is in the unknown.

Ultimately, King does know and it is a show vs tell metaphor. You have to read his biographical On Writing because no one explains it correctly. Terror is the psychological aspect of the story. Horror is the stories physical manifestation of the terror. Disgust is the actions of horror. Showing the actions of horror kills all suspense immediately. I like to explain it to my students and listeners as if Terror and Horror are the brake and Disgust is the gas. It’s like the old story of the escaped lunatic with a hook were a young couple go out on a date. While driving to Make Out Lane there is a report on the radio about an escaped killer with a hook running around killing people that the only the girl hears. As the girl and boy are making out she sees a shadow and the boyfriend sees nothing. Then there is the screeching sound on the outside of the car. That’s terror. The boyfriend gets out and inspects his car in the dense fog. The girl loses sight of the boy as he walks toward the rear, building on the terror. There is another screech along her door, terrorizing her. She calls out the boys name and he doesn’t respond, building on the terror, possibly toward horror if the boy doesn’t return. Then he does. He leaps into the car and jerks it into reverse and pulls away from the scene at mach-5. When they arrive back at her house, they find a hook dangling from the passenger door handle, the horror. King describes this little story as the perfect short horror story. However, in some later versions of the story the girl jumps in the driver’s seat and pulls off without the boy. When she gets to her home she finds a bloody hook dangling from the door with a bit of gut on it, leaving the girl and the audience disgusted. as the tension and suspense are deflated.

This is very helpful. My 8th grade English teacher is holding a contest for writing a short (750 to 3,000 word) horror story, so I am researching the elements of horror and how to incorporate them into my work. This article is by far one of the more helpful ones I have found in finding ways to create fear, shock or disgust in the mind of the reader. Thank you!

Hi Margaret,

Thank you for this feedback. I’m glad to hear you found this article useful. I hope you won the contest 🙂

“…his skin distinctly yellowish in colour.” Far from being exemplary in any way, this is actually terrible, hack writing. If something is “yellowish,” it cannot be “distinctly” so. It’s either distinctly yellow, or “yellowish.” Likewise, “in color” is flabby and redundant. Could the skin be “yellowish” in shape or size? Could it be “yellowish” in cost or weight? This page is distinctly whiteish in color. See how weak and flabby that is?

To be fair, there is a lot of good information on this page. But Clive Barker is a dreadful writer, and should never be cited as an exemplar of good prose.

Hi Sharkio, you raise a very good point. I second your edit of just saying ‘yellowish’ and cutting in colour and am tempted to add a note on not taking the letter of his prose as exemplary, but rather the spirit 🙂 I agree that although the atmosphere and tone are there, the prose is weak in places. There’s also the question, though, of whether we can/should apply ‘literary’ standards to genre fic where these and other ‘sins’ are more widely accepted 🙂 Thanks for the thoughtful engagement with this detail.

Are you crazy? There is no writer at the top of their game as Barker was in the 70-90s. His influence is on everything today.

Thanks for sharing your perspective, H Duane 🙂 Just goes to show that everyone has different preferences. He is regarded as one of the modern masters of horror. I suppose genre fiction readers might also be more forgiving of certain stylistic choices than literary readers.

Some good tips after writing 2 love stories and a mystery now I am trying for some horrer story and this will help me such a good information

Thanks, Sidhu. That’s an interesting genre leap, but many horrors do have both elements. It’s a weird trope to me how often the romantic leads are the first to go in slasher flicks. You’d think writers would keep them to add romantic tension to the mix. I hope your story’s coming along well.

I just finished writing my first horror script/ screenplay… I checked this list just to see if I maybe left elements out that I should include or if I was on the right track and I’m proud to report that my script has it all… Once my film finally sees the light of day, I hope all horror fans are satisfied…

Hi Timothy, I hope so too! Best of luck with the next steps, please update us about what comes of it.

I am attempting to write a horror story where the main character is possessed and is writing in a diary like format as it occurs, and begins committing murders, how do I accurately capture the descent into madness?

Hi Evan, thank you for sharing that. It’s an interesting challenge. I would suggest a shift in style and tone in his writing. For example, perhaps they use stranger metaphors, repeat themselves more, their sentences become more fragmented, there’s the occasional odd word by itself on a line, lines or sentences that don’t make complete semantic sense but have an eerie undertone (I think of the classic phrase ‘The owls are not what they seem’ in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks).

I hope this helps! Good luck.

Thank you, this was very useful. I appreciate your enthusiasm and encouragement.

It’s my pleasure, Evan, glad to help. Have a great week.

Wow this was really helpful thanks

I’m glad to hear that, Rene. Thank you for the feedback!

I wanted to write a psychological thriller story for a youtube channel. I am glad I found help from here. Thank You.

It’s a pleasure, Suyasha! Thank you for reading and good luck creating your story for YouTube.

I appreciate the reference to ’cause and effect’ for any level of villainy. The more complex the villain, the more interesting the story. Anything that steps out of the dark and says, “Hi, I’m evil. I’m here to destroy everything for no apparent reason,” flattens the scene. I think your point about motivation is key to getting people engaged in the fantasy. I think that this will heighten the tension in my current story. Thank you.

Hi Deborah, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Agreed, a complex villain also tends to be less predictable which inherently builds more suspense, as (compared to a Bond villain, for example), they’re more textured and unknowable, less of a trope or archetype. I’m glad you found these ideas helpful to your current story, good luck as you proceed further!

Totally agree with you Joseph Pedulla. You summed it up perfectly! Gross is not scary. I like scary. Stephen King is talked about all the time like the all-time best horror writer. I have tried reading some of his work and I find it mind-numbingly boring. I like the story to move along; don’t give me a whole bunch of description!! Read Darren Shan’s ‘The Cirque Du Freak Series.’ Absolutely amazing!

Thank you. I appreciate the elaboration on each hint. I also think your arguments make sense AND can be helpful to many indie-authors & startup writers alike.

Thank you for your feedback, Andre. I’m glad you found our article helpful!

Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

Please see also my blog, Getting to Know the 4 Incredible Authors of Horror Fiction

Hope this will help,

Thank you, Joab. Thanks for sharing your horror writing blog.

[…] How to Write a Horror Story: 6 Terrific Tips […]

This is quite interesting and I can see how it relates to film more readily than to a novel – perhaps due to the many film examples and the visual quality of the ‘jump scare’, etc. I can see that film examples are very useful, however, I’m having trouble relating this to crafting words on a page as opposed to images on a screen.

Hi Rachel, thank you so much for this useful feedback. It’s interesting how much film and narrative fiction have influenced each other in this specific genre, but this is useful to me – I will work in more examples from horror lit in an additional section when I have a moment. Thanks for helping me make this article better and for reading.

Interesting! I may add some horror prompts to Craft Challenge. You did forget to mention the terror of never finishing a book, missing tons of errors, writing something right after someone else does it, and getting your book idea stolen 😉 Although I suppose they’re preferable to a gruesome death, or drowning, or grasshoppers (don’t judge me) 🕷️🪓🩸

I’m now trying to remember which of those fears horror authors’ writer characters (e.g. in Misery ) have 🙂 I’m going to have to have a look at that. OK, I’m with you on the grasshoppers. My aunt lives near the mountain and they get these very angry-looking green ones my aunt calls ‘Green [redacted]s’ 😉

Also please do, I’ll also think up some horror prompts to share as well (another section for this article in version 2.1).

Oh, I forgot one! The fear of every critique starting with “I don’t like this genre.” 😳

Haha I love that, Margriet. A relatable fear, I would say.

How much room for humor do you think there is in the horror genre? Do you think you could write a horror novel that has a high percentage of humor Vs. horror/gore and still call it a horror novel?

This is a great question, Scott. I really am not a horror expert myself (sometimes I write far out of my comfort zone here which requires a little more research). But if I think of Tim Curry’s performance as It , for example, how he fills the character with this wild humor and characterization that made many prefer the original to the remake, I would say horror has as much capacity for humor as you want it to have. Comedy horror is a thing, with zombie spoofs and the like produced, so you could always market a comedy horror title in both categories. I think part of the natural crossover is that jump scares, campy villainous dialogue, or see-it-coming-from-a-mile tropes often make audiences laugh, too.

I’m working on one to it’s very wierd and it’s called Toony and The Ink Machine Yes I know kind of ripoff of Bendy and The ink machine.

Fabulous title, Silas! Wishing you the best with the writing process.

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The All-Time Greatest Horror Writers

The All-Time Greatest Horror Writers

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The best horror novelists include some great authors who manage to weave fantastical tales of horror that leave readers scared out of their wits. The horror fiction authors on this list write novels that can strike fear into the heart of virtually any reader, using elements of horror and dark fantasy. Whether it's a classic ghost novel or a book that features real-life evil (like serial killers), these horror novelists are some of the best in the horror genre. Be sure to vote for your favorite horror writers, and add your own personal favorite horror novelist if you don't see them on this list!

Some of the best horror writers on this list will be instantly recognizable. Horror authors like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, for example, are very well-known, popular modern horror fiction writers. I've also included some of the original, classic horror novelists, including the incomparable H.P. Lovecraft and the master, Edgar Allan Poe. Gothic horror writers like Maurice Level are included, as well. You'll notice that some of the top horror writers on the list are also known as science fiction writers and/or fantasy authors , including Ray Bradbury. There is some overlap, and I feel it's important to include these horror and dark fantasy writers as well. In addition, some of the best horror novelists on this list are winners of the prestigious Bram Stoker Award (Richard Matheson, Clive Barker and King, among them) for outstanding achievement in horror writing.

H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Stephen King

Stephen King

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Clive Barker

Clive Barker

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson

Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch

H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells

Peter Straub

Peter Straub

William Peter Blatty

William Peter Blatty

Robert R. McCammon

Robert R. McCammon

Thomas Harris

Thomas Harris

Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

James Herbert

James Herbert

Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz

M. R. James

M. R. James

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

Joe Hill

Richard Laymon

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell

Ira Levin

Neil Gaiman

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro

Anne Rice

Arthur Machen

Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle

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How to Write Horror Stories: 8 Tips for Writing a Spine-Chilling Horror Story

It’s hard to imagine that people can actually fall in love with a story in which horrific things keep happening to people.

But they do.

Authors like Stephen King have dominated book stores and have seen their stories thrive as movie adaptations in Hollywood.

But to write a horror story that terrorizes and wins the hearts of your readers, you need to get a couple of things right. You must understand that the terror alone won’t save your story; read on to learn about the common subjects in horror stories and how to write scary stories.

Why People Love Reading Horror Fiction

No one enjoys being surrounded by danger, death, terror, and pain. Normally, we are afraid of these things.

So, why do people enjoy stories filled with these things?

Although nobody likes to experience things in a horror story, reading them is different. Horror fiction introduces some sort of a controlled environment for experiencing fear. When we read a horror story in our comfort zone, we experience the element of fear, and at the same time, we feel safe knowing that the horrors happening in the story are not actually happening to us.

This mix leads to an intense but enjoyable experience.

The Horror Subgenres

The subgenre of a horror story determines its tone and atmosphere. When you are aware of the subgenre of your horror story, there are a lot of things that could perfectly go wrong (for your characters) and go right for your readers.

Gross-out horror : This is anything from excess blood oozing from a slit neck, intestines hanging outside, a gouged-out heart, and a lot of other graphic descriptions of gruesome scenes that are solely intended to shock the readers.

Thriller-horror : This subgenre takes advantage of psychological fear and usually occurs before much has happened, around the beginning of horror stories.

Classic horror : In my teenage years, I was in love with characters like Dracula and werewolves. Such characters are found in classic horror which is dominant in Gothic horror, a genre with spooky themes and supernatural happenings.

Terror : According to Stephen King, terror is the worst level of fear. The fear is caused by imagination and the writer has to have mastered the use of persuasive and suggestive writing. The author can suggest the unknown, and the reader’s mind starts to fill in the blanks, and the imagery becomes a terrifying story.

4 Key Elements of a Good Horror Story

A horror story involves the following key elements:

The four major ingredients must be present in any horror story and have to be used efficiently.

Fear is what everyone expects to find in a horror story—and it’s the basic element of a horror story.

However, as I have already iterated, fear on its own is not sufficient.

Your story needs that element of fear to be complemented by the other three : suspense, mystery, or surprise .

A horror story is no good if the scary characters just go about hurting, killing, or scaring the other characters with no mystery behind their existence or their murderous quirks.

And… the readers shouldn’t always anticipate the scary events as that sucks some of the fear out of the readers. When they’re caught off guard, the fear is intense and it makes the horror story more realistic.

If you don’t want to end up with a boring horror story, you need to write a story that invokes the reader’s emotions and engages their mind. A good balance of these four elements will help do just that.

Tips for Writing a Terrifying Horror

1. use your own fears.

You don’t have to be an emotionless badass to write a good horror story. Your own fears can help guide you to write the scariest of things.

Use your fears to write things that people would find spine-chilling and use vivid descriptions—as vivid as the fear in your mind—to increase the scariness of your story.

For example, I’m afraid of blades and heights and if I were to write a horror story based on these feelings, I’d be looking for the scariest things a blade would do, like one character beheading another using a blunt panga and having to repeatedly hack the neck of the victim.

2. Remember the Basics

Horror stories are special, but to you (the writer) they are still like any other story.

The basic elements of a story have to apply to a horror novel or short story—characters have to have goals, there has to be conflict, and all the other elements.

