What is your worst fear?
The Horror genre grabs your primordial fears – of being alone in the dark, of being chased by a Lovecraftian monster, or chased by a demon or a clown – and brings them to the surface. All those fears that dwell deep within us, the Horror genre exploits them and brings them forward; it scares you, thrills you, makes your heart race and your skin sheen over with cold sweat until you turn on the lights and leave those lights on as you fall asleep at night, because you are unsure if the bogeyman is hiding in your dark closet, or if there is the body of a drowned woman under your bed, ready to grab your bare ankle as you fall into a slumber.
Psychological Horror, on the other hand, is a bit different. Psychological Horror asks you the question: What are you afraid of becoming?
Not who, but what you are afraid of being or becoming.
And sometimes, even more disturbingly, who are you, really, underneath your veneer?
Because Psychological Horror is all about the horrors that hide deep within your psyche. Psychological Horror asks you: if the world was engulfed in a strange mist full of monsters, and you and your son are seemingly the only two living beings on the planet, and you have a gun with only two bullets left, what would you do?
And in the movie Mist (where the last example question is taken from), based on Stephen King’s novella of the same name, that answer is bound to make you, well, at least uncomfortable. The reason why we don’t mention the novella the movie is based on is due to the difference in the ending. We talk more about ending a psychological horror novel later in this guide, so here, we’ll just mention that there is a reason why the ending of the film has a much bigger impact than the ending of the novella.
And that’s just one of the emotions that Psychological Horror awakens within us. It’s not about the Lovecraftian monsters, it’s about the monsters hiding deep within the human psyche, and all the ways in which we, people, and humanity as a whole, are our own worst enemies.
So, how do you write a Psychological Horror?
Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis and our newest guide: How to Write Psychological Horror. We do hope you will get both thrilled and scared in the same measure.
Table of Contents
- Part 1: Psychological Horror
- 1) Defining elements of Psychological Horror
- 2) Psychological fears
- 3) Prevailing themes
- 4) Who are you scaring?
- 5) Building tension
- 6) Using unreliable narrators
- Part 2: Crafting the Story
- 1) Building the protagonist
- 2) Multiple points of view
- 3) Creating the plot
- 4) World building in Psychological Horror
- 5) Atmosphere and dread
- 6) Endings: who wins?
- Part 3: Editing and Publishing
- 1) Are you scary enough?
- 2) The dark side of human nature
- 3) Common clichés in writing horror
- 4) Language & writing style
- 5) Cutting up the first draft
- 6) Publishing a Psychological Horror novel
Part 1: Psychological Horror
As with any other genre, the best way to go about writing a psychological horror novel is to define it first, and understand how it differs from the general horror genre, and the psychological thriller genre as well, as it carries similarities to both of them.
The horror genre has one ultimate goal: to scare the readers. This may be achieved through bodily horror, terrifying monsters hiding in the attic, or a demon from hell in the basement. Here, we may have a whole town be affected by what’s happening, and the stakes may be higher than just the life and safety of the protagonist.
In psychological thrillers, the protagonist often undergoes a variation of what we call gaslighting today. The protagonist is convinced by everyone around him, told and shown over and over again, how they’ve lost their grip on reality. But, what is really happening is that the protagonist is the victim of a conspiracy, and often, he or she have to fight against them to survive.
In psychological horrors, however, the protagonist’s mind is unraveling, and there may or may not be a conspiracy that’s causing it. In psychological horror, the readers are often left unsure of what was real and what was not, if the protagonist was sane or not, and these stories often rely on personal psychological fears. Often, the events in these stories are not easy horror tricks, like jump scares. Instead, they aim to unnerve the readers, confuse the protagonist, and make the readers think about it long after they have finished reading the story. These scares are more human than demon, stemming from strange behavior, where both the protagonist and the readers are unsure of what is real, and what is not.
1) Defining elements of Psychological Horror
The most prevalent element in psychological horror stories is the unreliable narrator. As the story progresses, it is not only the protagonist’s life that’s on the line, but their sanity as well.
The second element is atmosphere. A horror story may be fast paced and full of jump scares. In psychological horror stories, however, the pace is slower, the horrors are results of various psychological fears.
The third element is artistic realism – or, bringing your story as close to reality as possible. In psychological horror, the protagonist is often a regular person, with a regular life, and a regular job, and often, even the villain – if there is a villain – is also human. There is little to no room in psychological horror for the supernatural.
Although, it’s worth noting that H.P. Lovecraft has been scaring generations with his psychological horror stories and novels. In there, the reality element is transformed into sudden terror, wherein the protagonist is a normal, ordinary person thrust into a situation where he or she has to fight an Eldritch monster or entity, or at best, escape its clutches. In this type of stories, the protagonist remains somewhat sane at the end of the story, but cannot properly remember the events of what transpired. Oftentimes, the protagonist ends up telling the story from the inside of an asylum.
