Here’s one I wrote on Instructables when they had their annual Halloween Contest. My unique approach, a how-to on writing a scary story rather than on making decorations or scary masks, would surely be appreciated by the jury, wouldn’t it? Well. It wouldn’t.
The thing I like best about Halloween is not the candy (I’d just get fat), the pumpkin carving (really, I’d end up with a pumpkin that would more likely resemble a deformed bowling ball rather than a face), or the weather (I hate rain!), but the stories. Even though I’m not very good at watching horror movies – I just end up with a pillow in front of my face while still jumping from the sounds emanating from the television – I love reading scary books. I really enjoy diving into a world where some strange, unknown, malignant creature is lurking, and to find out it’s slowly killing people. It just makes me want to continue reading, even though I know I’ll be jumping at shadows for the next couple of nights.
Do you like horror stories too, and have you always wanted to try your hand at your own? In this Instructable I will help you write one. I’ll ask some questions, and your answers to them will help you find out what kind of story you’ll write. Don’t hesitate to change your story a couple of times, and to experiment with different writing styles, plots, or even the bad guys. Have fun!
Step 1: Blood-Chilling Ingredients – What You Need
You’re writing a story. What you need in order to do that is a pen, a pencil, and a notebook, to write down some ideas and connect them with each other. If you want to work out the plans you’ve written down, it’s also useful to get a laptop, so the writing process goes a bit faster.
You’re writing a horror story. The main goal of this genre is to scare the living hell out of your audience. In order to reach the perfect mindset to liberate the darkest parts of your imagination, you need to stimulate your senses. Play scary music (bombastic classical music, for instance, or Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, for your daily dose of death), turn down the lights, and use candles instead. Watch the flames cast flickering shadows on the wall. Pour yourself a glass of wine (preferably red), and read. A lot. Read all the classics of Horror. Immerse yourself in the books of your predecessors, and let them inspire you. Make sure your mood is as dark and dreary as possible, as only then you can write your own horror story. In a way, you need to be afraid of your own creation, too.
Are you there? Have you entered that special state of mind where you find you’re starting to get scared of every little sound, and do you feel the inspiration flowing through your veins? Good. Let’s start, then.
Take a look at the picture for some required reading.
Step 2: To Those About to Write – Make It Easy for Yourself
When you’re a beginning writer, please don’t make it too hard for yourself. You have to find the joy in writing, and don’t want to get mixed up in unnecessary details. So, write about what you know, and not what you think is interesting or will deserve your audience’s respect. This way you can fully focus on your story, and not spend weeks doing research on, for instance, the climate of South Wales in the eighteenth century or other such nonsense. If you write about what you know, you’ll feel comfortable within your own story and the story will almost write itself.
We shouldn’t get too comfortable, though. Therefore, the next step you have to take is a scary one: Write about what you fear. Your most critical reader is, of course, you. So when you think a story is scary, it probably is. This is why you need to think about what scares you. If you think living dolls are guaranteed to keep you up at night, then write about that. If you’re afraid of snakes, then that’s your topic.
This would mean that I would have to write about spiders. There, the truth is out there, and please don’t use it against me. I would have to write about how spiders, big or small ones, are breeding so much they’re everywhere, and they’ve become immune to cold weather, poison, and vacuum cleaners. For instance.
Well, no. This is not about my horror story, but about yours. Let’s find out what else you have to do in the next step.
Step 3: This Is What Will Happen – The Situation
Let’s start with the truth. Reading this Instructable will not help you write the perfect horror story. There is no golden rule you can follow which will allow you to write a bestseller, and authors definitely don’t agree on how to start writing. Some of them start with developing the characters. There are those who mainly think about what they want to say with their story, and others plot out their whole novel before writing a single letter. What works for Stephen King is focusing on the situation. He works out so-called “what if?” questions without using any notes or scrap paper. Since he is one of the world’s best-selling horror writers – and that’s the genre we’re trying our hand at now – it might be good to stick with his idea.