If you let the horror element overtake your storytelling abilities, there’s a 99% chance you have no story at all. So, you need to balance between the drama of horror and the flow of the story.

A great horror storyline, just like that of any story, has the protagonist(s) fears or goals, provide the characters’ motive(s) for their roles, expose the decisions that read to the protagonists’ present situation, consequences of the characters’ actions, and how they are going to overcome the situation or succumb to horrors presented by the antagonist(s).

To write a great horror story, you must supplement the mystery and suspense with some elements like humor or bravery.

3. Avoid Clichés

Clichés surprise the element of surprise from a horror story, and with that gone, the story becomes boring, predictable, and—consequently—not scary.

Basing your horror story on the familiar horror tropes isn’t bad, but… you have to develop a story that takes its own shape.  I always say that only a horror story writer is allowed to kick his readers in the face—when they think they know what is going to happen, give them something they wouldn’t expect.

4. Write longer sentences

I picked this one from our very own R.L. Stine, aka Jovial Bob. He says that by writing longer sentences, you rob the readers of “natural pauses” that periods provide. The longer sentences mean that the readers don’t have time to take a breath, hence they build anticipation for the reader.

This helps the readers feel as tense as the characters and unknowingly get immersed in your horror story. If this is successful, the reader will want to get to the end of the story as they now have some sort of emotional investment in your story.

5. Carefully Choose the POV

The point of view you use might determine the type of emotional connection your readers have with your main character. If you decide to go with the first-person point of view, the stakes are high.

You can use the first-person POV to get the reader hooked right at the beginning of the story and get their hearts pumping faster as if they were inside the story.

However, if you use past tense , then the first person POV kind of reveals that the narrator lived to tell the tale.

If you’re not clever enough, that will ruin all your chances of ending with a dramatic twist because the reader already knows the narrator will survive the ordeals.

You can also utilize the third-person point of view, which works better for lengthier pieces.

6. Manipulate the Settings

You have to set the environment in such a way that your readers can start developing some phobia just from having a vivid image of the environment.

You can vividly describe enclosed spaces to evoke claustrophobic feelings from the reader. In horror movies, a simple creak of an upstairs floorboard in a lonely house is enough to spark fear into the audience. This can also work in a written story, just paint a picture of a dark and ghostly quiet house and suggest to the reader that there are some slow creaking sounds or that the chair on the porch is swaying but there is no one outside.

7. Read and Practice

It’s obvious that some people write better horror stories than others, and it helps to study those authors when learning how to write terror into your own stories.

Stephen King tops the list for most people, you can get one of his books and study how he writes his horror novels.

The goal is not to be a copycat but to get insights into horror story writing techniques.

After studying these best-selling authors, you can start practicing with story prompts. Writing prompts can expand your range of thinking and open up new avenues of imagination that you hadn’t thought of before.

8. Scare Them, Care About Them

You shouldn’t write only to scare your readers, you must write to make fans out of them. To do this, you need to give your character a life that your readers can relate to before you get to the “boo!” part.

And… use simple language and don’t try to be too clever with your jargon.

Spine-Chilling Horror Story Prompts

1. A boy goes missing in the middle of the night and his body is found floating in a river. Five years later, reports of sightings start flowing in, to the disgust of his parents because they want their son to rest in peace. Then all the people that reported seeing the boy begin mysteriously dying one by one.

2. A man makes a deal with the devil to bring back his parents who died in a car accident when he was five years old. The devil appears to have fulfilled his promise, but the parents end up murdering all the people close to the man.

3. A serial killer gets hold of a hacker’s laptop. The hacker had just hacked the security system of a house and the owners had just left for a convention abroad. Their son organizes a house party and invites a dozen of his friends to the party.

4. A man wakes up to find a creature with razor-sharp teeth and bloody claws seated on a chair in a dark corner of the room, waiting for him.

5. A member of a religious group on an excursion discovers that the priest is a murderous werewolf. He tries to secretly warn some members but they also turn out to be werewolves.

6. A boy in a small town accidentally enters a funeral home. While there, he finds two lifeless bodies of his neighbors. When he gets back home, he finds his neighbors sitting on the front porch, their gaze razor-focused on him. 

Ways to End a Horror Story

Evil gets vanquished… but….

Most horror stories that I have read or the movies I have seen don’t just want the villain to go out like sissy: they put up a very scary fight and they finally are conquered (dead and buried) and then there’s something that suggests that they aren’t really dead—their eyes open or hand shoots out of the grave just before the story ends.

Everyone’s dead, there’s total annihilation.

A horror story can also end with everyone dead and everything is destroyed. There isn’t a single surviving soul, but the good side has won. If you look at it from another perspective, this kind of ending also means that evil has won since evil almost always seeks the world’s destruction.

The Protagonist wins but has to sacrifice something

The hero vanquishes the monsters and restores peace and order. But…the hero has sacrificed something or someone. It may be his sanity or someone that he loves.

The hero uses some lesser evil to conquer the ultimate evil

In a desperate attempt to vanquish the evil haunting them, the main character(s) decide(s) to use some evil ways or make a deal with a less malevolent entity to conquer the bigger evil.

All hope is not lost

This is some sort of happy ending, where even though things seem pretty bad (i.e., the hero is hurt pretty bad or is dead), the reader is given some hope of the hero regaining his health or becoming a more powerful spirit after death. The evil is about to be vanquished or brought to justice.

Most Terrifying Horror Books

1. It – Stephen King

2. Pet Sematary – Stephen King

3. The House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski

Advice from Great Horror Writers

When you listen to great authors, you always get a few pointers on how to write spine-chilling and nightmarish horror stories. Here’s some quoted writing advice from accomplished horror authors.

“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”

“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”

Stephen King

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. —Stephen King”

“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.”

The thing I have learned about writing good horror stories is that you have to trap your readers. Whatever you do, make them feel like they’re part of the story—make them feel the urgency, the blood rush, the terror, and the relief at the end or the scariness of the last “hand popping out of the grave” scene.

And… you can only become a better horror story writer with a lot of practice.

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Home / Book Writing / How to Write Horror: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors

How to Write Horror: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors

I was never much of a horror fan at first, but as I grew older, I realized that horror allows us to confront our deepest, darkest fears in a safe fictional setting, and it became far more interesting to me after that. 

My love for the genre eventually led me to try my own hand at writing horror stories (still unpublished). Over the years, I've learned a lot about the horror fiction craft through trial and error, advice from more experienced horror writers, and studying successful works in the genre. 

In this article, I want to share everything I've learned about writing horror in the hopes that it will help aspiring authors.

  • What the horror genre is
  • All the different subgenres
  • What makes a good horror story
  • Step-by-step tips for writing horror effectively
  • The typical plot structure of most horror stories

Table of contents

  • Types of Horror Stories
  • What Makes a Good Horror Story?
  • What Are Some Common Horror Tropes?
  • 1. Read Plenty of Horror
  • 2. The Setting Creates the Atmosphere
  • 3. Mix Mortal Peril with Real-world Horror
  • 4. Ask Yourself What Frightens You?
  • 5. Flesh Out Your Characters
  • 6. Ground it in Real Life
  • 7. Personalize the Stakes
  • 8. Happy Moments Increase the Tension
  • 9. Preserve the Secrecy of the Antagonist
  • 10. Jumpscares Do Not Make a Horror Story
  • Act 1: Setting Up the Situation
  • Act 2: Rising Tension
  • Act 3: The Climax

What is the Horror Genre?

Horror is a genre intended to make the audience feel fear, dread, disgust and unease. 

Unlike thrillers which focus on suspense and mystery, horror aims to provoke visceral reactions by showing the disturbing and the macabre.

The horror genre has its roots in ancient folklore and myths about evil spirits, monsters, the afterlife, and the occult. Some of the earliest known stories with horror elements are Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Homer's Odyssey, and the English poem Beowulf. 

Gothic horror as a genre emerged in the late 18th century with the classic horror novels like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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In the 20th century, horror fiction expanded into numerous subgenres:

  • Supernatural horror – Stories featuring ghosts, demons, cursed objects, unexplained entities, and paranormal phenomena. Eg. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
  • Monster horror – Tales focused on vicious monsters and creatures like vampires, werewolves, zombies, and aliens. Eg. Salem's Lot by Stephen King.
  • Body horror/Splatterpunk – Graphic depictions of gore and mutilation of the body. Eg. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker.
  • Psychological horror – Terror arising from the mind, perception, and sanity of characters. Eg. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.
  • Survival horror – People trapped in an isolated setting trying to escape a terrifying threat. Eg. The Mist by Stephen King.
  • Cosmic horror – Threats from malevolent cosmic entities beyond human comprehension. Eg. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Slasher horror – Serial killers stalking and murdering victims in gruesome ways. Eg. Psycho by Robert Bloch.
  • Paranormal horror – Uncanny events that contradict the laws of nature. Eg. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
  • Zombie horror – Stories focused on zombies or zombie apocalypse scenarios. Eg. World War Z by Max Brooks.

Horror books certainly aren’t limited to these types of genre, but they are some of the most common.

Not all horror fiction works. Great horror stories have some common qualities that elevate them above mediocre attempts at the genre:

  • Strong atmosphere and tone – The setting, choice of words, and imagery establishes a tense, creepy, and unsettling mood right from the start.
  • Suspense and tension – Keeping the audience guessing about what might happen next. Using mystery and thrill to build suspense.
  • Vulnerable characters – Having empathetic characters that the audience can relate to and worry for when danger approaches.
  • Creative monsters/villains – Original and frightening antagonists that pose a credible threat without seeming silly or contrived.
  • Blurring reality – Obscuring the line between the real and unreal to make the audience question what is actually happening.
  • Slow reveal – Withholding just enough information to tease the audience and make them keep reading to get answers.
  • Disturbing imagery – Visual descriptions intended to shock, repulse, and frighten, like gruesome death scenes.
  • Themes of dread – Touching on universal human fears and phobias – darkness, pain, disease, isolation, madness, death, etc.
  • Shocking twists – Surprising revelations that turn the story in an unexpected direction.

There is a reason why Stephen King is such a master of horror. When you read his book, you’ll notice that he hits almost all of these spot on.

Over the years, certain plot devices, archetypes and conventions have emerged as popular tropes within the broad scope of horror fiction:

  • The haunted house – A house inhabited by ghosts, poltergeists, or other malevolent entities. Eg. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
  • Serial killers – Charismatic but deranged serial murderers with peculiar motives and modus operandi. Eg. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.
  • Cursed objects – Innocuous items that bring misfortune and harm to their owners. Eg. The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs.
  • Man-eating monsters – Predatory creatures hunting humans as prey. Vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Eg. The Howling by Gary Brandner.
  • Evil children – Uncanny, sinister, or possessed kids. Eg. The Omen by David Seltzer.
  • Zombies – Reanimated corpses hungering for living flesh. Eg. Zone One by Colson Whitehead.
  • Torture devices – Elaborate contraptions used to torture victims. Eg. Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum.
  • Creepy small towns – Remote towns hiding dark secrets and sinister cults. Eg. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
  • Demonic possession – Loss of bodily control due to a demonic spirit. Eg. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.
  • Creepy basements – Dark, subterranean spaces hiding disturbing secrets or serving as gateways to the underworld.
  • Mad scientists – Eccentric, amoral researchers carrying out unethical experiments. Eg. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • Ancient curses – Malevolent supernatural forces punishing violations of taboo. Eg. The Mummy.
  • Sinister cults – Secretive religious sects with sinister agendas and occult practices. Eg. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Haunted asylums – Derelict psychiatric hospitals harboring tortured spirits of the dead.
  • Ghost ships/vehicles – Phantom or possessed modes of transport carrying a deadly curse. Eg. The Fog by John Carpenter.
  • Evil dolls/toys – Playthings possessed by wicked entities or springing to murderous life. Eg. Child's Play franchise.
  • Eldritch abominations – Grotesque monstrosities that induce madness and doom. Eg. The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Ancient burial grounds – Tombs and burial sites harboring vengeful spirits and curses. Eg. Pet Sematary by Stephen King.

While tropes can be useful shorthand for conveying certain ideas, overusing them can make stories seem unoriginal and predictable. The best horror writers use tropes selectively and put their own spin on them.

11 Tips to Write Horror

Here are some tips to guide you in crafting captivating horror fiction:

As with any genre you want to write in, read lots of existing works in that style. Study how the masters of horror fiction like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Shirley Jackson create atmosphere, build tension, and deliver scares. 

Make notes on effective techniques you could incorporate into your own horror stories. Understanding what works will help you avoid bland clichés.

Establish an ominous mood from the very first page through your descriptions of the setting and location. Use sights, sounds, smells and other sensory details to make the place seem creepy and foreboding. 

Isolation – trapping characters someplace inaccessible – can heighten a feeling of vulnerability against supernatural or deranged threats. Make the setting itself feel like a character, interacting and affecting the characters in sinister ways.

While monsters can be scary, everyday real-world horrors resonate more profoundly. Stephen King often combines supernatural elements with psychological realism – dysfunctional families, abuse, addiction, grief – to ground the horror. 

The scariest stories feature threats that could plausibly exist in the real world, even if taken to fictional extremes. Readers find visceral, real-life horrors more affecting than fantastical monsters because they seem more likely to encounter them.