2) Psychological fears
There are different types of fears. There are common fears like fear of spiders, fear of snakes, and other types of phobias. However, each one of your readers is unique, and their personal fears will differ from one another.
For example, a story set in the Amazon, where the protagonist has to fight, for example, a pair of anacondas to survive, may terrify a person who is afraid of snakes, but for the rest of the readers, the story will be about survival. But, if the protagonist is afraid of snakes to the point of losing their grip on reality, you get the opportunity to turn that story into a psychological horror. The protagonist may start believing that the snakes are ancient gods of the Amazon and have to be appeased by human sacrifices. Each night, a person from camp is missing, while the protagonist experiences blackouts and memory loss, and visions of giant snake-gods that seem to talk to him, and strange ethereal temples in the jungle. By the end, it is revealed that the protagonist would take a person from camp each night and leave them for the anacondas to find, in a desperate measure to save himself and appease the gods.
So, how to unnerve the readers in your story?
The first step consists of empathy and sympathy. We talked above about how the best psychological stories are rooted in reality rather than the supernatural world. When it comes to empathy, you need to give the readers a protagonist they can relate to: a mother who has recently lost a child or a husband or both, a father whose baby goes missing as he checks into a hotel, a weary traveler getting stranded in an isolated community and needs to get out of the rain, so he checks into an old inn.
The protagonist is rarely a person who would go to investigate a known haunted house for fun – if that happens, the readers may feel that the protagonist “got what was coming for them.” Of course, there is an exception to every rule, in this case, in an example by Stephen King’s story, 1408. The protagonist, Mike, enters the room 1408 (whose numbers add up to 13), on the 14th floor of a hotel (where they do not have a 13th floor). He is warned not to go inside, yet he does anyway. In the film adaptation of the same name, Mike is a lot more sympathetic because he recently lost his daughter, whose ghostly apparition tortures him while he’s inside the room. In the epilogue, after he’s escaped, he plays the tape recorder he used to record his stay, and hears his daughter’s voice.
In conclusion, there is only one fear that you need to tap into – the fear of not knowing what’s real and what isn’t, and the fear of losing a grip on reality.
3) Prevailing themes
The prevailing themes in psychological horror, as the name of the genre implies, are related to mental illnesses and the psychological health of your characters. For example, think of the film Black Swan, where the protagonist is so obsessed with delivering the perfect performance as both the white and the black swan that she develops a split personality that ultimately turns on her.
In psychological horror, the themes of friendship, family, community – they are all twisted as if through a dark mirror, and often show extreme examples of going too far. So far that the end is often related to the protagonist or another character losing their grip on reality.
Fear – or, our reaction to it, is also a prevalent theme. How your protagonist and other characters react when they are afraid – or when put in unfavorable conditions, for example, where they need to kill one another to survive – is often a bleak representation of the darkest sides of humanity as a whole, and humans as individuals.
4) Who are you scaring?
And, more importantly, how will you scare them?
There are two different ways of writing a horror novel. One is where your aim is to scare, thrill, and ultimately, unnerve the audience, whereas the characters in your novel become victims of circumstance. Often, these novels are written in third person omnipresent point of view, and the audience often knows more about what’s happening, instead of the characters. The tension here is built not by wondering what would happen, but by wondering where, and how, and how it will affect the characters. The readers, playing the role of the audience, get to witness all the horrifying things that happen to your characters. The problem with this way of writing the novel is the fact that your audience is still mostly detached from your characters, and by the end, they do not really care if your protagonist was fated to spend the rest of his or her days in a mental institution, taking happy pills.
When your aim is to scare, unnerve, and terrify your characters and your readers in equal measure, you have the chance to achieve two things: first, the readers will connect with your characters and feel everything right alongside your characters. Second, you get the chance to use different ways of building tension. Often, these novels are written in first person point of view – sometimes even in the present tense, to make everything feel more sudden, more imminent, more urgent – or third person limited, where the readers know only as much as the character knows.
For that reason, you need to decide whether you are going to write in a single or multiple points of view. This depends entirely of the story you are telling. If your story is about a group of friends going on a camping trip, where the strange things happening after dark make most, if not all of them, lose their grip on reality, then that story deserves to be told via multiple views. However, make sure not to use too many, because the more points of view you have, the harder it will be for the audience to connect with all of them. They may pick and choose the one they like the most, and not care about the others.
But if your story is about a man who just moved in a very big house – or a small apartment underneath the apartment of a mysterious old man – then there is no need to include the PoV of the mysterious man. He would lose the mystery air about him, and your audience will have more information about what’s happening than the protagonist, which again, lessens the impact of your novel, and does not scare the audience enough to ensure they think about your novel for days to come.
