Genre tips / writing

8 Tips for Horror Writers

horrorI don’t get horror stories. Who chooses to be scared stupid? Is that uplifting or do you learn to solve life’s problems better by doing it while your hair’s on fire? I’ll read chick lit over horror any day of the week.

But lots of people disagree with me. I went in search of why people subject themselves to a plot that destroys any sense of security that the world will continue to spin nicely on its axis and found one overwhelming reason: Because it’s there (thank you, Johnny Compton, for making this clear). The world is not a nice place. Bad things happen. Horrifying events are out there.

If you are one of those who aspires to write horror, here are tips to help you be the best at that:

  • start scared and stay scared throughout your story. If life calms down, fix it
  • everything’s scary. That includes the plot (of course), characters, setting, motivations, themes, subplots–you name it
  • put lots of people in danger, not just the main character
  • people like to be frightened. Give them what they like
  • flesh out your characters before you place them in a horrific circumstance. Or readers won’t care about their fate
  • constantly have readers asking, ‘What happens next?’
  • horror is about fear, tragedy, and whether the character can prevail. It is NOT about understanding the human condition, the meaning of life, saving the world, love found and lost and repeat. Sure those can be included, but they aren’t central to the plot
  • the subplot of every horror story is that bad things are coming. That drum beat starts softly, but gets louder the closer you get. It never goes away

BTW, as I was searching for an answer to why the h*** people write this mind-numbing fear-inducing, terror petri dish stuff, Ivan Ewert offered another excellent reason: Because agents and publishers are looking for it. Yeah, I get that. For more on writing horror, visit the Horror Writers website and Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds.

More about writing genres:

7 Tips for Literary Fiction Writers

18 Tips for Memoir Authors

8 Tips for Creative Nonfiction Writers

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. C

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35 thoughts on “8 Tips for Horror Writers

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  5. I’m reading a book right now that didn’t start out scary, started out depressing, of all things. I almost shelfed it but decided to continue for a little longer. It did get better. The name of the book is Sole Survivor. It was made into a mini series.


    • Those are tough. You know from the title you’re in for a journey. Lone Survivor was that sort of book. I wanted to stop reading so many times, but couldn’t. If they had to live it, I could at least read it.


  6. Hello Jacqui,

    It depends what you mean by horror. I’m (loosely) a horror writer but I don’t have any zombies or vampires (I do have a ghost in my latest).

    Horror at its worst is simply a splatterfest, but at its best helps us to understand the primary drivers of human behaviour. I remember reading ‘Turn of The Screw’ by Henry James, as a boy and it frightened me for no reason that I could pinpoint. Reading it as a teenager I understood the nuances and it helped me come to terms with a few of the scary things in my life. Good horror writing can be life-changing and oddly life-affirming; bad horror is simply nonsense.


  7. Some interesting ideas from all of you. I always get a little confused between horror, suspense, thrillers and mysteries. What I do see that is similar is that they all play to our fears…fear of ‘others’, ‘enemies’ (personal to international) and ‘the unknown’. Most horror, though often gory, is more campy because we are pretty sure it can’t really happen. To me thrillers/suspense that take institutions/people we know exist, think we can trust and then turn them into ‘evil doers’ has a more insidious impact on our attitudes and beliefs. Back to why people like to experience fear… I think it requires us to examine our own fears and how we would overcome them, and that IS a powerful insight into our own character. Also, we’re safe in our beds while reading… and that’s a big plus!


    • Good summary. You’re right about horror/suspense/thrillers/mysteries. I wonder if you could add other genres, also–in that good writing always includes suspense. There are some literary fiction plots that could keep me awake at night (Great Gatsby comes to mind).


  8. Your last comment applies to writing in general: the drum beat starts softly and never goes away. Books must compel us to read. The drum need not be bloody just insistent.
    And you know how I feel about horror. Already have plenty of real life nightmares in my life, need no more to keep me from sleep.


    • As I was collecting these tips, there were many that applied to general writing. What I really wanted was what sets horror stories apart from others. I think I got a few of those, too.


  9. There are two horror writers in my critique group. I often wonder how they do it, but I must admit, the idea intrigues me. As one of the said (paraphrased): it’s another way of viewing reality. Which is what I like to do anyway. Love your advice, as always!


      • Jacqui I guess what I am trying to say is I went to The Woman in Black in London The stage play. Barely any props, just a giant fog and a brilliant scary story. I was frightened by the horrors I could NOT see. Why do we have to put so much graphic blood scenes in horror?


  10. I can barely handle suspense–let alone horror. I think I internalize too much to enjoy it. All I need to do to indulge my “terror petri dish” is to read the news. Still, in every list of tips, there’s something for everyone writes.


  11. I’m not a horror fan but I have read The Shining, which I enjoyed (go figure) and It which I didn’t like but had to finish (Stephen King’s). Just because the world IS a scary place, I don’t want to be reminded. 😦


  12. Do people get a vicarious thrill from others being in danger? I suspect so … at least it’s not happening to me? Your point *constantly have readers asking, ‘What happens next?’ applies in other genres as well …
    Thanks Jacqui.


  13. Couldn’t agree more. It is initially strange that people would like to be scared, but it is a powerful emotion. I suppose that’s what a book really ought to do. Not a horror writer myself, but this does make me want to have a go :D.


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