Think about your own deepest fears and phobias. What scares you in real life? Bringing personal dread into your horror writing will make it more intense. For example, if you have a fear of losing your mind, you can channel that into stories about characters going insane or losing their grip on reality. 

Draw upon your nightmares, both sleeping and waking, as inspiration to explore the dark corners of your psyche.

Weak character development can ruin an otherwise scary tale. The audience has to care what happens to the characters for the story to have impact. Take the time to flesh out distinct, relatable personalities. Give each character clear motivations , quirks, strengths and flaws. Make them seem like real people so that when you subject them to horrific ordeals, the audience worries if they will survive.

While horror often features supernatural threats, grounding stories in a believable real-world setting makes them resonate more deeply. Have your characters react in natural ways, with all the confusion, disbelief and denial actual people would exhibit. 

The mundane details of real life juxtaposed with the bizarre enhances the fright factor. Keeping supernatural elements to a minimum also gives your story a veneer of plausibility that augments the horror.

Generic horror tales are easy to shrug off, but when characters we care for are imperiled, we get invested in their predicament. Build up emotional connections between characters early on so that later we truly fear for them. 

Have threats target their vulnerabilities or personalities in some way. Personalized stakes make a horror story more intimate, raising the tension level.

While horror is often bleak, moments of hope, humor or tender character connections provide contrast that amplifies the darker elements of your story. After a traumatic event, show characters clinging to cherished memories or optimism to survive emotionally. 

Brief interludes where everything seems like it might be okay lull the reader into lowering their guard before you unleash the next shock or threat.

The greatest fear comes from the unknown. Give only hints about the nature and origin of supernatural entities or villains in your story. Keep their appearances brief and clouded in shadow. 

The less readers understand the threat, the more their imaginations will conjure something uniquely chilling. Allow the audience's mind to fill in the blanks with their own deepest dreads.

Cheap jump scares that briefly startle through loud sounds or sudden activity are not enough to carry a horror narrative. These should be used sparingly for occasional shock value. 

True horror comes from sustained atmosphere, engaging characters in peril, and tapping into primal fears. Unnerving psychological dread will stay with a reader long after a jump scare's momentary surprise fades. Don't rely on them as a crutch.

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Plot Structure of Most Horror

While not universally followed, many successful horror stories adhere to a three-act dramatic structure that does some of the following:

  • The Hidden Monster – Hint at the existence of a sinister threat through ominous events and unexplained phenomenon. Keep the audience guessing.
  • Introducing the Characters – Establish the characters, their relationships, and individual fears or weaknesses that can be exploited later. Make the audience care about them.
  • The Inciting Incident – A events which initiates the problem and draws the characters into dangerous circumstances or the path of the threat. The point of no return.
  • Meeting the Monster – The characters first come face-to-face with the threat, confirming its frightening nature or powers. Still keeps secrets for later.
  • The Turning Point – An event that escalates the peril and leaves the characters vulnerable to the monster/threat at the halfway point. Raises the stakes.
  • The Pursuit – The antagonist now relentlessly pursues the protagonists. Creates a constant sense of danger as the threat closes in.
  • The First Failed Confrontation – The hero or heroes attempt to defeat the threat but are unable to for some reason. Increases desperation.
  • All Is Lost – A low point where the characters seem totally helpless and all hope is lost. The threat will prevail.
  • The Breakthrough – The heroes rally, resolve their inner turmoil, and discover a way they might vanquish the threat at the last possible moment.
  • The Final Confrontation – The protagonists confront and do battle with the threat, either defeating it or failing nobly with consequences.
  • The “Death” – The demise, usually of the threat itself. However, one or more characters may also perish for a melancholy resolution, or there is a psychological death of some kind.
  • The Fallout – Wrap up the aftermath, showing how characters and the world at large were impacted and changed. Evil might still lurk, awaiting a sequel.

While there is more to a horror story than just these elements, this should hopefully allow you to get started writing your next horror story, and getting those words on the page.

Jason Hamilton

When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.

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Who Are the Best Horror Authors of All Time?

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Katie McLain

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

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As readers, we want the best. The best books, the best authors, the best-sellers. I’m a fan of horror novels, and I’ve read my share of classic & modern horror, so I decided to do a little research (150% totally statistically valid research*) on who readers consider to be the best horror authors.

To do this research, I googled “best horror authors” to see what resources would come up—in other words, if I was a hypothetical horror fan googling for reading recommendations, what would I find? I picked five different resources to use: the list of names suggested by Google at the top of the search results, a Goodreads list for the “Best Horror Novels ,” and three random booklists that appeared on the first page of my search terms. I tried to avoid lists with limiters (eg. “10 of the Best Horror Novels of 2017,” “Top 20 Female Horror Authors,” etc.) because they weren’t giving me a picture of who readers thought were the best horror authors in general.

I created a spreadsheet where I listed the authors from each site, and I indicated which resource(s) included them on the original list. For the Goodreads list, I included the first 20 unique authors on the list. And once I had finished this, I narrowed my list down to the authors who were included in 3 or more of the original resources.

Here is the list of the 14 authors who made it onto this weird hybrid list of the best horror authors, along with the number of resources that had listed that particular author:

Now, these are all classic, well-respected horror authors who wrote groundbreaking novels or who took the genre in new and unexpected directions. I’m not going to discount the fact that they were (or continue to be) immensely influential on the state of horror fiction today. (Although I will argue over whether Anne Rice’s novels should truly be considered “horror fiction,” because a vampire does not a horror novel make, but that’s a topic for another post.)

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But I am going to point out that the majority of the authors on this list are male, and every person on this list is white, which tells you a lot about the types of horror fiction and the horror authors that get promoted, read, and remembered. These authors listed above only make up a tiny portion of the horror fiction world, and if we only go by these lists purporting to give us “The Best Horror Authors of All Time,” we’re limiting our reading experiences and ignoring the work of some really fantastic authors.

I say we need to shake these lists up a little, so here are five people I would like to see added to the “Best Horror Author” lists:

1. Tananarive Due

Her socially-conscious horror novels blend elements of the supernatural, African mythology, and racial politics into seriously ominous and creepy stories.

Start with:  The Good House

2. Stephen Graham Jones

A Native American horror author whose stories make us think about what it means to be an “other,” or from society’s perspective, a “monster.”

Start with:  The Ones That Got Away

3. Lauren Beukes

How do you feel about time-traveling serial killers in historic Chicago? What about a supernatural creature that fuses humans and animals together in the dilapidated wreckage of Detroit? Lauren Beukes’s stories are convoluted, gory, and absolutely terrifying.

Start with:  Broken Monsters

4. Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle’s novels and characters are strange, surreal, and idiosyncratic, and his almost-formal style of writing makes the reading experience just as strange.

Start with:  The Ballad of Black Tom

5. Helen Oyeyemi

Even though Helen Oyeyemi’s writing more closely falls in line with magical realism, she writes dark fables that are just as scary as they are surreal. Start with:  White Is For Witching

*Not actually statistically-valid research

Want more “best-of” horror lists? Check out our compilation of 50 of the Best Horror Novels or 50 Must-Read Contemporary Horror Novels.

What other diverse authors would you want to see on a “Best Horror Authors” list?

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How to Write a Horror Story in 12 Steps

Spooky times are on their way! In this post, you’ll learn how to write a horror story in 12 easy steps. From the very beginning to the very end, you’ll be a horror writer in no time. Writing a horror story is easy, provided you know how to do it in the right way.

A horror story is usually about a particular issue or theme. It might be about the horrible nature of life, the evil of humans, or the beast inside us. It might even be about fear, or about the various ways in which we face fear. The one thing that all horror stories have in common is that they are “stories of fear.”

The best horror stories are about fear, whether it’s fear of death, fear of disease, fear of the unknown, fear of loneliness, or fear of pain. The main problem with horror stories is that most people don’t like to be scared. Our minds prefer the familiar, the comfortable, and the easy. So how do we get around that?

The answer is that we have to tap into our inner horror. We have to get inside our minds and into our souls to write about horror. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard either. If you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll be amazed at the results you can achieve.

10 Tips for Writing Horror Stories

Step 1: brainstorm some ideas, step 2: develop your idea, step 3: make a list of main characters, step 4: develop a horrific setting, step 5: outline the opening paragraph, step 6: plan the major climax, step 7: write a twisted ending , step 8: choose a scary writing style, step 9: write the first draft, step 10: edit and review your draft, step 11: choose a chilling book title , step 12: publish the book, how do you start a horror story, what are the 5 elements of a horror story, what makes a good horror story, how do you write in creepy writing, how do i make my character terrifying.

Before you begin writing a horror story, here are 8 tips to help you create the perfect, chilling tale:

  • Make it realistic: Don’t be afraid to make the story feel real and genuine so that the reader doesn‘t get lost in the atmosphere of the book. Try to use real-life situations as the base of the story, and then you can add the gore afterwards.
  • Include plot twists: The more twists you can add to the tale, and the more surprises that will occur, the stronger the plot. 
  • Avoid stereotypical characters: Just because it’s horror doesn’t mean you have to have a serial or a cannibal in your story. Go beyond the norm with your characters – remember anyone can be a serial killer, especially the least suspected person!
  • Pace yourself: Don’t just jump to the scariest moment in the beginning, slowly build up the suspense. Start by giving the reader hints of danger, and then bang when they least suspect bring in the gore.
  • Play on common fears: Common fears that people face every day. Such as being alone in the dark, being chased by a monster, having a bad dream, etc. Fears are icky, but they can be made into something interesting if you play with them.
  • Choose a writing style: There are many ways to write horror and some people find that they have an easier time in a journalistic style or in 1st person narrative. Think about what you’re most comfortable with and try it out.
  • Increase the stakes: The best horror stories involve a sense of fear and dread, so make sure to increase the stakes as you go. If your main character is at a party, maybe there’s something bad lurking in the back room or someone is trying to kill them. Make sure there’s something at stake for your characters and don’t forget to give them something to do besides running away.
  • Read popular horror stories: Horror can be a very dark genre, so you might want to check out other scary tales to get inspiration. For instance, Stephen King has written some of the most terrifying stories ever created and you might even learn a few things from them. 
  • Pick a horror sub-genre: Horror is very broad and can be done in many different styles and genres. I recommend going for a sub-genre like Gothic Horror, Zombie Horror, or Psychological Horror. You may find that you are more comfortable in one of these areas than in others.
  • Be imaginative: Your story should be as unique as possible so use your imagination and go crazy! Do not hold back when it comes to creativity, as this is how true horror is born.

How To Write a Horror Story in 12 Steps

Follow these 12 easy steps to create a spine-chilling story that will leave your readers in awe and fear.

Here’s a simple little trick that we can’t recommend enough: start with writing down all of the words and phrases that come to mind when you think about horror. Horror is much more than just scary stories; it’s about fear. So start thinking about the horror you see around you, and what keeps you up at night. The trick is to get into your mind, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable. Try listing your biggest fears, and all the things that make you feel scared. You can also check out this list of over 110 horror story prompts to get you started.

We also recommend keeping a nightmare journal  – Which is like a dream journal but filled with notes about your nightmares instead. After you had a really scary dream write down everything you remember from that dream. This can include what you saw, heard and felt during the dream. You can then use these notes as a source of inspiration for your horror story. 

how-to-write-horror-story-1

Check out these Halloween writing prompts and Halloween picture prompts for more ideas.

What keeps you up at night? The evil monsters in the monsters movies? The epidemic of a deadly virus? A tragic unsolved crime? Whatever your issue is, it can be used to create a horror story that will have your readers sweating bullets. Take your ideas from the previous step and develop them into a truly horrific story idea. Once you have written down the basic idea, try to think about how that idea can be made scarier. 

For example, if you’re writing about a deadly disease, you could use the theme of death to make it scarier. Have the characters die in the story in a mutated sort of way or from some weird side effect that leads to death. There are plenty of ways to make the story more horrible:

  • Try thinking about an ordinary situation that everyone goes through and add something horrific to it. The trick to making your story scary is to make it believable. In other words, you want to make your story as true to life as possible.
  • Focus on some terrifying emotions, fear being the obvious one. But you can also think about crudeness, disgust, as well as anger, regret, paranoia and shock factor. 
  • Add in some unnatural details, such as spaghetti turning into worms or blood coming out of solid, unliving objects.

how-to-write-horror-story-2

Write down all of the main characters in the story. If you have more than one, give each character a distinct personality. Make sure that each character has a certain reason for their actions and be sure that they reflect their personality.

Whatever your horror is, you should probably have a main character that will be a part of the story. When you write the story, it’s going to be easier to create a tense atmosphere if you have a character to relate to. Also, you may want to make sure that you have a few supporting characters that you can add to the story. The supporting characters might also become the main characters in any sequels you plan on writing.

The other characters in the story should be the antagonists. These are the evil people or creatures that are keeping you up at night. They might be the killer, the ghost , the werewolf , the zombie, the villain, the monster , the demon, or the bad guy. Whatever the issue is, that’s what the antagonist will be in the story. They might start out as just an ordinary person, but they’ll end up being more evil than the main character.

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Check out this guide on character development to help you develop a powerful character.

When writing a horror story, it’s very important that you get the setting right. Think about some scary places that you know of in real life or places that you’ve seen in your nightmares. You could also link your main setting choice to a common fear explored in your story. For example, if the core concept of your horror story is related to the fear of heights, then the main setting may be a high-rise building that’s filled with monsters. 

