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How to Write Effective Horror.

by Nathalie Saleeba



Hey! Thank you to Agora for having me on their blog. I specialise in helping female thriller and horror writers hone their skills and finish their manuscripts, so we’re going to take a look at the emotions you should aim to evoke when writing horror, and ways you can freshen up traditional archetypes to deliver a chilling tale.


If you want to write effective horror, don’t try to scare your reader in the traditional sense; you’re not looking to make your audience jump or scream. Movies are equipped to do this because they can utilise audio and visual techniques to elicit these responses, but if you attempt to achieve this in writing, it falls flat. Aim to make your reader feel uncomfortable, and for your book to leave them with a sick feeling in their stomach long after they’ve read the last sentence. Think of your novel as a snail finding its way into your reader’s ear, slowly travelling across their brain then exiting out the other ear, leaving behind that thin, sickly trail of slime all over their mind. Did that gross you out? Good, keep reading.


There are two books on writing horror that I highly recommend: Danse Macabre by Stephen King and Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner. Both books emphasise that the reason people enjoy horror is two-fold. The first is that we get to experience the fear that comes from being in danger while not being in any real, physical danger. The second is that we get to explore and indulge the anti-social thoughts and feelings that society demands we keep under control. Yes the latter is dark, but that’s horror!


So if you’re not aiming to ‘scare’ your reader, what feelings should you be targeting? In Danse Macabre, King identifies 3 levels of emotion related to writing horror. The finest level is Terror, where the reader doesn’t actually see anything disturbing on the page; it’s what their mind sees that terrifies. Rustling leaves when there is no wind or a stranger leading a child away from a playground. What could happen and does happen after the scene ends. Next comes Horror, where the reader does see something; a zombie slowly falling apart or body parts stuffed in the fridge while a cannibal prepares dinner. Finally we have Disgust, where we find blood and gore; disembowelled bodies, someone being forced to eat faeces, or a killer going to work on a live victim.


King goes on to identify four archetypes of horror and provides an example for each that he feels encapsulates the archetype best. He likens these to a perfect Tarot hand: The Werewolf (Edward Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde), The Vampire (Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula), The Thing Without A Name (Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and The Ghost (under which also falls The Bad Place, examples being The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door). A more recent example for The Bad Place is Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix.


Why didn’t I give more recent examples for the first three archetypes? Well, since Danse Macabre was published in 1981, the archetypes have become so overused that they now verge on clichés rather than tropes, with some being relegated to different genres. For example, vampires now regularly appear as sexy, dangerous heroes in YA Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. Same deal with werewolves, while ghosts have taken on a friendly and sometimes comic role.


Having said that, while the archetypes have become difficult to use in horror, it’s not impossible. In Writing in the Dark, Tim Waggoner discusses several ways we can freshen them up, some of which are to:

  • Read as widely as possible, both in terms of genres and time periods. You can’t write something original if you don’t know what has come before. The last thing you want is to invest countless hours into a story only to find it’s been done to death.

  • Avoid the flavour of the month, and if you really can’t avoid it then make sure your story is unique. Want to write about zombies? Mix it up; we already have World War Z and The Walking Dead. Mythology is a treasure trove when it comes to creating unique monsters, or putting a spin on traditional ones, so get researching.

  • Write the story only you can write. Think about your experiences, use your imagination and apply them to your story. Only you have lived those moments so your story is guaranteed to be original.

  • Utilise Formalism, where you tell a story using a different form of writing. Intersperse your novel with sections such as newspaper articles, journal entries, experiment reports and interview transcripts. Max Brooks utilises Formalism brilliantly in both World War Z and Devolution.

If you need some inspiration to kick start your novel, you can find over three thousand unique horror prompts on my personal blog here. Good luck on your horror journey!