So this is what you need before you start writing your actual story: a short “what if” question to think about for some time. Don’t think about anything else, you just need the big story line which you will develop as you work through the next steps.
Writing a horror story could be relatively easy, as it is always about people who encounter something scary. So the question you need to ask yourself is what will happen in your story. What is the situation you want to write about?
Take a look at the picture for inspiration.
Step 4: Something Is Going On – The Conflict
The main plot is there. Usually, I would say that you should start with developing your main characters before you take a look at what they will be doing and what they will be fighting. However, since you’re writing a horror story, you should definitely focus on the Conflict. The Bad Guy. The Villain. The Enemy. The Monster. Evil.
Whatever you want to call it, it needs to be scary. The best horror books are so scary that on the one hand you want to hurl your book against the wall in terror because you can’t bear to continue reading, while on the other hand you really do want to keep reading because you can’t bear the thought of not knowing what will happen next.
So all you need is the perfect scary person which your main characters (see the following step) will be fighting. Look at the picture for some questions you might ask yourself when thinking up your Bad Guy.
Informative note: In the nineteenth century, writers were absolutely obsessed by this particular feeling of repulsion and attraction, and called it the Sublime. We’ll be aiming for that, too (that’s right, we’re not just writing any horror story, nope, we’re trying to write the best, the scariest, the goriest, the bloodiest story – ever).
Step 5: Who Will Fight It? – The Main Characters
Now that you’ve settled on the Bad Guy, it’s time to think about who will face them. In other words, it’s time to flesh out your main character or characters. Your protagonists are your babies, all yours, and the good thing about literary babies is that they can be moulded whichever way you want. They can be like you, or the complete opposite. They can be perfect, or flawed. They can be old or young, male or female. It’s all up to you, of course, but bear in mind that the decisions you make here influence the rest of your steps.
Take a look at the picture for questions you need to ask yourself in order to think about what kind of hero you want to feature in your story.
Informative note: Have you ever heard of the Iceberg Theory? Ernest Hemingway said it’s useful to omit certain things. You know about them, but it’s more interesting to let the audience guess at a deeper meaning, or at a specific aspect of your characters. So ask yourself the following questions without giving the answer in your story: Why did you pick these characters? Why are they important for you, and for your story? Do you like them, and why? These questions will help you find out more about your characters.
Step 6: This Is Where They Live – The Setting
The setting you choose decides what kind of story it will be, maybe much more so than picking the main characters or your adversary. If you decide that you want your story to take place in a modern city, then you can make use of all the advantages of modern life, like mobile phones, while this would not be the case if you decide to write about a nineteenth-century castle.
It is a good idea to fool around with the setting, as you might find out that the thing you wanted to do doesn’t work for you and a different setting “clicks” in a way you didn’t anticipate. Do make sure, however, that your setting makes sense. It’s not a good idea to have a bunch of girly cheerleaders run around in an ancient castle without phone reception. It would take too much time to explain how they would have ended up there. Focus on the story instead.
Note: While the setting is one of the most important aspects of a horror story, make sure this is not the first step you take. Once you’ve chosen the people who are going to play their part in your story, it becomes easier to find out which setting you prefer, too. This will make it all feel more natural.
Step 7: This Is What It Looks Like – the Atmosphere
One of the most fun aspects of writing a horror story is its atmosphere. Consider everything you know about horror stories for a second, and think about the way it looks (both in books and in movies). Did you come to the conclusion that it’s always dark, it’s always cold or storming, electricity often fails, there are strange, inexplicable sounds, there are always shadows moving just out of reach, and everyday objects seem to have a hint of evil surrounding them? I could go on. Take a look at your classic horror stories, all the elements are there!
Play around with this. Do you want to have all aspects to appear in your story, or would that be overkill? Or would you prefer not to betray what the weather is like to increase the sense of mystery? It’s all up to you! You could, of course, also decide to throw all these cliches out of the window and go for something completely different, like having Bad Things happen on a bright summer day with lots of people around. Like I said, it’s a lot of fun to play around with this!