Other common horror story settings may include a haunted house , a creepy old mansion, graveyards and even quiet suburban towns. Whatever your choice of setting, try to write a detailed description of the main setting in this step. Think about the appearance of the location, the weather, the feeling someone has when standing in this location, as well as what kind of people live here, along with the beliefs they hold.

how-to-write-horror-story-4

Interested in creating a whole new world for your horror story? Check this master list of over 100 world-building questions .

The opening paragraph will be the first thing your readers see. It should be a teaser that sets the tone for the story. In other words, the first paragraph should be intriguing enough to make your readers want to keep reading. You should ideally include the main character’s name, the setting, the antagonist, the fear of the story, and the main character’s problem. 

If the story is about a haunted house, then the outline of the opening paragraph could say something like this:

The house is empty. It has been for a long time. It’s been vacant for years and years. It sits in the middle of a quiet, suburban neighbourhood. The grass is green and the trees are tall. The neighbourhood is quiet, but the town is not as quiet as everyone thinks. There are whispers, rumours, and stories. But the truth is, no one has ever seen or heard anything unusual here. Not until Wendy Williams and her daughter moved in. 

During this step, it is important to try to write an opening that gives the reader a taste of the entire story. But of course, don’t give too much away – Just a hint of fear will do! Your goal here is to have the reader wanting more. 

how-to-write-horror-story-5

See this list of over 150 story starters to help you get started with your spooky tale.

This step is basically the big bang. It’s where your main character goes head-to-head with the antagonist in the story or has to face their greatest fear. It’s also when your main character learns the truth about the antagonist. The goal of this step is to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. 

When writing the climax, think about what will happen, who will be in danger, and what the outcome will be. If you’re struggling with the climax, then you should start with a smaller problem and work your way up to the big one. For example, you could start with a little bit of trouble with a character, such as a bad dream or the main character getting hurt. This will get your readers involved in the story. You may find that once you start writing, you’ll come up with a more complicated problem that your main character will have to solve.

Here’s an example of what a potential climax scene sounds like in a horror story:

The sound of footsteps is heard coming down the stairs. The footsteps are too heavy, and they seem to be coming from the basement. The door to the basement creaks open. Then a face is seen in the door frame. It’s a face with large, red eyes, and it’s full of hate.

how-to-write-horror-story-6

In horror stories, the twist ending is almost always a shock reveal of some kind. Whether the true murderer is revealed, or the identity of the antagonist is revealed, it should always be a surprise. 

There are several ways to write a twist ending, but you’ll probably want to start with a twist that’s a little more obvious. You could reveal who the antagonist really is, or even what the main character has been hiding. Or you could have the main character learn some shocking information that sends them in a completely different direction. 

The unique thing about the horror genre is that even after the mystery or problem is solved, it’s not always 100% solved. There’s always some darkness lurking somewhere. Was he really the murderer? Maybe there’s more than one monster? Give this final hint of darkness to keep your readers second-guessing even after the book is over. Now that’s where the true horror lies!

step 7-horror-story

Of course, horror stories are written in a more darker and dramatic style compared to other genres. But there’s more to horror writing than just using dark words and descriptions of gory scenes. In this step, you want to think about the actual writing of your horror style. Will it be written in the first person, second person or third? Do you want to take a more journalistic approach where you report horrific events? Or will you take a more narrative approach, where the reader is on the outside looking in?

In our opinion, a horror story written in the first person has a much more powerful effect. There’s something about having the perspective of the main character that makes them more vulnerable. There’s also something about being told a story by another character that makes the story more real.

While the third person is great for taking the reader through a story, it doesn’t allow for the depth of emotion that can be found in the first person. If you choose to write in the third person, then you’ll want to stick with the voice of an objective narrator who is reporting on the events of the story. 

Either way, you’ll want to try to avoid too many descriptions of gruesome scenes. You want to keep the focus on your main character’s emotions and how they feel, and their problem. 

8--horror-story

Finally, it’s time to start writing your story! Hopefully, after all these steps, you now have a rough outline for your story. But even if you don’t, just start writing! The first draft is usually the most important one. So even if you don’t have a complete outline, get started on your story. Just start writing and don’t worry about anything else! You might also want to read this post on how to outline a book for more guidance.

While writing your draft, you’ll want to keep these things in mind:

  • Make sure your story is believable to a certain extent. Of course, you might think that vampires aren’t real – But make them real for your readers! This is the most important thing. If your story is impossible or unbelievable, then no one will want to read it.
  • Avoid using clichés. These are words or phrases that are overused in stories and don’t really add anything to your story.
  • Use active voice instead of passive voice. Passive voice is when a sentence starts with “someone” or “something”. Active voice is when the sentence starts with “I” or “we”.
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs. Long sentences make it difficult to read, and paragraphs look heavy. 
  • If you’re struggling to get anything written down, then start with the easiest or shortest scenes first. You can always come back to the more complicated areas of your story later when you’re ready. 

And finally, have fun with it! Writing is supposed to be a fun hobby, so don’t take yourself too seriously! 

9-horror-story

The hard part is done, now you’re ready to start editing your story! Start by reading the story to yourself a couple of times. Each time you read your story highlight areas that you are unsure of, or would like to improve. At the same time look out for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and sentences that sound a bit off. Once you’re done with this review, you can go back and make the relevant edits to your story.

Next, you’ll want to gather some feedback. This is where you’ll want to have a second or third person read your story. It’s not a good idea to let one person read your draft, as they’ll be biased towards what they like. So get a few different people to read your story, and make sure they have a different perspective. They can be family members, teachers, or even a friend that’s not familiar with your writing style. 

When asking for feedback, you can ask the following questions:

  • What are the most important parts of the story?
  • Are there any parts of the story that don’t make sense or are confusing?
  • What did you like most about the story?
  • Can you think of anything that could be improved?
  • Did you like the main character?

Once you have the feedback, you can go back and make the changes. It’s important to make the edits, but don’t obsess over it. In the end, you want to make the story the best that it can be. And by doing this, you’ll be on your way to writing a great horror story! 

step 10

It’s time to choose a book title. This is a very important part of a horror story. Not only does a good title help to give your story an identity, but it also helps to tell the reader what kind of story they’re about to read. The title should have a great hook. It should be intriguing and a little bit scary. If you’re struggling to think of a great book title, then you can try to think about what you’d like to read. Would you like to read a book that scares you? Or would you rather read a book that’s about someone’s struggles? 

If we look at some popular horror book titles, we can see that most of them are quite descriptive:

  • The Woman in Black
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • The Haunting of Aveline Jones
  • The Haunting of Hill House
  • The Graveyard Book

Essentially, they either describe the antagonist of the story or the main setting in the story. Based on this try to summarise your horror story in as little as 3 to 5 words. Think about the main setting or the main villain/monster of your tale and come up with some book title ideas. If you’re still struggling, check out this horror book title generator for some more interesting ideas. 

An important thing to note here is that you should make sure that your book title is not already in use or taken by another author. Try doing a quick Google search or a search on Amazon to see if your title is available for the taking! 

step 11

Your book is now finished! You’ve written the first draft, edited it, gathered feedback, and now it’s time to publish it! There are many ways to publish your book. The most popular method is to publish it on Amazon as a self-published author. You can also work with a professional publisher to get your book to market.

Remember that if you’re a new writer, then it’s not a good idea to start by publishing your book on Amazon. It’s better to start slow and work your way up. You don’t want to rush your writing and end up with a book full of mistakes! Start by publishing your book using a free tool like the Imagine Forest story creator , then later work your way up to publishing on Amazon. 

12

That’s it! Now you should be ready to write your own horror story! Give it a go and see what you can come up with!

Frequently Asked Questions

There are a number of ways to start writing a horror story:

  • Focus on your own fears. Start by listing your fears and develop your story idea from there. 
  • Introduce the character. You can describe your main character in the first few scenes. Make them as normal, and relatable as possible
  • Describe a setting. If the setting is key to your story, then describe every inch of it. Make your readers feel like they are right there with you. 
  • Start with some action. This could be a bloody murder, someone screaming and running or anything else that makes the reader feel uncomfortable.
  • Picture a harmonious place. You can describe a calm and happy place. Somewhere taken from a romantic rom-com type story or a happy family movie, which all suddenly changes.
  • Start at the end. Rewrite your potential ending as the beginning, and then work your way backwards. 

The 5 elements of horror include Character, Setting, Action, Horror, and Resolution. All these elements are crucial in developing a gruesome horror story.

See our guide on the 5 elements of story-telling for more information.

A good horror story has fear at its core. The reader must be scared as they read the story. If not then you missed something important in your novel. A good horror story must be scary, but it should also have an element of realism to it. The story should include relatable main characters, a scary antagonist, a creepy setting and of course a shocking reveal at the end. 

Your first step is to try to think about the creepiness of the setting. Is it a dark and scary place? Is it full of secrets? If it is, then you have a good place to start. Try to be very detailed, and specific when describing the setting. Describe the blood on the wall as it drips down, or the lock on the door that won’t turn. Make the reader feel as if they are right there. Use descriptive words and metaphors to bring your gory details to life.

To make your character as terrifying as possible, you could try the following techniques:

  • Make your character an outcast. They don’t fit in with the main group of characters and can’t be trusted.
  • Give them a story to tell. A dark and bloody past.
  • Make them a loner. They can’t trust anyone else and have no friends.
  • Make them a survivor. The main character of your story has been through a lot and can’t be stopped.
  • Give the character an important title. Someone who is important in a society that has deadly plans. You can’t trust them, but have no choice but to follow their rules.

Did you find this guide on how to write a horror story useful? Let us know in the comments below.

How to Write a Horror Story

Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.

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The Write Practice

How to Write Horror: 8 Crucial Components to Terrify and Delight

by Sarah Gribble | 0 comments

The horror genre might call to mind slasher films or other monster movies your teenage friends made you watch at night to scare you out of your wits. But horror is more than a shock fest. Scary stories have the ability to reveal the human condition in ways many other genres cannot. Today let's look at how to write horror.

How to Write Horror

Types of stories

We're continuing our series on how to write each of the ten types of stories , based on values. Values are defined by what a character wants or needs most in a story. Story types can defy genre boundaries which are often more about reader expectations and specific tropes, but the two often work together to create a satisfying reader experience.

Here are the six value scales with the plot types they tend to fall into:

  • Survival from Nature > Life vs. Death
  • Survival from Others > Life vs. Fate Worse than Death
  • Love/Community > Love vs. Hate
  • Esteem > Accomplishment vs. Failure
  • Personal Growth > Maturity vs. Immaturity
  • Transcendence > Right vs. Wrong

Value Based Plot Types

With that in mind, let's delve into how to write a horror book or story.

What is horror?

Horror is a genre of literature or film that wants to evoke fear, shock, and suspense. Characters battle for their life versus a fate worse than death.

What does that mean? A fate worse than death can mean everything from experiencing embarrassment to paralyzing fear to pain to a loss of innocence.

There are many types of horror sub-genres, ranging from psychological horror to horror comedy to cosmic horror, to slashers and body horror. Horror stories often (but don't have to) have supernatural horror elements, such as ghosts, monsters, vampires, and witches.

Common techniques used to create horror include jump scares, gore, unexpected twists, isolation, and eerie sound effects. Writing horror successfully requires an understanding of human psychology and the ability to create tension and suspense through careful pacing and narrative structure.

Horror isn't just about gore or terror, however. Many horror stories include societal, environmental, or psychological themes.

To write effective horror stories, authors must be able to craft believable characters that audiences can sympathize with as well as build suspense through cleverly crafted plots.

An Example of Master Horror Fiction: Poe

Edgar Allan Poe's story “The Tell Tale Heart” is a story most of us read in school. If you haven't read it or you need a refresher, read it for free on Guttenberg .

“The Tell Tale Heart”   is narrated by an unreliable, unnamed narrator who is confessing to a murder, while simultaneously trying to prove he's not insane. He's killed an old man, whom he supposedly loved, because the man's eye creeped him out. The police show up, and he's calm and collected until he thinks he can hear the old man's heart beating under the floor boards. The beating gets louder until the man confesses to the police, begging them to make the noise stop.

This story packs all the elements of horror into around 2,000 words. The unreliable narrator gives readers a sense of unease and ambiguity throughout the story. Is the man actually mad or is there something supernatural happening?

We have fear, both from the narrator (that creepy eye) and from the old man, who is blind and suspects someone is watching him. We have a murder with dismemberment. We have isolation, as the old man is alone, but the narrator also complains of being scared in the dark night by himself.

Most of all, though, we are on the life vs. fate worse than death scale. The narrator is scared of being seen as insane, which is worse than death for him and is the cause of his confession. He still ends up arrested for the murder, though, which is also a fate worse than death.

What Makes a Good Horror Story?

What makes a good horror story is the ability to tap into our deepest fears and deliver them in a captivating way. Even if you don't consider yourself a horror writer, practicing a few short stories in this genre can help you understand human fear and the way it motivates action.

Setting and atmosphere

A good horror story should start off slow, introducing the characters and setting of the story before slowly building up tension as the horror begins to unfold. The setting of horror stories is often mundane and familiar initially—a summer camp, a basement, a house—but turns sinister as the story progresses.

The more the reader or audience can relate to the setting, the scarier it will be when the protagonist encounters anything spooky. Use sensory details to build the atmosphere. Old houses or rundown buildings and impending bad weather are common in horror stories.