5) Building tension
When it comes to building tension, in psychological horror, the most important thing to do is to use your protagonist. We’ve already talked about artistic realism – bringing your readers closer to the world inside your novel – and the same rule applies to your protagonist. He or she need to feel like a real person, and a relatable one as well. Once the readers are connected with the protagonist, you can begin to build the tension.
Tension is then built first through atmosphere. Instead of sunny days, there may be grey skies. A murder of crows may fly over the protagonist’s head, startling them, while the day seems nothing more out of the ordinary. Room temperatures may be chillier than normal, and the chill may drop as the novel progresses, becoming colder and colder. Surfaces scratch the skin, wood is old and moldy and splintered. There is less of the aesthetic and more of the bizarre. Hallways are dark, lightbulbs flicker.
The second way to build tension is through fear of the unknown. In horror novels, the problem that the protagonist faces, in terms of plot, is largely unknown. Something is happening, but he or she cannot pinpoint what it is and what is wrong. The results of their actions are often the opposite of what they intended. For example, let’s say that the power goes out in a house. The protagonist finds an old flashlight, but instead of making visibility easier, it flickers and stops, plunging the protagonist into sudden darkness often enough that they become rattled. The house is old, it echoes, and the moldy wooden floor creaks with every step, causing the protagonist to look over their shoulder with every step.
6) Using unreliable narrators
There are two ways to use and portray unreliable narrators. The first way is to establish that in the beginning of the story. This is done via the protagonist, who will likely also narrate the story. You establish a certain aspect of the character that indicates unreliability: missing memories, full amnesia or just a blackout from a certain event, presence in a mental institution (if you’re using non-linear storytelling), possible PTSD after surviving a certain, or establishing a previous shock (losing a parent, child, significant other, best friend, etc.) or simply even losing a job. Establish something important to the character: a job, a promotion, or as in the case above, an important performance. Establish the danger of failing to keep the job or to deliver the performance, and slowly begin building the unreliable narrator.
The other way to use an unreliable narrator is to sprinkle clues throughout the novel that something is not right. Perhaps a happy childhood memory recounted in the first act of the novel is remembered a bit differently in act 2, and then in act 3, we get yet another memory that is drastically unhappy, making the readers wonder which one was real. Considering that this would happen parallel to the protagonist’s descent from reality, it would raise even more questions about whether the protagonist was insane in the first place.
Together, unreliable narrators and the fear of the unknown make a powerful combination to use in psychological horror.
He woke because his watch was denting his forehead, but it wasn’t long before his lower back screamed in pain. He felt as if a thin blade had been shoved deep into his spine. But no, the thin knife couldn’t be in his spine, for he was holding it in his right hand…
His eyes snapped open in panic. He was outside, lying on the doorstep. The rain was pounding on the awning above him. Still, he shivered in wet pajamas. White with dark stripes, they had been a gift from his daughter for his fiftieth birthday, but the wet cotton only made him feel colder in the already freezing November night.
What did I do? He wondered, trying to see, but it was too dark.
Lightning split the sky, in a murky sort of way. The world was drowning in the torrential rain, but the brief light was enough. His gaze went back to his right hand and the thin blade he seemed to be clutching.
Only no, it wasn’t a blade, it was Martha’s favorite knife, the one she used to slice everything from bread to beef. In the rain, he could almost hear the sound of her sharpening it in the kitchen yesterday. Where had she put it after she was done? The third drawer next to the sink?
Another lightning cracked the sky, a bigger one, and he glimpsed parts of his torso. He’d thought he’d been wet from the rain – and he was – his pajamas clung to his lean frame as he stood up. They made his body feel even leaner than it already was. But that was not all.
A large dark spot marred the right side of his stomach, the splatter dark and harsh against the stripes.
What have I done? He thought again, fighting the blind panic blurring the edges of his vision. He turned around and swooshed inside the house. He dimly noted how his house was unlocked in the middle of the night. He was inside the downstairs bathroom in what seemed like a flash.
Tucked under the staircase, the bathroom was dark. He fumbled with the switch for a moment, still gripping the knife. He stopped in front of the mirror as the light above it turned on.
The mirror showed him an emaciated version of himself. His cheekbones cut against his skin. His beard looked three days old. His dark red hair looked more gray than before. His eyes were bloodshot, the pale blue irises invisible. His pupils were huge and dark. They looked empty.
But that didn’t worry him.
What worried him was the fact that he was covered in blood. Not just on his shirt. There was blood on his face, droplets of it on his nose. Blood had stuck and dried in his beard, black in the weak light. Blood on his arms, blood on the front of his legs. A bloody knife in his hand. His hand felt something on the back of his head. It was touching the bare skin of the bald spot he wanted to hide.
He looked down. Dark footprints marked his passage on the carpet. He poked his head out of the bathroom, he had to see. Dark prints had marked his passage through the hallway.
