Genre tips

9 Tips If you Must Write Horror

I published this in 2014 and have updated it in honor of Halloween:horror writing

I 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.
  • Know which type of horror you are writing–gross out, horror, or terror.

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

More on writing horror

Stephen King

Horror Writers Association 

Terrible Minds

How to Write Quiet Horror

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, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and Born in a Treacherous Timefirst in the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Survival of the Fittest, Spring 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning

60 thoughts on “9 Tips If you Must Write Horror

  1. I’m with you, lady. Not a lover of horror–when we’re talking about gratuitous horror. I do like paranormal, thrillers, mysteries–but I do not need the horror aspect to any of those to be on the edge of my seat. 🙂 I prefer the psychological fear to the blood and gore any day of the week.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your tips! I tend to write stuff that verges on horror (but is rarely gory), but until I read this I’d never really analyzed my reasons for doing so! On reflection, I suppose it’s because horror allows me to dramatize some of my real-life fears, to take things that worry or scare me and analyze them up close. Thanks for triggering all this self-reflection!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jacqui,

    Once upon a time I like horror flicks but not so much anymore. I do like suspense but I hate slasher type films or anything too close to reality. The supernatural I can deal with just fine but not the really weird stuff like demonic possessions or creepy dead kids doing scary things. Ghosts, monsters, werewolves (There wolf! from Young Frankenstein), vampires, mummies, and zombies are my preferred scary types of movies. I used to like reading horror stories but I didn’t read them often. These days I don’t much more than blog posts. Good tips for those who write in this genre, though. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The horrible writing on any topics is just as horrible as you have really faced and come across once in a while ,but more over it leave deep impression on your way of life like cookies , always ready to offer you full fry even you can manage in half fry or not at all….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It always seems to me there’s a surprisingly delicate line to be followed when writing horror, so many cliches to avoid on the one side, while the other can lean dangerously close to becoming unintentionally funny.

    When it comes to reading it, I get annoyed when characters do idiotic things, like entering suspiciously dark and dangerous places for dares, or failing to switch lights on, or stand around screaming instead of running away…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read a couple of horror novels as a teenager, and that was enough for me, Jacqui. After reading your tips, it looks challenging to write as well. To all those who love a good horror novel, I wish you many sleepless nights. Ha ha ha. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Monday October 29th, 2018 – Jacqui Murray #Horror, One Spoiled Cat #Pumpkin Bread and Callum McLaughlin -#Halloween Reading | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  8. Hi Jacqui – I can’t do horror – but now find some of those earlier classic stories really interesting to read – gore, cruelty … not for me – I avoid at all costs … cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  9. So often, horror ends up looking exaggerated and fake. There is so much effort put into shocking people that there’s no nuance. Very few people can pull it off, well. Stephen King is one of them. It often makes me wonder what’s really going on in his psyche. Every other horror novel I’ve ever attempted to read had me rolling my eyes and closing the book after only a few pages. Oh- one exception: Bird Box by Josh Malerman. That one was a masterpiece. But again, it’s more cerebral; I can’t recall any swearing, no sex, and a really unique villain. Great post, Jacqui.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree with all of the comments, as to WHY. I think there is an element too of What If? What if there are things that lurk in our dark room, after we are deep in sleep and most helpless, for instance. As someone desperately trying to improve on the craft, I greatly appreciate your tips. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Stephen King is a latter day genious. On Writing is one of my favorite books on, well, writing (up there with Bird By Bird and WordDreams). My early years WERE a horror story so I prefer to focus on my AD years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love Stephen King’s book on writing but have read none of his books–not my interest. I can see your point when you have your own memories and don’t need new ones. I’m glad they’re over for you.


      • Thank you Jacqui, me too. I became a fan reading Different Seasons and The Green Mile. Both reads are far better than the movie adaptations. The Eyes of the Dragon and 11/22/63, all are somewhat frightening (considering the reality and potential actuality) but they are masterfully written.😉

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I too can’t read or write horror. As a child, I even got nightmares from Goldilocks and the Three Bears!! But I respect those who are able to write a good horror story. My most recent book, Amanda in New Mexico – Ghosts in the Wind is a bit scarier than the others as it touches on the paranormal. Kids like to be scared for some reason. But I tried not to make it too scary as I didn’t want to be the cause of nightmares!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m not one of those who writes horror…thought I must say when I was younger I did dream up vampire fictional stories. I like the idea of asking readers ‘What happens next?’ Sort of like setting up a sense of foreboding and gearing up for something to scare and shock you around the corner or next page.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Jaqui, thank you for this clear article about horror stories.
    Like Jill I can’t read these any more, they disturb my inner self. Yes, there is so much horror out there and even if we only see the tip of the iceberg we have new and magazines and charity news to tell.


    Liked by 1 person

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