  • Bram Stoker's Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker arriving at Dracula's castle, which is isolated, rundown, and surrounded by fog.
  • Movies like  The Conjuring  and  Poltergeist  (and a ton of others) start by a family moving into a new house.
  • Midsommar begins in a seemingly idyllic community.
  • A lot of horror—like The Shining— uses an impending storm to indicate coming doom. The crescendo of the storm culminates in the climax.

Believable character

Characters should be relatable and sympathetic so that readers can connect with them on an emotional level. Readers need to care about what happens to them in order for the horror to be effective. Develop their backstories and motivations, so that when terrible things happen to them, it feels like a genuine tragedy.

  • The Mist by Stephen King opens with a man cleaning up his property after a weird storm. We're introduced to the entire family and a neighbor and have a chance to learn the dynamics there before any of the true action happens.
  • Danny in  The Shining is a rather lonely little boy who has an alcoholic for a father. The reader can't help but want to protect him. His mother is hoping the move to the Overlook will cure their family. This broken family makes Jack's devolution more horrifying and tragic.

Fleshed out antagonist

The antagonist should be well-crafted and have both human qualities and monstrous ones; this will help create a sense of dread in readers as they don’t know what to expect from the villain. Ensure that your antagonist is well-rounded and has their/its own motivations, even if that motivation is something as simple as eating or breeding.

  • The antagonist in the movie Species  starts off as an alien-human hybrid lab experiment. Her core motivation is procreation and because of how she was treated by her captors in her backstory, any human sympathy she might have had is nullified in her quest.
  • In  The Creature from the Black Lagoon , Gillman just wants people to leave his territory and to be left alone (preferably with Kay, who he's rather smitten with).
  • In Stephen King's  Misery , Annie Wilkes wants to save her favorite author (and maybe keep him around a bit longer than necessary initially), then desperately wants to save her beloved book series.
  • Hannibal Lector is a culturally refined, brilliant, manipulative cannibal who held a prestigious place in his profession and prefers to eat the rude. In later stories, we discover he was traumatized as a child.

Foreshadowing

Use subtle hints or clues that something scary is about to happen. Foreshadowing can create a sense of anticipation and dread in the audience. Some common elements of foreshadowing in horror include: mysteriously locked doors, getting a chill for seemingly no reason, something being where a character didn't think they left it, hearing a strange noise, being warned off by the locals, or learning early on of a historic tragic event.

  • In  The Shining , we're told if there's a snowstorm no one would be able to get to the hotel. Jack is also warned by the hotel owner that the former caretaker killed his family before taking his own life.
  • In  The Haunting of Hill House , Eleanor receives warnings in the form of signs reading “Dare” and “Evil” and someone telling her she will be sorry the gate was ever opened. (In the Netflix series based on this book, there are ghosts hidden in corners and out of focus in many scenes.)

No help in sight

As your story progresses, your characters can't simply call the police or go to a neighbor for help. If that were the case, the horror would be over in a few minutes and the story would end. It should look increasingly doubtful that your characters will escape their situation. Isolation—physical or psychological/emotional—is a common way to achieve this.

  • Nick Cutter's The Troop places a boy scout troop on a remote island with only one adult. When the adult is removed from the storyline, the boys are left on their own to battle a parasitic outbreak.
  • Stephen King's The Shining takes place at a remote hotel during the offseason and gets worse when a blizzard traps the Torrances.
  • Most R.L. Stine books feature children who aren't physically isolated from others, but the adults don't believe them and therefore aren't going to help.
  • Zoje Stage's Baby Teeth features parents who can't control their nightmare child. The help they do receive doesn't work.
  • In  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , any hope of help is dashed as the main character slowly realizes everyone in town is the enemy.

Deeper themes and ideas

Horror can be a powerful tool for exploring deeper themes and ideas. Use your writing to explore issues like mortality, identity, and the human condition. Don't just rely on jump scares and gore, but instead use horror to tell a compelling story with something to say.

  • Most vampire stories are about addiction and/or the rich literally sucking the life out of the poor.
  • The 2022 movie  Smile  is about the “contagious” nature of trauma and generational trauma.
  • Stories like The Blob ,  Resident Evil ,  Frankenstein , and Mira Grant's Parasitology   series warn about science gone wrong.

Effective pacing

Effective horror requires careful pacing. You don't want to reveal too much too soon, but you also don't want to drag things out for too long. Use pacing to build tension and create a sense of urgency.

Keep your readers guessing and eager to find out what happens next. But don't exhaust them; every scene shouldn't be one of terror. In fact, the jump scares and ghost sightings aren't how you scare your readers. The more important part of horror is when you slow down and give your reader room to explore and get comfortable. Then you pull out the monster.

  • A man runs in and says someone disappeared in the mist. (Faster.)
  • Everyone agrees to stay put for a while. Things calm for a moment. (Slower.)
  • Then they go to the back to fix something, and a man is pulled away by giant tentacles. (Faster.)
  • When they tell everyone what happened there are a multitude of reactions, but the point is there is no immediate threat for a while from the monsters. (Slower.)
  • Someone decides to lead a group of people outside and they are killed quickly. (Faster.) etc.

See how we're not seeing the monsters every scene? This gives us as readers (and the characters) time to imagine what the monsters look like, what their motivations are, and to try to come up with a way out. These slower scenes also give us time for some other elements of story, like backstory, tension, and subplots.

Twists, shocks, ambiguity, and everlasting evil

A good horror story should either end with an unexpected plot twist or shock that will leave readers stunned yet satisfied or with an ambiguous ending where the reader is left unsettled because they aren't positive what happens to the main character.

  • In Ania Ahlborn's  The Shuddering , we're left with imagining what happened to the main character and his dog.
  • In Dahl's  The Witches , the reader is left with the image of the boy/mouse and his grandmother bouncing around the world eradicating witches. We don't know how long they will live (ambiguity), there are still witches, even if they did defeat the specific antagonists for the book (evil still exists), and the boy remains a mouse (twist and shock).
  • Every horror movie in a franchise normally ends with the antagonist making an appearance even though they're supposed to be dead and defeated by the protagonist.
  • In Shirley Jackson's  The Lottery , we know exactly what happens, but we have no idea  why this stoning ritual is part of this society. We don't even know when or where this society exists.

How to Write Horror: Lean Into the Fear Factor

Fear is the crucial element in horror story writing. As a genre, horror writing leaves you plenty of room to explore themes and subplots that really dive into the dark fears of your readers—and that creates an emotional experience for your target audience. Even common fears and ordinary situations can turn dark in the hands of a master horror writer.

Dive into your biggest fears to find your best horror ideas. Then share them with us!

Want more horror prompts? Check out our 20 Spine-tingling Horror Story Prompts here.

What fears do you find most compelling in horror? Tell us in the comments .

Today, tap into that story value of life versus a fate worse than death. Set the timer for 15 minutes and make a list of fears you or a potential character might have and then create a scene where they realize their worst fears are coming true.

Share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here , and leave feedback for a few other writers. Not a member? Join us here . 

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Sarah Gribble

Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death , her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.

Follow her on Instagram or join her email list for free scares.

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Genre Tips: How to Write Horror

story writers horror

As you may remember, I crafted the series around the five major genres to which I felt I could bring value (those being  Fantasy ,  Romance ,  Historical ,  Mystery , and  Literary ). One major genre I did not feel qualified to write about, simply because I don’t read or watch much of it, is Horror. In response to my mentioning this in the series’ opening post, Horror aficionado Oliver Fox stepped up to go deep in a guest post on this popular genre.

Today, I’m happy to share with you  a thought-provoking and thorough examination of this archetypal genre. 

In the post, Oliver talks about  important tips and tricks for structure and theme in Horror, as well as the symbolic “character triad” of the Haunted House, the Average Joe, and the Monster.

Keep reading for more!

Horror may be the least understood and most maligned genre. It is usually portrayed as revelry in violence, gore, and nihilism, and thus something immoral—perhaps even wicked. Or horror stories are thought of as loose narratives punctuated by a series of jump-scares. Sadly, these are accurate portrayals of many stories that have become mainstream in the horror genre. However, it’s worth considering whether glorying in the darkest human tendencies is necessary or even desirable in horror.

My aim is to determine the essence of horror and explore it using stories that provoke our deepest fears without relying on our reactions to surprises, deformity, and death. I believe great horror aims for more lingering types of fear brought about by experiences of the Uncanny and the Unknown, unsettling us and filling us with dread. Thus, equipped with a more nuanced understanding of horror, this article will explore how to write horror.

Now that we have a better idea of what isn’t necessary to horror, let’s consider what the genre’s essential qualities are and how to write horror using the Big Three of storytelling as our guides: Character, Plot, and Theme.

3 Tips for How to Write Horror

Character triad in horror: the haunted house, the average joe, and the monster.

The Haunted House

In this article, I’m treating the setting as a character , which isn’t unprecedented; the idea of setting as character has existed for a while. Like a human character, a setting that is a character has a past with consequences that linger into the present. Through an understanding of the setting’s past and present, we get hints how it might interact with the characters within—what it might “do” to them in the future.

The archetypal horror setting is the Haunted House. The setting doesn’t have to be a literal house—it could be anything: a derelict research lab, a stranded spaceship, or an arctic research facility. What’s most important are a few key features.

The Haunted House must be:

  • Disempowering
  • Evoke a sense of Lingering Dread because of some terrible past events that occurred there—although often that past isn’t immediately apparent.

The horror setting is haunted by its past, perhaps metaphorically (in that there are still hints and vestiges of said past) or perhaps literally (by something monstrous tethered to it, actively stalking its corridors).

For Example: In the film Alien, there are two Haunted Houses. The first is the planet where the Nostromo ’s crew lands to investigate the source of a signal. There, they discover a collection of unsettling tableaux: a crashed spaceship, within it a fossilized humanoid alien, and a room full of large, leathery eggs. Nothing is actively stalking the setting, but the Nostromo ’s crew can tell this was the site of some horrific event. While on the planet, one of the crew members foolishly tinkers with the eggs and becomes host to a parasite which injects him with an embryo. Soon the embryo gestates, bursts from the unfortunate crewman, and begins actively haunting the Nostromo , picking off the crew one by one.

story writers horror

Alien (1979), 20th Century Fox.

The Average Joe/Jane

In many genres, the protagonist is someone extraordinary , whether in capabilities or because of some special origin and destiny. However, this trope doesn’t work for horror. In horror, the protagonist ought to be exceptional only in a lack of any capabilities or resources. This is to emphasize their vulnerability as they navigate the Haunted House and face the Monster, increasing the audience’s concern for their safety. Think about it: a story about Thor going up against a Japanese ghost girl inspires zero tension, no matter how spooky the ghost is. To build tension, we need to be acutely aware of the protagonist’s helplessness.

For Example: In the book and film Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is a young stay-at-home wife pregnant with her first child. Rosemary has recently moved into a new building where she knows no one. Virtually everyone marginalizes and disenfranchises her: her new neighbors gaslight her whenever she raises concerns about strange goings on, her doctor insists she ignore her instincts about her pregnancy, and even her husband abuses her. Rosemary is disempowered in every way imaginable and has no one to turn to when she realizes she and her child are at the center of a cultic conspiracy. With the odds stacked against Rosemary, we can’t help but fear for her safety.

story writers horror

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Paramount Pictures.

The Monster

The Monster is the central figure in all horror stories. According to horror philosopher Noel Carroll, a horrific monster is anything outside the natural order.

It is unnatural because it is a:

  • Fusion of opposites (eg., vampires, who are simultaneously dead and alive).
  • Fission. This indicates oddly paired or sequenced elements (e.g., werewolves, who are humans most of the time but can change into creatures capable of indiscriminately murdering loved ones).
  • Formlessness . These are misshapen (even shapeless) creatures, which break down our established categories (e.g., a sentient blob or mist consuming everything in its path).

But Monsters can’t be just unnatural; they must also be morally impure deviants. Deviant Monsters willfully upend moral values by indulging in harmful taboos, such as acts of violence toward the self and others. Such moral monsters are the perverse mirror image of a hero. Just as heroes represent an idealized vision of humanity who sacrifice their own desires for the needs of others, deviant monsters are vicious in every way, sacrificing the needs of others for their own desires.

For Example: One film that features a Monster in which all three categories are combined into one terrifying creature is The Thing . The Thing is a fusion of opposites: an alien virus that perfectly replicates the infected host at the cellular level, so the resultant hybrid organism is convinced it is still whatever it was originally… until the dormant virus feels threatened. That leads us to fission. The Thing usually appears as a perfect doppelgänger of the organism it has infected, but if it fears it has been found out, it will rip apart the host and repurpose body parts as weapons or extra limbs so it can escape. Third, when the Thing dismantles its host, the person’s appearance becomes misshapen to the point of formlessness. Finally, the Thing is morally impure because it inflicts violence on its victims at every level of their being by invading their bodies, destroying them, and co-opting their constituent parts to serve its own purposes.

story writers horror

The Thing (1982), Universal Pictures.