Except, they didn’t have carpet, did they? No, they had polished wooden floors, and tile in the bathroom, the blue tiles that Martha loved…
He looked back inside the bathroom, glowing golden under the yellow lightbulb, not a blue tile in sight.
And he knew. He wasn’t inside his house after all.
Rushing back outside, he bumped into something on the doorstep. And as a third lightning struck the sky, he saw it. A body clad in familiar pinstriped pajamas, Martha’s favorite kitchen knife sticking out of his lower back.
Oh, he thought, as another pulse of pain seared in his spine. I didn’t do anything at all.
He felt nothing after that.
Part 2: Crafting the Story
A story, like all stories, and especially novels, has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Short stories, of course, will differ in terms of length, style, and structure as well, but they all have a beat, a point, a moment – like in our example above, where the beat was the man discovering that he’d just been murdered by his wife and left on a stranger’s doorstep.
And while most stories have themes and ideas, psychological horror has very specific themes, mainly psychological fears, and the goal of a good psychological horror story is to frighten and disturb and, even more so, deeply unnerve.
When you start crafting your story – be it in the pantser way of writing as you go along or plotting everything ahead of time – you need to keep in mind that goal. Psychological horror is the place where our worst fear come to life, and the story you’re crafting needs to exude this on every level. If you start off with a bang: a stranger comes into your home, ties your two children to chairs, puts masks over their heads, and tells you to choose how they die, how do you react? What does your character do?
And while this may be a great way to start the story, what happens afterwards? If you, as the writer, are afraid of hurting children, how are you going to continue the story? How does the protagonist delay the murder of one of his or her children?
More importantly, can you fill a whole novel with the events that would transpire afterwards?
For that reason, we can divide psychological horror stories in two types: strong and subtle. The strong stories are where the events are shocking. As in the aforementioned example, they start with a bang, and keep going, adding more and more horrific events on top of horrific events. The endings of these stories, however, are often less impactful than the beginnings, especially if the story ends with the protagonist dead, and outside, life continues as if nothing ever happened.
In the subtle stories, the readers cannot really tell what is really happening that has them so unnerved. Something is definitely off, but they are still trying to figure out what exactly isn’t right by the time the big reveal comes along.
Both types are equally scary.
The first type shows that, no matter the ways we live our lives and no matter the precautions we take to remain safe from harm, no one can truly predict the human factor in the equation. No one is ever truly safe. And no matter what happens to you, the world is so big and vast, that if you disappear, nothing will have really changed.
The second type is scary because it shows that any one of us can lose our grip on reality when the right triggers are pushed.
But both of them depend on character, or to be more precise, on the protagonist. So, let’s start with that.
1) Building the protagonist
We’ve talked about unreliable narrators – and that in psychological horror, the best course of action is to write in either third person limited point of view or in first person, to bring the readers closer to the narrator and to the horror of the story.
The first step in doing that is by creating a relatable protagonist. No, we’re not suggesting that you research the gender and age of your target audience, especially because horror as a genre is enjoyed by many people of different genders and ages. So, how?
Well, take in the aforementioned example of someone bursting into the protagonist’s home and making, let’s say, the mother, choose which child she will pick to save or kill. If we establish that protagonist as a working single mother who is trying to do best by her kids, then we would relate to her. She’s a good person in a very nasty situation.
But if we establish that the mother is a drug abuser who consistently traumatizes her kids with her abuse, then we may not be so willing to connect with her. Of course, we will care about the children, but we will not care about the trauma and horror the woman will be going through.
But, you want to say, characters, especially protagonists, need to have layers, right? Would it not be better to have the mother flawed in some way?
And you would be right. For that reason, the mother can become someone who occasionally does drugs or drinks alcohol. Maybe the person who came into her house is seeking revenge for something she did via her work place and unintentionally ruined someone else’s life. Maybe she works at a bank and was responsible for the foreclosure of the man’s house. He is now homeless and his own child has been taken away from him to foster care. Now, he is seeking revenge.
In other words, it’s not just about the horrific events that happen in the novel, or the fact that they’re happening to someone who is, by all means, a good person. It’s about creating a good, layered character who has a backstory, a life lived to the fullest before the events of the novel occur, and that backstory needs to be related to the present situation that they find themselves in.
So, you have the primary characteristics of the protagonist, which are mostly good, positive characteristics. Then, you have the secondary characteristics – and some of them will be negative. For example, a person that has recently suffered a trauma and is suffering from PTSD simply refuses to see a doctor, or they have been seeing a doctor, but not taking their medication properly. When odd and unnerving things around them start happening, we begin to discover more of these negative characteristics of the character. To continue our example, maybe the character begins losing time. He is one place one moment, only to be somewhere completely different in the next paragraph. Maybe he was planning to go to the pub, but in the next paragraph, he is in the woods next to a freshly disturbed pile of earth. Scared, the character walks away, to the nearest road, and discovers he was behind the pub all along, the parking lot is visible as he emerges from the woods. The sun is rising. He knows something is wrong, but, convinced that he doesn’t need help, he tries to solve this losing time problem on his own.
