What makes a horror story interesting?
Is it the jump scares? Those do work in the movies, right? But, how do you create a jump scare in a story in written form, when you do not have sound or images to rely upon?
Is it the scary horror aspects – zombies rising from the dead, ready to devour your brain, or naval monsters rising from the depths of the seas, like H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, which terrified a whole generation?
But then again, scared protagonists, is that not what the horror genre is all about?
In this particular article here on Writing Tips Oasis, we will not be covering how to start writing horror. You can find more information about that here, and in our full guide on writing psychological horror, a subgenre of horror.
Instead, we will be describing tips and methods on how to make a horror story interesting. Ideally, you would have already either written the first draft, or even if you haven’t, you could use the tips mentioned here to add flavour and make your story more memorable, but you would need to already have the story figured out, the outline (if you’re writing it), the story, the characters, and so forth.
1. The fear of the uncanny
Fear of the uncanny is a specific type of fear we, as human beings, feel when we encounter something that should look, smell, and feel familiar, but it does not. Imagine your mother or sister’s face, and then imagine it as twisted beyond recognition. A twisted face of a stranger will not be as scary as the twisted face of a person who is close to you.
This also applies to objects and locations as well. A house with a familiar layout becomes terrifying when there are only some aspects of the layout changed from the familiar surroundings, while a completely new house will not scare us at all. Your phone would become very scary if your background wallpaper changes suddenly or if the position of your camera switches to the other side, or if the model changes to an older/newer model overnight.
So, do you have any opportunities to use the fear of the uncanny in your story? Since such changes are very specific, you can use this tip when writing a story that revolves around body horror (gore, blood, body mutilation, and so forth), or when you are writing a psychological horror story – where the protagonist/narrator becomes completely unreliable and the narrative descriptions should not match reality to portray the protagonist’s decent into madness.
2. The fear of the unknown
The fear of the unknown is, in a way, the polar opposite of the fear of the uncanny, because it’s not about being afraid of something familiar that became unfamiliar, but it’s about being afraid of something that is so unfamiliar, it is completely out of any conventional knowledge we have of the world.
To use the previous example: we would be afraid of people if there was something unnatural about them – their eyes would be empty black sockets like black holes, their mouth would stretch from ear to ear, their teeth would be serrated and have several rows, and so forth (they may have gills, they may have extra sets of arms and legs, they may have other things attached to their bodies that screams “unnatural and dangerous”).
When it comes to locations, we would fear a darkened street, lest something is hiding in the dark (which we don’t know), we would fear a house with dark shadows and shifting doors, for example, or we would fear houses that look small on the outside, but hide a labyrinth inside.
Additionally, fear of the unknown is worth mentioning as a character trait. If you are writing a horror story, then the protagonist (or another character who would accompany the protagonist), can be afraid of the unknown, and this would be present throughout the narrative, and make the horror story richer and more interesting.
Our advice specifically about this is to not make any changes in your character if your story (first draft) is already written, but if you are still writing your first draft or making plans/outlines, consider adding fear of the unknown as a character trait if it matches the protagonist’s (existing) character, or if it adds another layer (for example, your character is brave and handles well some things, but as soon as he/she/they are faced with something unknown, they feel unimaginable fear).
3. Atmosphere & weather
Atmosphere and weather go together often because usually, weather can add another layer to the nature of the atmosphere – a relaxed atmosphere on a sunny day is a different type of relaxed atmosphere compared to a rainy day. Specifically, a rainy day will add a layer of melancholy, but also a layer of comfort and cosiness to the relaxed atmosphere.
So, let’s cover atmosphere first. You can talk about overall atmosphere of a novel, but, it is more important to think of the atmosphere you have built in each separate scene you have in the novel. Story is driven by conflict, conflict causes tension in the characters (as well as the reader), and tension is always an underlying layer of any kind of atmosphere (and if the atmosphere is relaxed, something needs to happen to break that). The atmosphere in your scenes gets build through:
– Location: a dark room vs a light room can make all the difference. A modern house will have a different feel than a hulking Victorian-style sprawling mansion, or a cathedral bathed in everything dark and gothic, from gargoyles perched on the roof to sharp architectural lines and tall, but narrow, doorways. Think of the house in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Even if the story itself is not very scary, the mansion described in there is so labyrinthine in nature, that it is impossible not to feel tension and even expect something bad to happen as soon as you have read the first few sentences describing the big dwelling place.
– The characters’ emotions: and this applies to all characters in a scene. Not all characters will feel tension – some of them will be relaxed, which would make those already tense feel even more tension. You might think that a horror story needs to have the protagonist perpetually scared; but the truth is that you only need the protagonist to feel an underlying stress/tension to make it work. In a scene where several characters, including the protagonist, are arguing how they should proceed since a dark unexplainable force seems to be after them, the scariest possible thing can be the people themselves and their reactions.