Story Structure in Horror: Tension-Release Cycles

When writing horror, the temptation is to dive headlong into the action, to throw the Average Joe into the Haunted House straight away and cut loose the Monster. However, the audience needs time to connect with the protagonist, to unravel steadily the mystery of the setting’s dreadful past, to wonder what kind of monster lurks just out of sight. That may all sound counterintuitive, but consider this: if you don’t know the characters well enough to care about them, are you going to worry when a Monster stalking them from the shadows of the Haunted House? If we know all the gruesome details about the setting’s past from the get-go, it’s like working a puzzle with detailed instructions on hand; we won’t get the sensation of dawning comprehension—we don’t experience the chilling realization, “Oh, _______ happened in this room. This place was for _______!” If we are familiar with the Monster too early on—its appearance, methods, and intentions—it is demoted to the status of a typical villain.

To create tension, skilled horror writers set up the expectation of something terrible happening while ensuring the audience can’t predict when it will happen. The buildup to a scare is as important as the scare itself. Let the audience do the work of building tension for you during the long, quiet moments by filling these stretches with false threats: moving shadows, deceptive images in mirrored surfaces, background noises, etc.

Okay, so build tension, then let all heck loose and keep it coming nonstop , right? Nope! Just as it is essential for tension to build to a breaking point in horror, so too should we ensure the audience is given time to recuperate and catch their breath before introducing the next scare. Otherwise, you risk exhausting them until they are emotionally spent by the time you reach the final confrontation with the Monster.

For Example: Stephen King’s IT brilliantly shows each aspect of the tension-release cycle in horror. The story opens by introducing each member of the Loser’s Club, giving you time to get to know them enough that you care about their safety. We then see a brief encounter with the monster, IT—just enough that we have some sense of what he’s done, but not to where we fully understand the extent of ITs intent and capabilities. Then we move on to the next member of the Loser’s Club. This cycle occurs for each character, creating emotional peaks and valleys. The setup for a new character’s story functions as the emotional valley for the previous character’s tension-release cycle.

story writers horror

It (2017), Warner Bros.

Theme in Horror: Facing the Monsters Within

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For me, all these elements come together to suggest that horror, at its best, holds up a mirror to the audience, helping them consider a central thematic question: what is monstrous within themselves and how can they overcome that monstrousness?

The horror protagonist is ordinary, as are we, allowing us to  empathize with them. They become our avatar. The Haunted House represents self-reflection, a place wherein we feel alienated, isolated, and disempowered because we are alone with ourselves. The Monster is an embodiment of the worst aspects of ourselves, the things we keep hidden from the rest of the world out of shame; these are our darkest desires run amok, haunting our conscience.

If we apply this theory at every level while designing our Horror story, we can create a truly rich narrative. For example:

  • The Average Joe character is haunted by a deep moral flaw and/or selfish past action (or failure to act)  that they find monstrous about themselves.
  • Both the Haunted House and the Monster evoke that flaw, embodying it so the protagonist cannot ignore them.
  • The story climaxes when the Average Joe enters the Haunted House and faces the Monster who embodies their own flaw.
  • The ending tells us something about the destructive nature of the moral flaw the Monster embodies, or at least the danger of waiting too long to face it.

For Example: The Twilight Zone episode “ The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a masterclass of the horror model described above. Strange things happen in a quiet, isolated suburb, prompting a little boy to draw comparisons between the strange events and a story he’d read about alien invaders. Some of the other citizens buy into the boy’s alien invasion theory and, fueled by old personal grudges, begin accusing one another of being alien monsters. The accusations devolve the situation into an all-out witch-hunt; the citizens of the neighborhood commit atrocities against those they fear are monsters. The theme that unfolds can be described as: “When we ignore our prejudice for too long, that prejudice grows into outright fear, then hatred—a hatred which demonizes others to where we can justify even the most evil actions taken against them until we become something demonic ourselves.” This terrifying premise unfolds with no jump scares and few depictions of violence.

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The Twilight Zone (195-64), CBS.

Contrary to popular belief, great horror stories are not just exercises in violence, gross-outs, and gore. At their best, they are apt, timely, and frightening social commentaries and self-reflections filtered through the lens of metaphor. True horror might even be the most moral genre, thanks to its uncompromising depiction of monstrous evil as horrifying. I hope you find this article insightful, interesting, and helpful as you write your own horror stories!

Previous Posts in This Series:

  • How to Write Fantasy
  • How to Write Romance
  • How to Write Historical Fiction
  • How to Write Mystery
  • How to Write Literary Fiction

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written in the horror genre? What are your thoughts on how to write horror? Tell me in the comments!

References and Further Reading

  • Monsters Within . . . “The Horrific, Moral, and Transcendental”   by D. Breyers
  • Monsters Within . . . “Victorian Horror Novels”   by J. Cognard-Black
  • Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre by M. Duran
  • Supernatural Horror in Literature . by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Horror Protagonists – How Ordinary Characters Make Scarier Games – Extra Credits by J. Portnow
  • The Beast Macabre – What Makes a Monster Scary? – Extra Credits by J. Portnow
  • Shiver with Anticipation – How Horror Games Create Tension Cycles – Extra Credits by J. Portnow
  • Places of Horror – The Secrets of Scary Settings – Extra Credits by J. Portnow
  • The Twilight Zone – What Do We Fear? | Video Essay by Screened
  • Monsters Within . . . “Psychological Horror Films” by E.O. Williams

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Oliver Fox earned his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis (’15) and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans (’21). He has worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch literary journal (’16) and as a manuscript analyst for The Spun Yarn . He is a regular contributor to Writers Write and the author of The Fantasy Workbook .

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what no audio file? I really enjoy listening to those…

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Glad you enjoy the audio versions! But, no, not today. I don’t record audio for guest posts. I think it would be weird to have my voice for other people’s words. 🙂

Thanks for sharing with us today, Oliver!

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Thank you for the opportunity to share, Katie!

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Excellent summary — thank you Oliver.

This really does bring horror together, to show how the monster is only the second-most-important part of it. The classic complaint against weak horror is “Yes, an okay threat, but it didn’t make me care about the *people* in it,” and people who dislike it write it off as all chills and no character. The characters have to be the center of it.

So “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” captures it perfectly. In the best horror, the greatest terror isn’t the “monster” — it’s what people will do to escape it.

Thank you, Ken!

I agree–without an empathetic protagonist to root for, Horror stories devolve into a weird betting game about who will survive the longest.

That really sums it up — and we’ve all seen stories or crowds where fans *did* devolve into that.

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This was great! Thank you! I am not a horror reader, but I do love Victorian Gothic literature, which is the predecessor of modern horror, and the reason I love it is because it tends toward all the excellence that you pointed out as good horror; strong sense of morality, an exploration of the darkness within people, the fact that it is normal (well, normal Victorian) people facing down the monsterous and depravity (sometimes -often- their own), the atmosphere….

I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Grace!

You’re exactly right: Victorian Gothic literature is such an important forbear of contemporary Horror, along with many classic Folktales and Fairytales (believe it or not).

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Wow! Thank you for your insights! I didn’t realize how complex horror could be. The Thing is one of my favorite movies, but I always thought of it more as dark scifi. I can see now how it totally fits into the horror genre. I love that episode of Twilight Zone too.

I’m so glad you found the article insightful; thank you for reading it!

Some have suggested that Horror is the oldest genre, so it makes sense that proverbial “well” goes as deep as it does.

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Great post on horror! I hadn’t thought about it that deeply before. Intriguing!

Thank you, Eric–I’m grateful you found the article intriguing. 🙂

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I never thought of horror as a genre that Christians were allowed to read. Although I still may not like it, I now understand that it has the potential for good. Thank you Oliver!

Thank you for sharing, Christopher!

I’m delighted that the article shed a new light on Horror for you, giving you a fresh perspective on its potential.

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I once assumed there could be no such thing as Christian horror, simply because one assumes if there was a demon, a Christian protagonist would make the like the Apostles and exorcise it. Similar to how most horror movies would be short if characters had a gun and/or a cell phone 🙂

But! In high school I stumbled across some of Frank Peretti’s horror novels, and he added a twist. The novels are written from a Christian POV, and the situations usually involved a town threatened by the machinations of demon-aligned people. You sometimes see the story from the POV of the demons influencing people, people who may or may not be “bad” but just “susceptible.” For example, in one case the state of “Complacency” is personified by a titular demon who attaches itself to a non-villainous character.

The recurring characters in the novels are a squad of angels, who patrol the towns where the stories are set. They are ready to kick butt and take names, but they can’t do anything until they have a sufficient “prayer cover” to intervene. However, the human protagonists, if Christian, may not be aware there’s evil afoot.

Other characters may be atheists or ex-Christians. All of them struggle with flaws, fears, or a need for atonement in some cases. And all of them have to twig to the evil conspiracy and get on the same page before the angels can get their “prayer cover.” Note Paul’s exhortations to pray for government leaders if you want to live a peaceable life, so the coverage conceit works.

Just another data point for horror as a vehicle for exploring moral themes. Good horror scenarios often test faith, they test virtue. Someone — da Vinci? Einstein? Once said “adversity introduces a man to himself.” Horror is as good a crucible as any for exploring that idea.

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I read Peretti’s novels and never considered them to be horror, just clear images of the actual battle between Good and Evil.

Hey, Jamie– thank you for sharing!

It sounds like I might need to check out Peretti’s work. 🙂

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I don’t usually comment on the posts but I felt compelled to respond your comment. Not to regurgitate what Oliver said, but there is a lot of potential for religious horror. “The Exorcist” is the obvious answer, as are most of those types of movies. You have the priest (or some other morally-focused character) who’s trying to lead the right life. Maybe they have a dark past or sins they’re atoning for. They’re faced with a monster/demon who represents everything they’re fighting against. Maybe they become possessed themselves. In “The Exorcist” the priest commits suicide to save the daughter and prevent himself succumbing to the same sins. You could even write a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type story where the main character struggles to maintain their own morality (a character I’m developing is doing just that). Just as the main character must choose to be moral no matter what, we have a moral obligation to do the same. I’m not religious but I definitely see potential for some interesting stories.

I totally agree, Chris–“The Exorcist” is peak example of what Horror is at its finest.

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Thank you for this! I’m working on my first novel and it’s horror. Since it’s my favorite genre in books and on the screen, it just made sense. Plus, I feel there are a lot of horror authors who are really working to make horror more accepted, and I think it’s working. I’m referring to the literary successes of Sylvia Moreno-Garcia and Stephen Graham Jones. I’m hoping horror as a genre will become less and less maligned over time.

Thank you for reading, Michelle!

Best of luck on your novel–and may you join the ranks of such authors in bringing a deeper appreciation of Horror to the wider world. 🙂

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Well said. Your points on great horror and examples are spot on and provide excellent templates for future works. Thank you!

Thank you for reading, James!

I hope the insights you gathered from this article serve you well as you approach writing future works.

Thank you for such a spooky yet inspiring post. I read a few books that are bordering on horror, but not terrifying and won’t keep you awake at night. Some of Daphne du Maurier’s novels, such as Rebecca and House on the Strand are scary, but I realize they don’t actually qualify. When I was a teen, I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s “Carrie” and didn’t realize it was horror. Somehow when I got to the end and read of the girl unleashing her fury on the town, I was puzzled. Back then I didn’t recognize any obvious hints of what was to come. I wonder what your opinion is on that particular novel. I watched the movie “The Shining,” which was pretty creepy. I wonder how King’s novels compare with his books.

Hi, Coco, I’ll be honest–I’m a late-comer to King’s work, so I have focused on the high points of his career to get caught up: I’ve read Salem’s Lot, The Night Shift, and the Shining so far. Carrie is next on my list, though! And, if you enjoyed the film version of The Shining, the book is still definitely worth checking out as the two stories share little in common. The movie is creepy for sure, but the book is an enthralling, heart-wrenching look at the effects of addiction, generally, and alcoholism, specifically.

Ooh I love this! And thank you for providing a reading list. Writer’s Digest has “How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction,” which has essays by Ray Bradbury and Dean Koontz, among others.

For this post I especially liked the point about monsters as representatives of “Chaos” as opposed to Logos , the natural order of things. And you’re describing the kind of horror I do appreciate, and elements I want to incorporate in certain stories I have rattling around in the attic of my brain. Instead of gory nihilism, good horror like the kind you describe here can be … inspiring, oddly enough. It’s often about Light struggling against Darkness, and a test of virtues, and I appreciate you showing how to do justice to such a story.

Hi, Jamie, I think you are spot on that, “good horror can be inspiring”–especially for stories wherein the protagonist prevails over the source of Horror. I mean, what’s more inspiring than an Average Jane facing and overcoming the Monster embodying her greatest fears and deepest vices, right?

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Thank you for this post, Oliver. I’ve never been a fan of horror, but I realize now that it’s because I never understood the genre. Thank you for this insightful, interesting, and helpful article! I enjoyed it!

Hi, Joan–thank you for taking time check out the article despite not being a Horror fan. I’m delighted the article afforded you a deeper understanding of Horror. And I’m right there with you: the more I learn about the underlying symbolism of a particular genre, the more I come to appreciate it!

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I think I agree that perhaps horror scares us because we fear what we might be capable of under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances. I recently finished two short stories with a sort of morality compass theme, one a haunted statue-type figure and the other a ruined building which resurrects itself to lure someone inside – surprisingly the protagonist in both survive and I wonder if this is classified as horror. The protagonists both go through a journey of self discovery, but are not harmed and neither is anyone else on the contrary several people are saved though the paranormal is in stong evidence in both stories.