And it is only as the novel progresses further that we discover more about the character. We discover what happened to him to cause PTSD, and that event may or may not have been of his own doing. We could be reading the story of a reluctant murderer – someone stuck in a Jekyll and Hyde kind of split – or we could be reading the story of a man who is stalked by someone, who finds ways to mess with their mind. Maybe the stalker hit the protagonist on the head, dragged him to the woods, and created that pile of earth to convince the protagonist that they are a murderer. In this case, of course, our obvious suspect is the doctor, who could be experimenting on the protagonist.
But since horror is rarely just a who-did-it story – although, of course, mystery is encouraged in horror – and since psychological horror is all about the psyche, even if the story ends on a happy note, the protagonist cannot escape unscathed or unaffected. By the end of the novel, we need to see that the protagonist’s life will never be the same again.
2) Multiple points of view
When are multiple points of view advisable in psychological horror?
The easiest answer is: when their use has a meaning. Maybe the story is about a whole group of characters – and ensemble cast – or maybe having another point of view in the story helps the readers discover something important about the story.
For example, let’s take one of the best psychological horror novels of all time: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. We won’t delve into the story itself, which revolves around the lives of two sisters, Merricat and Constance, and how their lives have changed since the deaths of most of their family members. The story is told through Merricat’s point of view, and she is one of the best, and at times, the creepiest, unreliable narrators there are. But, if we’d had Contstance’s point of view as well, we would discover the truth to the mystery surrounding the sisters and their lives very early on, because Constance would not be hiding from that truth like Merricat does.
On the other hand, if your story revolves around an ensemble cast, or if there is information to be revealed through the eyes of another character, then it’s perfectly okay to have multiple points of view. In fact, it’s necessary to show the other point of view, to show the readers that maybe one – or more – protagonists are unreliable narrators and that there is something happening that they should pay attention to.
What’s important to note here is the fact that characters that get points of view chapters need to have a character’s arc. They need to get the same treatment as the protagonist, which means they need to be sympathetic, easy to relate to, and you need to use their perspective too in creating the psychological horror aspects – which means that they too, need to be just as frightened and unnerved as the readers.
3) Creating the plot
The plot in a psychological novel is special in the sense that it does not often make everything obvious. However, the basic structure of the plot of a psychological horror novel is the same as in any other novel. The protagonist is presented with a problem within the first act of the novel – the beginning – and the difference between other genres and psychological novel is the fact that the protagonist is very deeply scared and disturbed by the problem. Whether the problem is of a more physical nature (a house invader), or a result of something supernatural (an eldritch monster or apparition, ghosts in the attic, or the bogeyman in the closet), or a psychological nature (losing memories, losing time, finding strange objects around the house, etc.) the protagonist always makes the wrong the decision to deal with the problem. That’s the end of Act 1. In this first part, the horror is slow and subtle, unless you’ve started with a bang. For example, in our house invaders example, the wrong decision can be not to run or ask for help, or maybe the wrong decision is to simply play along with the game and promising oneself to wait and bide their time.
And the start of Act 2 indicates that this was the right decision. This means that the horror dies down a bit. Maybe the protagonist who loses time decides to place a camera on his shoulder (a hidden GoPro, for example), to see what he or she is doing during this time period. However, instead of gaining concrete information, all the protagonist sees when he or she checks the footage creates an even bigger problem and an even bigger horror. Maybe the protagonist sees murky footage that does not show anything, or maybe the protagonist sees himself in a group of masked people committing all sorts of atrocities. And considering that this is a psychological horror, primarily, the impact of this footage is huge on the mind of the protagonist, and they begin to doubt themselves and everything they’ve ever known. For example, maybe the latest footage shows the protagonist doing something horrific to a child or a helpless animal, and this marks the culmination point and the moment when the protagonist makes the right decision.
What is the right decision?
That depends on the plot of your novel, the story you’re telling. If you’re telling the story of a man who refuses to see the real reason for his own problems, then making the right decision for him would be to maybe get professional help to get to the bottom of it. This, of course, would not ensure a happy ending, but it does mark the beginning of Arc 3, where the story is resolved, the mystery is solved, and the readers get to learn what exactly happened.
As for the ending itself, that also depends on many different factors, and because of that, we will talk more about it later.