– Weather – as you can see, we left it as the last, because it is the easiest to change in a scene, and it is also the easiest one to add to increase the tension in a scene. Specifically, in horror, the scenes are often happening at night, in the dark, and there is often rain instead of clear skies. But even if you have scenes during the day, they would be under gloomy and overcast skies, with dark, nearly black clouds that hang over the world just as the general underlying stress we mentioned earlier will weigh the protagonist down throughout the novel. We would, however, advise to play with the weather as much as possible to make the scenes more interesting.
A tension-filled scene happening indoors can be made more tense by having a thunderstorm rage outside, and maybe even a branch can break through a window (and even injure a character). However, these are all clichés. The idea to play with the weather is to make the scene more interesting, but without delving too much into cliché territory. And, the weather does not always need to be dark and gloomy. A horror story can be just as scary when it happens on a sunny day, even more so, because we tend to think of sunlight as safety and warmth. If a dark being was to suck the life out of an innocent bystander on a sunny while the protagonist watches from afar, that protagonist will never think of a sunny day as a safe environment.
4. Words and writing style
From this point onward, we will be talking more about the language and writing style, more importantly, the words you have written in the novel.
To begin with, each writer has their own writing style, and this is true for all stories, even horror novels. However, some words have better descriptive capabilities than others.
For example, let’s say: Mary looked into the well, and when a small hand floated up, she screamed.
Yes, the sentence above is very drab. First and foremost, “Looked” is the wrong word choice there, because it implies a moment of looking, yet in the second part, “when a small hand floated up” we get the sense that she was looking inside the well for some time, and we do not know why the small hand was a big deal.
So, let’s rework that:
Mary gazed into the dark depths of the well, her fingers trembling as she clutched the rim, and when the child-sized hand floated up from the darkness, she let out a soul-piercing cry.
They say that less is more in writing; it is not always true. The reworked sentence, although expanded, offers more information with the chosen words: Mary gazed (implies a longer time period), into the well, which is deep and dark, the trembling fingers indicate fear, the word “when” implies an inevitability to the event, and the child-sized hand (although as a hyphenated adjective, it should not be used much in a novel), is enough to make any reader feel a pang in our hearts, the soul-piercing cry allows us know this was her child (which she was unable to protect/save).
The double use of adjectives with hyphenation works in the sentence from the perspective of rhythm in a purely lyrical sense, and the use of that will depend on your writing style, as well as the audience you are writing for (well, it is horror, so it is doubtful your story will be meant for children, but you can write for young adults, in which case, you need to make sure the vocabulary matches the intended age).
The word scared is descriptive, but so are other words like frightened, terrified, petrified, stricken, jumpy, and many other synonyms, and all of these imply fear on a different level: scared and frightened are momentary and can easily pass; terrified is on a completely next level, petrified implies being frozen with fear, stricken implies a shocking fear, while jumpy implies merely being on edge.
To conclude, choose your words carefully in a horror story to ensure maximum impact on your readers.
5. Points of view
You can add more points of view in a horror story to increase the tension and make things more interesting (and of course, you can write a novel with multiple points of view). The ways of playing around with points of view are to include other perspectives, like:
– The perspective of a character who is about to be attacked/murdered/kidnapped by the unseen force (the big bad evil);
– The perspective of the villain if the horror in the novel is largely a result of the actions of a human being with twisted ideas (often, even the glimpse into the mind of the villain can be terrifying in and of itself, especially if we are talking about a psychopath or a sociopath).
– The perspective of a trapped character who is trying to escape, but their attempts are thwarted (if used multiple times, then the final time should end in freedom or death, and the use should not get higher than three chapters from their perspective).
– The perspective of a child character, who does not understand anything that is happening, but is having tea-time with the bogeyman from under the bed, who turned out to be not so scary after all, and more.
The possibilities are endless when we are talking in general like this, but the possibilities within your novel will be limited and depend on the story. Maybe your horror story revolves around one character getting lost at sea, witnessing a strange creature emerging from the sea to pray before a huge carved monolith (H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon”), in which case, there is no opportunity for a different point of view.
Changing perspectives also gives you the opportunity to use different writing styles for the other perspectives in comparison to the main character, and you can use language to give a glimpse into the other character. For example, a child narrator will, of course, not use long sentences or complicated words. If the villain is cursing a lot, then they are quite unstable, but if the villain’s words are concise, educated, eloquent, then he becomes automatically scarier because he comes across as sane and erudite to boot.
To conclude, when analysing your story as a whole, think of the perspectives you could add to make the story more interesting, and think of all the changes you can make in the words and writing style, as well as the weather and locations, to achieve this. Be sure not to reveal more to the reader than necessary in these other perspectives, but focus more on the action, as the more terrifying the action is, the more interesting your story will be.
However, do not take this to the extent where the original idea and story gets bogged down with the horror details; your story still needs to revolve around characters who are memorable, a relatable protagonist who is not too perfect, and, even if your horror story revolves around the paranormal, the paranormal will need to function under a certain set of rules – rules that you do not need to explain to the reader in the writing, but that the reader should be able to glean and understand fully as they are reading the story. The goal here is to make the story, which is already well thought out and well done, more interesting, so our final advice is: have fun with all the possibilities.