Informative note: See the quotation “It was a dark and stormy night” at the top right corner? The English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton used it in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Since then, it has been regarded as one of the worst writing cliches ever. In his honour, the annual ‘Dark and Stormy’ awards are given to the worst opening sentence of a book. So yeah, best avoid that sentence in your story.
Step 8: Here Is How They Did It – Style and Language
It’s a good idea to think about the language and style you’ll be employing throughout your story. Some stories work really well when a lot of information is added about the way things look (this step is closely linked to the previous one, by the way). This means the background is almost part of the story in the same way a character is. Others work really well because the descriptions are kept at a bare minimum. Some writers love using symbolism and metaphors, while it could also really work to just describe what’s there and leave it at that.
It’s also a good idea to think about what you want to describe when it comes to blood and death (because hey, it’s a horror story, people are supposed to die in them). Do you prefer telling in detail how a body is slowly pulled apart, including sound effects and an in-depth description of tendons snapping, or would you rather leave that to the imagination of the audience? These are things you need to consider while writing, as it influences the kind of horror story you want to tell. One focuses on mystery, while the other’s goal is to show everything with the explicit goal of grossing out your audience.
Informative note: If you decide you want to include many descriptions, think about applying stylistic devices. Personification, which you use when you give human characteristics to inanimate objects. Metaphors are comparisons; you say one thing but mean something else. There’s more here.
Step 9: He Saw Something They Didn’t – Perspective
The great lure of the horror story lies in the Unknown. If you would know everything that’s going on, it wouldn’t be fun as you know exactly what to expect. Therefore, you need to think long and hard about whose perspective you’re going to tell the story from. The most important aspect is that you create a sense of mystery, and that the audience knows just as little as the characters. It’s no fun knowing that someone will die on the next page, or pointing out that Evil will definitely be defeated.
There are several ways in which you can make the story as exciting as possible. You could change the perspective between the main characters, or have only one of them express his or her opinions, by using a first-person perspective. You could also decide not to share any of your character’s thoughts, but mainly describe what’s happening. Or you could change everything and have everything from the point of view of the monster itself. Or you could use flashbacks, or you could …
It’s all up to you, but do bear in mind that creating a layer of mystery is the most important goal here.
Look at the picture for inspiration.
Informative Note: Two of the most famous horror stories are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is not a coincidence both are epistolary novels, which means both novels consist of many letters being sent to someone. The cool aspect about this is that the writer of these letters can’t really be trusted, as we are never sure what exactly they saw. We call this an unreliable narrator.
Step 10: And They Lived… Did They? – The Ending
So, as soon as you’ve made up your mind about all these steps, it’s time to decide what you want to do with the ending. Do you want a happy ending, or is the Evil simply invincible? Or can it be almost-defeated so it just moves over to the next town and spread its evilness there? Or are you commercially inclined, and therefore hint at a possible sequel?
Think of what makes sense to you. It’s not about the audience. If you think it’s a good idea to kill off all your characters and have your Evil dance on their graves, then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with an angry audience. Also, I would like to state, again, that it might be a good thing to try out various endings, as it will show you what works best.
Informative note: Using a plot twist is a very old device used to confuse your audience. It has been done for thousands of years, and it’s still very effective. So if you want to go out with a bang, then go for the big shocker and turn your whole story around!
Step 11: Done!
That’s it. You’ve started with the characters, both good and evil, added the setting, the atmosphere, you’ve thought about the language, your style, the perspective, you know how the story is going to end… I think you’re done! Read it through, make it scarier (or less so, if you’ve just found out you can’t bear reading your own story), add a storm here, insert a spider web there, and you’re done! The most important, but in a way also the easiest, question that remains to be asked is: would you mind having other people read it? If the answer is yes, then you know you’re done. It may be scary, but all creative work is, in a way.
Let’s hope they’ll like it! Enjoy!
Do you have any other tips? Or have you written your own story? Please do share it in the comments!