4) World building in Psychological Horror
The horror genre automatically implies to the readers that they are about to get an experience that is not rooted in this world. So many things portrayed in horror are simply things that almost never happen: ghosts that haunt a house, weird monsters that appear out of nowhere, a mysterious town populated by people who have strange limbs and even stranger eyes – these just don’t exist. For that reason, it is often said (and so do we) that the supernatural has no place in psychological horror, because the biggest fear that psychological horror deals with is supposed to be rooted in reality.
However, that’s not exactly true. H. P. Lovecraft managed to scare countless generations with his psychological horror short stories and novels, and many of them were not only rooted in a different world, they were thick with supernatural aspects. So, how do you create a balance between the real and the supernatural world, and still craft an excellent psychological horror novel?
Well, start by establishing rules that you will follow. If the monsters only ever appear at night, then do not break that rule by having a monster appear during the day (but do have a monster appear in a basement, especially if the monsters are sensitive to light – basements are dark places by nature, so not having a daylight-sensitive monster appear when the protagonist goes to the basement might make the readers lose their suspension of disbelief).
Second, create a very sympathetic and believable protagonist – even if the protagonist is an unreliable narrator. When the protagonist is sympathetic and believes in the horrors he is experiencing, then so will the readers, even if they know, deep down, that this situation might not occur in the real world. Moreover, scare the protagonist so much that he begins to doubt his own self about the reality of what’s happening, and the readers will want to reach into the page, pat him on the back, and comfort him by saying to keep going, because it’s all really happening.
If you omit the supernatural in your novel, and decide that your story will be rooted in the real world, then that doesn’t mean that you job is done. You still need to pay attention to the details, and ensure that they’re always correct. If the story is set in the modern world, and is about a house invasion, then why didn’t the protagonist immediately call the police or for help? How long, on average, does it take for help to arrive? If this is happening in a big city, where are the neighbors? If they’re not mentioned, the story loses some of its sense of reality, again making the readers lose their suspension of disbelief. If the story is happening in an isolated cabin in the mountains, on the other hand, it would be improbable that the protagonist would be able to get service on their phone to call for help. In fact, that isolation actually provides the opportunity to build tension by having the protagonist mange to reach out for help, only to get creepy, garbled responses on the other end, or strange footage if they have actually managed to make a video call to someone else.
5) Atmosphere and dread
Building atmosphere and dread in a psychological novel is very important. In this case, the best direction to look at is within yourself. Place yourself in your protagonist’s situation, and ask yourself, how would you solve it? What goes wrong when you try to solve it? And then, how do you ensure that the scariest thing happens when the protagonist takes action.
For example, in a thriller novel, if someone is chased in the woods, they may be scared for their lives, but they know that what is chasing them is another human, and they know that they can outsmart them.
In a psychological novel, when someone is being chased through a dark forest, they need to get scared out of their minds. And in order to make them scared out of their minds, have branches reach down to grab for them, have strange animals appear in their path (strange as in unnatural, because a deer may startle you, but an unnatural-looking animal will make you wonder where it came from, and what it could possibly do to you).
In a thriller novel, a phone call for help might be unsuccessful, or they might get garbled reception, but in a psychological horror novel, the call may go through – only for the protagonist to see whoever is chasing them on the other end (and it gets even better when there is a real character on the other end, wondering what is wrong with the protagonist). In other words, even though the call worked, the protagonist’s mind has already begun to fracture where they do not see what there really is, they only see what they are afraid of.
Fear needs to prevail. If the protagonist is afraid of spiders, this fear can be played to the extreme where huge, hairy spiders appear in their paths. Maybe they’re trying to get a good night’s sleep when they hear scratches on the windows. Paralyzed, they try to see through better, only to have a huge hairy leg break the window and approach the bed.
If the protagonist has to go to work in the morning, they may doze on the train and see how the faces of everyone else on the train begins to melt. Daylight horror can have an even bigger impact than nighttime horror, especially because we’re used to the fact that light equals safety. If your story is about a man that believes that his house is infested with small creatures that hide in the walls and come out at night to torture him while he is asleep, then he may try to keep his house lit throughout the night, just to chase the little monsters away. But as his mental state keeps deteriorating, and his judgment becomes more and more impaired, he may decide to set fire to his own house, just to get rid of them. Bonus points if the house was merely creaking the whole time, and by the time the police arrive, they find no strange burnt bodies inside, just a man in a robe, muttering how they’re finally gone now.
Which brings us, finally, to the ending.
6) Endings: who wins?
Who wins, in the end? If the monsters were real, do they manage to take over the protagonist and win? Or, from our example above in the previous section, does he win against the monsters, only to end up institutionalized?
The ending depends on the story you are telling. Since psychological horror is meant to frighten and unnerve, you can achieve this effect even by having the protagonist survive. It all depends on the message you’re sending out into the world. A story about human endurance might get a somewhat happy ending where the protagonist survives. They may even manage to survive without ending up in an institution, and yet you still may leave the readers disturbed by showing all the ways in which the protagonist has changed by showing all the precautions the protagonist takes in order to prevent the same from happening again.