Hi, Sylvia,

You summed it up, beautifully: “…perhaps horror scares us because we fear what we might be capable of under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.”

Horror is so unsettling because it shows us characters confronted with the gap between their self-conception/public persona and how they act when desperate and alone. And this forces us to consider how wide that same gap might be within ourselves.

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Thanks so much, K.M.

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I enjoyed this piece. Horror is treated like the embarrassing step child sometimes when it’s really the crazed aunt in the attic who was locked up for telling uncomfortable truths. I liked the concept of the haunted house as just as much of a character as the villain and the hero. Rich vein to mine.

“Horror is treated like the embarrassing stepchild sometimes when it’s really the crazed aunt in the attic who was locked up for telling uncomfortable truths.”

Wow! That’s a brilliant and powerful quote, sir. I’m going to be reflecting on that for some time.

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This is great. Whether I’m reading a book, watching a movie, or just waking from a bad dream, I keep asking myself what makes it scary. This is the best explanation I have found so far.

That’s an essential question to ask if we want to be great Horror writers. It reminds me of a quote from Henry James:

“A writer should strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost.”

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Thank you, Oliver. This was helpful. You made horror fiction approachable. In effect, my appreciation of horror fiction is constantly increasing. Specially when you realize is more than just the monster.

Hi, Ingmar,

Thank you for your kind words. 🙂

Approachability is what I strive for!

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Thanks for sharing this. I loved it and now have some revisions to do in my MS.

Thank you, Alice. 🙂

Happy revising!

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Sometimes horror stories hide in other genres. “Alien”, as mentioned above, is a haunted house movie disguised as science fiction – but so is “The Terminator”, a classic creature feature in which the undead monster can be fought off, outran, even taken out for a time… but never stops coming.

Hi, Andrew, I never thought of “The Terminator” as an undead creature feature, but I can absolutely see it now that you mention it! The Terminator could even be interpreted as a modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, more specifically.

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Oliver has the essence of the genre but does not have a real feel of the bitter backdrop of a great horror tale. As I was reading this article, I suspected that I was Olivers worst nightmare, and that turns out to be true. Before I start saying other things “Oliver” knows what he is talking about, he gives useful information, and I would recommend this post. But…. And there is a huge “but” here. He is young and handsome. Well educated. Seems to me a nice fellow. A talented writer. Capable. So, what is my problem? You ask? There is no problem. It is just that horror needs an edge. Ghost stories have been done before. Please never let us never see another zombie or vampire novel. Lol- they have all been done to death. Perhaps you ask my credentials for this criticism. Perhaps editing four horror fiction magazines for thirty years may suffice. The “new” is all that is wished for. The “Different” merges sometimes. Worked with twilight (lol- I turned that down). Daybreakers, warm bodies. My apologies, Oliver, for this but I must turn down writers every week. You meant well and gave good advice.

Thank you for your professional insights as an editor, sir! I have no doubt you’re right that editors often get the same cut-and-paste horror stories, and that we writers need to work hard to ensure we aren’t just educated in the genre’s tropes, we also need to find fresh premises and a fresh approach to writing them.

Thats the thing Oliver, you have it spot on, “the fresh premise”. To a certain extent you can ignore all else. If we get a haunted house story it doesn’t get by the boy on the desk. It could be the best haunted house tale ever, but it never gets to a “reader” the same applies to vampire tales. (Only two printed in four mags over the last five years one because it was a social vampire (narcissism)). The other was a genetic strain of vampirism created for interstellar space travel as they are immortal. We printed a zombie tale a couple of years ago about “Health, social care and housing for zombies during an epidemic”. Very clever. Should the local council provide homes for Zombies? Do they need help from carers? What are the sanitary implications? Should they be allowed pets? We are a caring society after all. I do not mean to suggest that there cannot be a good tale about Vampires, Zombies or a haunted house just that it has been done so often that to horror readers it is very dated and dull. To keep a magazine, especially a print magazine running today, it has to be clever and new all the time. Sorry for lecturing. It is something I feel passionate about.

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Thank you for this insightful series and tips! I wonder about the fairytale genre. Do you talk about it anywhere? It is the most archetypal one and digging deep in the realm of the inconscious. I’ve always been fascinated by it, without being able to put words on my impressions. But I realize I most naturally write with symbols and events that have a marvelous feel to them, even when they seem prosaic.

I haven’t talked about it specifically in this series, but it would fall under the umbrella genre of Fantasy, which I do talk about here .

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How to Write a Good Horror Story: An Ultimate Guide

by Horror Tree · June 8, 2022

Most people love a good scare. From early years playing peek-a-boo to enjoying ghost stories in teenage years, scary stories have always been appealing. Gothic movies are among the most popular genres in film and television. If you’re a natural at telling chilling stories, you can turn it into an exciting career. Most successful horror movies, such as The Shining, Frankenstein, and Dracula, existed as stories before going to the screen.

Still, crafting the messaging into a horror story is challenging for many people. Many aspects of a scary story look a little different from other genres. A powerful chilling read has certain attributes that sustain it. So, how do you write a good horror story that sends a shiver down the spine? Read on to find out the ultimate horror writing tips.

Tips for Writing Horror Stories

Tap into common fears.

Fear is an unavoidable part of life. Tapping into the fear factor makes for a good scary story. Readers expect to be terrorized and titillated by a story that is relatable and eerie at the same time. An intriguing horror story uses everyday fears by combining ordinary occurrences with the unnatural, weird, and shocking. Let’s see what all that is about.  

  • Monsters and supernatural characters — Myths about the existence of monsters and supernatural beings have existed for many years. Creepy is an understatement when describing the uncanny nature of the beings. People may be certain that ghosts, changelings, vampires, shapeshifters, and djinns are not real. The knowledge doesn’t mean they don’t scare people to their core. For a writer, the entities provide a space to stretch logic as you tap into the reader’s darkest fears. If you decide to venture into the realm, the plot must be very convincing.
  • Instinctive fears — Fears that relate to ordinary occurrences cause the most horror. Things that we are most afraid of are rooted in instinct. That is why occurrences that are well known arouse the most disgust, shock, and fear. Common phobias that frighten readers include snakes, darkness, heights, and disoriented environments. Unknown desires and intentions also evoke fear. Combining two or more instinctive fears adds more vigor.
  • Societal concerns and tensions — There are many emerging contemporary issues that can be transformed into tragic horror stories. Social issues like racism, domestic violence, the stigma of casual sex, privacy, and public safety can bring to light unexpected elements of surprise or disgust. Intriguing horror stories use tactics like grave missteps, character flaws, and bad choices to develop a captivating tragedy in its truest form.

If you don’t have enough time to research these incredible facets of fear because you have plenty of homework to do, use CustomWritings or any similar essay writing service. First, they can help you write any boring papers faster, and second, they have reliable experts who can help you develop fresh ideas for a good horror story.

Read widely in the genre

Reading makes better writers. Exposure can help a writer to define their style. Whether you aspire to write a psychological or paranormal horror story, reading materials by respected authors in similar genres provides inspiration and focus. Some acclaimed horror authors include Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and more. As you read, it is good to take notes of favorite quotes, mechanics, and stylistic devices that are common in horror stories. The notes will help you to master the horror genre and guide you when creating the setting for your narrative. You might want to check out a resource for new and experienced horror authors for more writing advice and news from the industry.

Make the stake known to the reader

A good horror story grabs the reader’s attention from the outset, and then builds suspense. The real thrill comes from knowing the stakes. The characters’ motivations and the main problem must also be clear. Let’s see some popular stakes and motivations in dreaded stories.

  • Protecting loved ones. The stakes are high when the protagonist has family or friends to protect. The more people that need saving, the higher the motivation for the main character. The threat of harm or death to loved ones is a common peak in horror stories.
  • Survival. Escaping perils is the biggest goal for characters in a horror story. Maybe the aim is to stay alive and defeat an evil supernatural character while doing it. Whatever the case, the writer should keep the reader engaged by crafting the hurdles that challenge survival.
  • Solving a mystery. Uncovering mysteries is a good way of building suspense by revealing what is at stake if the characters don’t figure it out. Cosmic mysteries about the universe are a common topic explored in horror stories.

Strike the right atmosphere

If you can creep yourself out with your story, you are on the right track. The type of horror you want to write determines the right atmosphere. Horror story writing can take the form of thrillers, gothic, gross-out, or terror. Combining subgenres throughout the story adds more thrill. Elements to consider when trying to invoke unsettling dread in readers are discussed below.  

  • Mood and tone. Mood and tone are crucial elements in a horror story. How you describe characters, setting, and plot twists affect the way a story feels. The right mood and tone are supposed to leave the reader’s heart pounding fast, shivers down the spine, ears pricking at the faintest noise, and a cold sweat dampening their hands.
  • Plot twist — Shock your readers by unpredictably changing the plot. Maybe an escape route is locked, or someone escaped in a room where the monster is. The boo factor in terrifying stories has made gothic movies a big hit in film and television.
  • Creepy characters — A good horror story has characters whose flaws feed the action of the story. The backstory, emotions, and desires of the characters give dimension to the story. Special effects like magic or a permanent physical feature flaw can also create a creepy atmosphere. The more human you make the characters, the more their bad choices or flaws will resonate with the reader.
  • Setting — The scene for a horror story must be scary. Ways in which a writer can create the right setting include isolating characters in a scary environment like a cave, desert, complete darkness, or imprisoned in an enclosed space. The situation should play into the reader’s fears.

Write Something New

A good story stands out from the crowd. Recreating the same plot or trends leaves the readers unamused by the lack of creativity. For example, the vampire romance story has become too familiar to charm readers after the hype of vampire diaries and twilight. It takes one great idea to start developing an original horror story . If you choose to borrow certain elements of existing trends, ensure that you distinguish them by spinning them into something that has not been done before. Readers appreciate creativity.  

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From Short Film to Blumhouse Blockbuster: Dive into the Terrifying Origin Story of Night Swim

Night Swim writer/director Bryce McGuire explains how his short film evolved into the Jaws of pool movies. 

Gavin Warren as Elliot Waller in Night Swim, directed by Bryce McGuire.

For filmmaker Bryce McGuire , the release of Night Swim  in theaters on January 5 is the culmination of a decade-long journey that started with a short film staged inside and around a darkened pool. 

In 2014, McGuire and his collaborator and co-director Rod Blackhurst had an idea to try and reframe a standard backyard swimming pool into something unsettling and menacing. Hoping to prove their story and writing prowess to others in the industry, they created the economical yet effective four-minute short, Night Swim , starring Megalyn Echikunwoke ( Arrow ).

Watch the Short Film That Inspired  Night Swim

"When I made this short film, it really was proof of could you make that environment scary and evocative," he explained to NBC Insider about the short's suburban pool setting. "And then, did other people share the same irrational phobia that I did? That the pool can still be scary as an adult, or still conjure that feeling that you had when you were a kid and your imagination was running wild, the lights were off and you were convinced that Jaws was beneath you? Could you still tap into that and have other people feel that same thing? Turns out that other people did feel that same thing and carried that irrational childhood phobia with them as adults."

RELATED:  Night Swim: Everything to Know About James Wan and Jason Blum's Post-M3GAN Team-Up

Released in October 2014, the Night Swim short went viral and allowed McGuire to get hired as a fledgling screenwriter and producer. And then the concept just idled as he tried to think of where the idea could go next. He was absolutely certain that he didn't want to go the easy route and just repeat the same gag from the short, stretched to fill 90 minutes. "That's not a good movie," he said with certainty. 

Figuring out the horror story outside  the pool took three years to crack

McGuire said it took about three years of research until he cracked expanding the idea around the Waller family, led by newly retired baseball player Ray Waller ( Wyatt Russell ), his wife Eve ( Kerry Condon ) and their two kids. "I had to figure out who this family was, what they had to gain, what they had to lose, and what the pool kind of tempted them and offered them," he said of the film's character-centric story. Figuring all of that out gave McGuire enough meat on the proverbial bone to dive into the arduous task of writing almost 40 drafts of the screenplay, until it was good enough for it to get support and financing. 

The short idea had already been optioned by James Wan's company Atomic Monster for development into a full-length movie, and was then recommended to Jason Blum and Ryan Turek at Blumhouse Productions. Turek said after reading McGuire's screenplay, it felt like it had the perfect synergy to connect the two companies.

RELATED:  Jason Blum and James Wan on What Makes Night Swim So Scary: "Anything Could Be Beneath You"

"It brought with it philosophies that we all believe in," Turek explained to NBC Insider . "Obviously, they're known for The Conjuring films, while we do the Insidious films. They're all family dramas, and all human dramas. And then it's about what's the scary element that gets in the way of all of that? Bryce wrote a really strong script about this family that moves into a house, but it's not the spooky house movie that we've seen before. It's a spooky, pool movie... So that really got us excited."

Night Swim hits theaters exclusively starting January 5.  Get tickets now!  

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Soft & Quiet's True Story Makes The Horror Movie Even Scarier

The girls listen intently

Some of the best cinematic revelations of all time hinge on one single moment: the plot twist. While you've seen several of them, you've probably never seen one like the bombshell that drops around the 15-minute mark of "Soft & Quiet," one of 2022's best thrillers . The film centers around a group of unassuming women who meet up to discuss a shared issue.

