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How to Write Horror

March 26, 2011

By Lily Childs


Did that scare you? Of course not. You would no more present that word as an effective piece of horror than write The child opened the wardrobe door. A monster jumped out and frightened her. Horror is about atmosphere. It’s the sneaking sensation of being watched, the sudden chill of the graveyard; creatures scuttling – unseen. What is suggested is often more powerful than what stares you in the face, unless it’s someone else’s reflection gazing back – or none at all.

The Gory Bits

Many horror genre submission guidelines will tell you their publication is not interested in excessive gore, and with good reason. To recklessly splatter, bludgeon and spurt might make for good film effects on screen but in print, it’s different. If there’s not a damn good story to go with the carnage then blood and guts for its own sake can come across as immature. And where’s the intrigue in that?

If a bloodbath is an essential part of the story, then make it personal. Describe the quality of the blood, its colour, the heat of it. What does it taste of? Don’t have it just hitting the walls, let it run in black rivulets, dripping slowly in a teasing descent, swelling beneath wallpaper ready to burst. Draw in it, lick it, cradle it in trembling hands. And use it to thrill – not just shock.

The Bad Guys

From zombies to psychopaths, vampires to avenging spirits horror comes in many forms from the supernatural to the everyday monsters that prowl our streets or sit in an office quietly losing their grip on reality. And then there’s human nature – possibly the most terrifying state of all. What leads a man to torture, murder, abuse, control? What kind of a woman would poison, stalk, neglect? To get inside the head of these individuals may be a highly uncomfortable place to be but will help you to better present them in your horror fiction. Try to understand what has led them to behave the way they do. Were they born ‘evil’ or are they victims too, corrupted by circumstance?
And to sit within the mind of a demon? Well – that’s as fascinating as your imagination wants it to be.

Character Point of View

This leads onto the question of whether to write in the first or third person. Personally, I write in first person a lot and find it works really well in short stories. Rather than restricting or internalising the view for the reader – which I acknowledge can be a risk – I like to imbue my characters with extraordinary outlooks on life, and death of course. I enjoy narrating extreme scenarios in a matter-of-fact way, the more incongruous the better, which can make for a very disturbing read. Not all editors like first-person however, so be prepared.

I do think there is easily a place for both points of view in horror. When the serial killer describes his fetish – hearing those words straight from his mouth will make your readers’ skin crawl.
Or in third person, a victim sits calmly watching television, her baby cooing and gurgling in his crib. As an observer you can describe how she flinches at the sound of the tree scraping at the window, unaware of the shadow creeping towards her child. You can show everything that goes on in the room. But can we ever know exactly how she feels when the werewolf jumps on the mother’s back and bites out her throat before snatching the child away? If your writing is top notch, then the answer to that should be yes.

Over the Top, or Not Scary Enough?

If I have offended anyone by now I do apologise, but only because I am writing an article, not a piece of fiction. If I had my pen in hand, flying through the pages in my barely legible scrawl hammering out a story, I wouldn’t be worrying if my words might upset you. This is horror, after all; your readers know what they want. My advice is to just let it flow – don’t hold back or worry about it.

If you have a market in mind for a short story, you can always tease it up to Extreme or down to Mild Horror as fits – but do this after the first draft.

My personal test, after I’ve put the story away for a few days and gone back to edit it, is if it doesn’t make me laugh or gasp at how daring or dangerous it is, then I probably won’t submit it.

Conversely, setting out to deliberately shock and scare can make the writing come over as contrived.

Read, and Get Published

If you want to write horror then you presumably like to read it. My heart belongs to Clive Barker because there is so much beauty to his darkness; his Books of Blood can almost be considered horror primers.

Overall, I enjoy nothing more than feeling the hair stand up on the back of neck, my flesh prickle hot and cold with terror. I want to be disturbed by the writing, and more than anything I want to be so terrified by what I’m reading that I am afraid to not turn the page.

If I want this, and other lovers of the genre want this – then that’s what editors and publishers will be looking for from your writing too.