But, also, a psychological novel can have a bleak message, the opposite message of human endurance, showing that when you push the right buttons, the human mind can break and lose all sense of reality. Because of this, many protagonists in many psychological novels end up in a mental ward, and the story was a new attempt at journaling to help them. Other times, the protagonist would die, and the readers are shown how nothing has changed in the world, and just how small of an impact we humans really can have during our time on earth.
Whichever ending you choose, make sure that you do end your novel on a powerful note. There is a certain gradation, always, in the horror and the dread in a psychological horror novel, so make sure that the final showdown is not less scary than the other events in the novel. There needs to be a sense of inevitability to it, a knowledge that the protagonist did everything they could to get out of the situation, regardless of whether there is a happy ending or not.
The original ending of the Mist, which we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, is an example of human endurance. Despite all the horror that the protagonist has been through, and even though he has very little hope of actually surviving the monster apocalypse brought by the mist, we’re left knowing that as a father, he would do anything to protect his son. In the film, however, this desperation and readiness is taken to the extreme – the protagonist shoots his own child to prevent him from being taken by the monsters, only to have US military troops surround him just as he has taken that painful decision. And it is this ending that plunges the film into psychological horror, and without it, the novella belongs more in the usual horror category. However, it goes without saying that the ending of the film is a lot more shocking than the novella, and it ensures that the Mist remains in the minds of the audience for a lot longer than the novella itself, even though it carries a bleak message.
And that brings us to another aspect of psychological horror: everything that remains unresolved. H.P. Lovecraft famously said that nothing is scarier than the unknown. Which means, for us, that you do not have to show and resolve what exactly was happening to the protagonist. Since psychological horror deals with the human mind – and these shocking endings would not be possible unless the human has been through such trauma that their actions are not the ones that they would make under normal circumstances – the true nature of the horror can remain hidden. The readers may finish your book without understanding anything about the monsters, but they will think about your protagonist and his or her actions for a long long time afterwards.
Part 3: Editing and Publishing
When it comes to editing and publishing a psychological novel, we’re going to talk about the involvement of beta readers a lot. Since this genre is so specific – and because you need to be scary – you may not always be able to use just your own fears to be as scary as possible.
You need to edit your novel, maybe even several times, to determine if the chain of cause and effect that drives the plot makes sense. Then, you need to edit your novel to ensure that you haven’t made any world building mistakes (think of our previous example with the nighttime monsters appearing in daylight, and not appearing in dank, gloomy basements). For that reason, beta readers and professional editors become very important.
So, let’s talk about the areas where the beta readers will help you the most, beyond just letting you know if your story is interesting, and where editors will let you know if your story has taken a wild (and not in a good way) turn.
1) Are you scary enough?
In other words, you need other pairs of eyes on your work, even as soon as you’ve finished the first draft, which always needs work, to know if the events in your novel will truly frighten your readers.
Are your scenes written in a way that fills the reader with tension? Is the payoff of that tension still a surprise – or does it have the frightening capabilities of the usual jump scare? Do you need to work on the language itself in particular scenes?
Moreover, you need to figure out if the story makes sense as it is. Your beta readers should keep an eye out for errors in the world building, for mistakes in details, and for anything that brings them out of the story.
2) The dark side of human nature
You also need to pay attention to some other aspects of your novel in order to ensure that it’s the best version of itself, and in addition to that, there is something you need to pay very, very good attention to: mental illness.
Psychological horror deals with the human mind and the psyche – and it often shows the darkest sides of human nature. Often, the protagonist is on a downward spiral, a descent into madness, even, and they often end up in a mental institution. And that means that the topic of mental illness may come across in your novel.
Meaning, you need to pay attention when and how and if you are portraying it in your novel. Sure, the unreliable narrator is unreliable for a reason – they may be a liar, or they may be unable to distinguish what’s real and not. However, there are other ways to portray the unreliable narrator without delving too deep into mental illnesses. People often misremember things, they fill in the blanks with whatever makes the most sense, and in addition, we’re often easily influenced in our memory, meaning that we often remember something only after we are told that it happened. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, except in situations where it’s been misused by someone gaslighting another person, but you can use these ways to portray unreliable narrators instead of using a mental illness as background. Depression is one example; bipolar disorder is another. The danger here is that you unwittingly create a protagonist with a mental illness. You may imply that everyone who suffers from the same mental illness will act in that way, especially if your novel ends on a bleak note and ends up presenting the protagonist in a negative light.
To avoid this, we suggest you use both beta readers and professional editors, who will be able to give insight into whether you’ve steered clear from crossing the line of political correctness, and in this day and age, being PC is actually very important, because it can make or break your novel.