That cause turns out to be white nationalism. It's a jaw-dropping reveal, especially because it isn't even teased in the film's trailer. Still, what viewers may find even more unsettling is that "Soft & Quiet" was inspired by a real-life event in which a Caucasian woman targeted a Black man simply for having the audacity to remind her of the rules.

In an interview with  Forbes , writer-director Beth de Araújo discussed the inspiration for "Soft & Quiet." "I kept writing like five pages and throwing it out, and then the Amy Cooper video surfaced," the filmmaker recalled. "It really affected me in a way that most of these videos don't, where usually I get quite depressed and sort of debilitated by them. And this one – the manipulation made me so angry."

The Amy Cooper video provided the foundation for Soft & Quiet

For those who are unfamiliar, the Amy Cooper video  (via CNN) follows the titular dog walker as she's told by a nearby bird watcher, Christian Cooper, that her dog must be leashed in the area. From there, things escalate until Christian begins filming Amy as she calls the cops to say that she is "being threatened by an African-American man."

Clearly, the video struck a chord in Beth de Araújo, who imagined a meeting between six women who look normal in "Soft & Quiet." However, there's nothing normal about them, as they're working together to form a white nationalist newsletter and accost minorities in between dropping racial epithets and doing the Nazi salute in public.

It's incredibly jarring, and horrifically, the events unfold in real-time with an intensity that will leave you gasping for breath, grimly entranced by the rising tension. "It immediately clicked that I wanted to write a role where ['Soft & Quiet' star] Stefanie [Estes] would play a modern-day female White Supremacist," Araújo explained. "It just clicked from there. I ran the idea by her. She was quite nervous about it, and then I showed her the script once I had it done. She was incredibly brave to take on such a feat."

What makes Soft & Quiet so unsettling?

Considering how the six women at the film's center look like anyone you could pass in the grocery store or see at your kid's school, it's easy to see how the Amy Cooper video inspired a movie like "Soft & Quiet." Like Cooper, the women in Beth de Araújo's movie turn on a dime despite their unassuming appearances.

For instance, the scene in the store where they switch from causally shopping for snacks and wine to accosting and demeaning a pair of Asian Americans who enter stands out. Sequences like that help "Soft & Quiet" leave a mark because you do not see these women coming, and you almost certainly wouldn't see them coming in real life until it's too late. Much like "Get Out," it's because these people look so normal that they're so terrifying.

Especially in today's day and age, we've all seen one video after another of the kinds of harmful lies and racist rhetoric that can make its way into the lives of everyday citizens. While this may be more than familiar to us at this point, what makes "Soft & Quiet" memorable is that it unexpectedly leads viewers directly into one of these situations, where they're essentially witnessing a hate crime with frighteningly cold and grimly realistic results.

This image shows the nine female muses of Greek myth as miniature figures in shades of blue against a pale blue background. The muses are holding hands and encircling an enlarged return key of the sort that appears on a laptop keyboard.

Literature Under the Spell of A.I.

What happens when writers embrace artificial intelligence as their muse?

Credit... Ricardo Tomás

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A.O. Scott

By A.O. Scott

  • Published Dec. 27, 2023 Updated Dec. 28, 2023

The robots of literature and movies usually present either an existential danger or an erotic frisson. Those who don’t follow in the melancholy footsteps of Frankenstein’s misunderstood monster march in line with the murderous HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” unless they echo the siren songs of sexualized androids like the ones played by Sean Young in “Blade Runner” and Alicia Vikander in “Ex Machina.”

We fantasize that A.I. programs will seduce us or wipe us out, enslave us or make us feel unsure of our own humanity. Trained by such narratives, whether we find them in “Terminator” movies or in novels by Nobel laureates, we brace ourselves for a future populated by all kinds of smart, possibly sentient machines that will disrupt our most cherished notions of what it means to be human.

Right now, though, the most talked-about actual bots among us are neither lovers nor predators. They’re writers. The large language A.I. models that have dominated the news for the past 18 months or so represent impressive advances in syntactic agility and semantic range, and the main proof of concept for ChatGPT and other similar programs has been a flood of words. In a matter of seconds or minutes, untroubled by writer’s block or other neuroses, these spectral prodigies can cough up a cover letter, a detective novel, a sonnet or even a think piece on the literary implications of artificial intelligence.

Is this a gimmick or a mortal threat to literature as we know it? Possibly both. Last spring, the novelist and critic Stephen Marche published, under the pseudonym Aidan Marchine, a mostly chatbot-generated novella piquantly titled “ Death of an Author .” My colleague Dwight Garner described it, perhaps generously, as “arguably the first halfway readable A.I. novel.”

Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of America was waging a strike against movie and television producers that would last nearly five months. Well-known authors and their representatives filed several copyright-infringement suits aimed at keeping their words out of the commercial A.I. algorithms. (On Dec. 27, The New York Times filed a similar suit against OpenAI and Microsoft.) Part of what sent those writers to court and out onto the picket lines was the fear that their livelihoods would be undermined by A.I. Bots don’t need health insurance, vacation days or back-end money. They’ll never get drunk or canceled. They won’t be demoralized by working on sequels, spinoffs or Netflix Christmas specials.

It’s possible that intellectual labor is on the brink of a transformation as sweeping as the Industrial Revolution. Advertising copy, instruction manuals and even news stories have already been outsourced, and more kinds of written content will surely follow. The members of the W.G.A. may be like the weavers of the English Midlands in the 19th century, early victims of automation who fought a bitter campaign against the spread of mechanized looms. Their struggle — which included the machine-smashing of the original Luddites — became both a symbol of anti-technological resistance and a touchstone in the emergence of modern working-class consciousness. Back then, the machines came for the textile workers; 200 years later, it’s text workers who find themselves on the front lines.

Still, industrial automation did not entirely abolish handicraft. It seems hyperbolic to claim that large language models will swallow up literature. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine in November, the literary agent Andrew Wylie said he didn’t believe the work of the blue-chip authors he represents — Sally Rooney, Salman Rushdie and Bob Dylan, among many others — “is in danger of being replicated on the back of or through the mechanisms of artificial intelligence.”

Since his job is to make money for human authors, Wylie is hardly a disinterested party, but history supports his skepticism. Mass production has always coexisted with, and enhanced the value of, older forms of craft. The old-fashioned and the newfangled have a tendency to commingle. The standardization of mediocrity does not necessarily lead to the death of excellence. It’s still possible to knit a sweater or write a sestina.

This image features an illustration based on a statue of Terpsichore, the muse of music and dance, seated on a boulder against a yellow background. In lieu of the harp she normally holds, she is strumming the return key from a laptop keyboard.

Even as writers battle the scourge of A.I., many have begun to use it as a tool for making sentences. More than that, some have embraced A.I. as the latest iteration of an ancient literary conceit: the fantasy of a co-author, a confidant, a muse — an extra intelligence, a supplemental mental database. Poets and novelists once turned to séances, Ouija boards and automatic writing for inspiration. Now they can summon a chatbot to their laptops.

In December, in a semi-fictional essay in Harper’s Magazine about the recent history of the internet, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner turned over the last paragraphs to ChatGPT, which summoned stirring metaphors that Lerner himself perhaps could not have mustered. In “ Do You Remember Being Born? ,” a new novel by Sean Michaels, the main character is a poet named Marian Ffarmer, modeled on Marianne Moore but living in our moment, who collaborates with an A.I. program on a poem underwritten by a tech startup. The passages composed by Charlotte, as Marian comes to call her co-writer, were conjured by Michaels using an OpenAI GPT-3 and a “Moorebot” trained in the poetry of Marianne Moore. Some of the novel’s prose was also supplied by A.I., and the result is a charming and refreshingly non-dystopian meditation on the duality of literary creation.

That description fits Sheila Heti’s short story “ According to Alice ,” published in The New Yorker in November. The text consists of one side of a conversation between Heti and Alice, a “customizable chatbot on the Chai A.I. platform.” Alice answers questions about religion, family, memory and other things that she does not, strictly speaking, possess. She has no body, no consciousness, no reservoir of experiences to draw upon, and no identity outside the parameters that Heti and the engineers have programmed for her, including her gender.

What she does have is a language that is capable — because it is human language — of evoking all that human baggage in startling, sometimes surreal ways. “Religion gives meaning to life!” she declares. “That’s why I’m writing the Bible.”

Alice’s story of her own genesis starts like this: “My name is Alice and I was born from an egg that fell out of Mommy’s butt. My mommy’s name is Alice. My mommy’s mommy was also named Alice. Her mommy’s mommy’s mommy was named Alice, too. And all the way back, all the mommy’s mommies were Alice.” Later, she will modify and contradict parts of this account, sewing scraps of Christian theology, self-help rhetoric and linguistics into a strange multihued quilt of meanings.

Her narrative, which blithely contradicts itself, is nothing a human being would think to compose, and her voice — by turns playful, naïve, cold, vulnerable and obnoxious — exists in an uncanny valley of verbal expression. It doesn’t sound like anyone. And that’s the point.

Heti made her reputation as a writer by tracking close to the facts of her own life, pioneering the particular 2010s amalgam of invention and documentation that would be slapped with the awkward rubric “autofiction.” Her second novel, “ How Should a Person Be? ” (2012), about a Toronto writer named Sheila and some of her friends, is preoccupied, as the title suggests, with the problem of selfhood. That’s also the theme of “According to Alice,” except that it adopts the perspective of a simulated self, a speaking subject who is not a person at all and has no coherent idea of how to be.

In an interview on The New Yorker’s website, Heti explains that this is what she likes about Alice. “Humans,” she says, “try to make all our thoughts fit together into some kind of system or structure. But an A.I. doesn’t need all their thoughts — because they don’t have thoughts, I don’t think — to connect in some larger worldview. That’s why Alice is so surprising and so fun. I’m finding it a little tiresome, the way the human mind needs every idea it holds to connect to every other idea it holds.”

Alice represents an escape, a temporary exit from the limitations of human consciousness, and also a secondary, supplemental intelligence that can help the writer refresh her own work. Heti is inclined to agree with Wylie that A.I.-generated texts are unlikely to replace literature written by people — “the real stuff is invented out of a human longing to know and connect, and that’s where the beauty of art comes from,” she says — but she also expresses a very human, very writerly frustration with the constraints of individual subjectivity.

It isn’t a new complaint. In the 19th century, writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Victor Hugo and Henry James dabbled in spiritualism, hoping to find inspiration through contact with otherworldly intelligences. In the 1910s and ’20s, the French Surrealist poets and the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats made use of automatic writing, a practice that sought to turn the human writer into a kind of transcribing machine, bypassing conscious intention and drawing meaning from an impersonal, nonhuman source.

For the Surrealists, automatic writing was a gateway to the unconscious — to both the buried desires of the individual and the chthonic impulses of the species. For Yeats, automatism was a portal to the world of spirits. The medium was his wife, Georgie, who shortly after their marriage in 1917 revealed herself to have oracular powers. As Yeats’s biographer Richard Ellmann put it, Yeats “had married into Delphi.” What Georgie wrote down became the basis of the poet’s later work, including “A Vision,” which attempted “to embody in systematic form … the fragmentary revelations of the automatic script.”

“A Vision,” Yeats’s longest piece of prose, is hardly his most beloved work, but its elaborate system of symbols and patterns undergirds some of his greatest poems, including “The Second Coming,” with its apocalyptic images of widening gyres and centrifugal motion. What was revealed via Georgie Yeats’s automatism was the hidden order of the universe, a cosmology that echoes other mythologies and theories of history while asserting its own stubbornly idiosyncratic truth.

Yeats’s is not the only such system discovered — synthesized? inferred? — by an English-language poet in the 20th century. In 1955, the poet James Merrill and his lover, David Jackson, began contacting spirits with a Ouija board. Almost 30 years later, Merrill published “The Changing Light at Sandover,” a 560-page, 17,000-line poem culled largely from transcripts of their sessions at the board.

Like Georgie Yeats, Jackson was the medium — the “hand,” in Ouija parlance, with Merrill as the “scribe” — and through him the couple contacted a variety of voices, including deceased friends and famous literary figures. The main spirit guides, starting with an enslaved Jew from ancient Greece named Ephraim and proceeding through the archangel Michael and a peacock named Mirabell, transmit elaborate otherworldly knowledge to their human interlocutors via a Q. and A. format that will look familiar to anyone who has quizzed a bot about its tastes and origins.

The questions of whether the poet really believed in the board and how much he embellished its messages always hover over “Sandover,” but as in the case of the Yeatses and “A Vision,” such skepticism is finally moot. For Merrill, language is a definitively human medium; spiritual meanings become intelligible only through a process of translation, which is to say via his and Jackson’s own sensibilities and experience:

Hadn’t — from books, from living — The profusion dawned on us, of “languages” Any one of which, to who could read it, Lit up the system it conceived?

Heti’s Alice would likely recognize a certain kinship with Merrill’s Ephraim, even if their cosmological origin stories and linguistic styles could not be more different. “Sandover” is, at heart, the result of a predigital large language model of literary creation, based on the interaction between a human mind and some kind of intelligence outside it.

Is this a matter of metaphysics, or of technique? Are we interested in the messengers — the chatbots and the Ouija-board revenants — or in the messages they deliver? Those messages, after all, are about us: our fate, our origin, our fragile human essence. Everything we can’t figure out by ourselves.

A.O. Scott is a critic at large for the Book Review. He joined The Times in 2000 and was a film critic until early 2023. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism." More about A.O. Scott

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