Useful Market Links

Lily Childs is a writer of horror and dark fiction who likes demons in tutus. Her work has been published in small press anthologies including Their Dark Masters: Extreme Vampire Horror, Daily Bites of Flesh and Caught By Darkness.

She lives on the south coast of England and writes here. Stalk Lily on Twitter here

  1. March 26, 2011 5:11 am

    For those who have ever read Lily’s work, they’ll well know that she practice what she preaches. Always tense, always involving all the reader’s senses, her work oozes with delicious visual and sensory components . The woman knows horror – more importantly she knows how to write – ta to ya Lily.

  2. March 26, 2011 5:20 am

    Great article, Lily. Well written and well set out.

    When I first started writing, Horror was my thing as I read a lot of James Herbert and Shaun Hutson. I enjoy different aspects of writing and different genres but after reading this I can feel a horror story coming on. Thanks!

  3. March 26, 2011 6:07 am

    So much of this article should be printed out and taped on the wall above the horror writers desk. It’s easy to slip into the bad habit when writing to just go over the top because you have the word ‘HORROR’ flashing in your mind in red neon. It’s also easy to forget the horror aspects because you concentrate too much on character and story as you were taught ‘real’ literature should be.

    Of course genre writing is real writing and it needs richly drawn characters and a compelling story. But the conventions are there to allow you to take dark detours from the straight line of literature style.

    I’m happy you mentioned laughing when reading horror. We tend to forget that horror is the broody cousin of comedy and the sultry sibling of sex. When people laugh or are turned on they are more vulnerable to being hurt, shocked and scared than in any other state of being. So make ’em laugh, give ’em a thrill then let the bloody clown crawl from under the bed to get them. Somehow his knife will shine more, the blade will feel sharper and the scare will make them worried for the rest of the story.

    Great article Lily and I look forward to more.

  4. March 26, 2011 7:40 am

    For someone who doesn’t consider themselves a writer of horror, this was interesting and informative. I know fine well, from reading the work of others on the Friday Prediction, that there are areas I am not comfortable with, but have enjoyed the ‘human nature’ exploration. Equally, I know when I’ve failed – must try harder this week for sure …

  5. March 27, 2011 8:18 am

    Excellent, Lily. You’ve given writers a sure-fire foundation for exploring the world of horror. I’m a firm believer in what’s “suggested” rather than what we scribe explicitly.

    The only thing that disturbs me about the horror writing market is the restrictions some publications maintain (although you may have to conform in order to submit your work). In my opinion, horror is meant to be limitless; fear, gore, insanity, death all penned without conscious or hesitation. As a writer, don’t be bound by restrictions or societal taboos. Write it as you see it. And as Lily has so eloquently articulated, “Draw in it, lick it, cradle it in trembling hands. And use it (whatever horror element you choose) to thrill.”

  6. March 27, 2011 10:16 am

    Writing horror eloquently as you do is no easy task, much less writing about writing horror. You do an excellent job dissecting the elements. You also touch on many points that I think horror writers, beginning and experienced, struggle with which is overdoing it, underdoing it… your advice is spot on ” just let it flow – don’t hold back or worry about it.” Great article!

  7. March 28, 2011 12:11 pm

    Great article! I agree with all of that. I’ve also heard that a good way to keep the readers in suspense is to keep the antagonist or whatever is haunting them in the corner of there eye–just out of reach but always there. Would you agree?

  8. March 28, 2011 12:11 pm

    in the corner of their* eye hahaha sorry

  9. March 29, 2011 7:00 am

    Thank for your comments everyone.

    Michelle, yes I do agree. Very good point.

  10. March 29, 2011 9:45 am

    Great article Lily… horror isn’t quite as easy to write as it seems. Like you said, having a monster jump from the closet just doesn’t work anymore. Readers (and storytellers) are too smart for that and plus, we’ve “seen it all”.

    I believe true horror comes in the setup of the story and elements. Take the monster in the closet… the real horror is why is it there? Where did it come from? Why did it choose now to come out? What else is in that closet? Etc… now that scares me.



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