3) Common clichés in writing horror
Like any other genre, horror has its own clichés, and psychological horror is not exempt from them. It’s important to understand what these clichés are in order to turn them on their heads. And even more importantly, it’s important to understand when you’ve inadvertently used them in your novel – as it is bound to happen. Clichés have become clichés for a reason: they’ve been used so often that we think of them as almost normal occurrences.
For example, location: the old haunted manor. If a house is big, but old and dilapidating, and it has creepy windows on the attic level, it’s definitely haunted by something.
Another example is the clumsy protagonist: she is running through the woods and is bound to trip on something at the worst possible moment.
Have your beta readers – and your editor too! – keep an eye out for clichés that may take away some of the entertainment value from your novel, especially because your fan base will have already read the same clichés over and over again in many different novels.
4) Language & writing style
The writing style and use of language can also have a great impact on your novel. If you’re writing in first person point of view, you need to make sure that you’re always writing using the voice of the character. Do not make the character say the word ‘monachopsis’ unless they have the right background for it. (Monachopsis: the persistent feeling that you do not belong in your surroundings).
On the other hand, if your writing in third person, you may play with the use of language so that, while it may seem like we’re inside the protagonist’s mind, the story is still being told by a narrator, and that narrator’s use of language does not necessarily have to match the protagonist’s language in dialogue.
In both cases, you need to watch your pacing and sentences. Long sentences belong in scenes that are less about the action and more about the character’s inner thoughts. Shorter sentences indicate action and a faster pace. Keep the pace balanced between both.
When you’re editing your novel, make sure that you’re not doing some of the following errors, like overuse of the same words and phrases, unless they’re related to the protagonist. Another error is writing sentences that are too long: they take all tension away, and may bore the readers, and be hard to follow on top of that.
5) Cutting up the first draft
Some writers tend to overwrite. Others often write so fast that then they go through the novel and add everything that’s missing. Most often, however, writers write more than they needed to write. So, don’t be afraid to cut up your first draft. You might find yourself cutting whole scenes away (and if you’re doing this, make sure that the chain of cause and effect still makes sense), or you may just be trimming your sentences.
Remember, less is more, especially in fiction.
The average length of horror novels is about 90,000 words. Some are longer than that, others may be shorter, around 80,000 words. However, psychological horror is not an epic fantasy novel (where the length can vary from 180,000 to 200,000 words), which means that you will probably need to cut a lot of sections, especially if you’ve gone over the 100,000 words mark.
So, don’t be afraid to cut parts of your novel that don’t fit, and have the patience and time it will take to trim your sentences, because it’s better if your novel is on the shorter end.
6) Publishing a Psychological Horror novel
To publish your novel, there are two paths you can take.
The first is the traditional path. You need an agent – who specializes in psychological novels, or you can research which publishing houses publish horror and psychological horror. However, since the best publishing houses out there almost never accept unsolicited manuscripts, you may need to get an agent anyway. The second thing you need is a very thick skin. You will probably get a lot of rejections before your novel gets acquired for publication. The most important thing to remember here is that agents are never supposed to ask for compensation to review your novel and decide if they will sign you on. Agents make money by commission. If an agent is asking for compensation just to read your novel, that’s a definite red flag that you’re being scammed.
The second path is self-publishing. You can self-publish in print, or you may take the e-book route, or both. When it comes to self-publishing in print, you need to find a good press that may offer you a good deal on printing and some of them may even offer you advertising and marketing services. With an agent, it’s easy to tell when someone is trying to scam you. But with vanity presses and the like, it gets more difficult to know when you’re being scammed, so do your research and see if they’ve successfully helped other authors self-publish. Reach out to them and ask for their feedback, because vanity presses work the opposite way of publishing houses. A publishing house will pay you for the rights to print and distribute your novel. However, you will be paying a vanity press the cost of printing and marketing your novel – and there is great danger that your payments will be for nothing.
Going the e-book way is a safer choice. There are platforms, the biggest of which is Amazon, where you can self-publish your novel. Here you need a professional editor, someone with experience in psychological novels, to edit and proofread your novel. You also need to take care of the cover, the marketing, your own online presence and building a platform of readers, and basically become your own publisher. It’s a lot of effort, but it can lead to great results. In addition, platforms like Amazon may offer you to sponsor your novel so that it becomes recommended to your readers. And finally, you may ask popular reviewers to read your novel for free and write a review if they like it.
What you should never do is get paid reviews. Paid reviews are almost always positively influenced – meaning, a reviewer might leave a highly positive review for your novel. But not every review is going to be a positive one, which means you may get negative reviews also, negative reviews that may counteract the positive ones, making it obvious that you have paid for someone to leave you a good review. This will alienate potential readers even more, not just for the novel you’ve already written, but for future novels as well. Have faith in your novel instead, and do your best.
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own.