How to Write Horror Novels With Dabble (Guide + Template!)
How to Write Horror with Dabble
Do you know what’s scarier than the Babadook, serial killers, demonic possession, and reanimated corpses combined? Writing a horror novel with a clunky, outdated writing tool.
Seriously, there’s nothing more terrifying than getting excited to bring your dream—or, in this case, nightmare—to life, only to have your creativity bogged down and your writing made inefficient by the app or software you’ve chosen.
That’s where Dabble comes in.
Now, I’m a massive horror fiction fan myself, so you’re in good hands to help you understand how to write horror stories in Dabble.
This is one heck of a versatile tool for authors. I’ve written books and short stories with this novel-writing tool and have met authors who have written literary fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, romance, and basically any genre you can imagine in this sleek, modern platform.
We’re going to dive into the deepest, darkest recesses of what Dabble has to offer you and your imagination as we work our way through this guide. That includes:
- Why Dabble is the best platform out there for horror authors
- Setting Dabble up to craft your dark vision
- Insider tips and tricks for making the most of your monsters, haunted houses, and nightmares
- Some of Dabble's best tools to make you a better horror author overall
And just for you (yes, you), I’ve put together this horror template in Dabble. I’ll be referencing it throughout this guide, but it will still make plenty of sense if you’re working from a normal Dabble project.
If you aren’t already a Dabbler, you can grab a 14-day free trial with this link. You don’t need to enter your credit card info, so no surprise charges in two weeks and you can still follow along.
Now enter… if you dare.
What Makes Dabble Perfect for Horror Novels?
Writing something so engrossing, so beautifully macabre that it sucks readers in and makes them want to be scared by you is a special kind of art. While these scary stories aren’t to everyone’s taste, they’re to the taste of the best people (like you and me).
There are a few must-haves in this genre that Dabble helps you realize in just the right way to haunt your readers. Here are those big things Dabble does to help horror writers and authors more than anyone else.
Crafting the BBST
The Big Bad Spooky Thing (BBST) is a Doug-coined, Dabble-sponsored term. This is the monster/killer/ghost/cursed tomb/whatever-you-want that presents a terrible threat to your protagonist.
Combining the power of character profiles, the versatility of the Plot Grid, and the ability to view exactly where and how the BBST makes an appearance throughout your story is key to writing something horrifying.
Peek Behind the Curtain
By combining all your Story Notes, Scene Cards, plot lines, character arcs, themes, and basically everything else you want to include in your Dabble project, all you need is just a click away from your manuscript.
With automatic linking between scenes and your notes, plus the ability to link anywhere in your project, there’s no reason to have any plot holes or story errors when you’re done with your horror book.
Craft Dread Like a Pro
A lot of tension and suspense in a horror story comes from effective foreshadowing. Teasing your reader with dread is just as effective as painting them something horrific. Combining Dabble’s Plot Grid with Ribbons and effective setting creation can make your horror absolutely awful (in all the best ways).
Speaking of foreshadowing, those three sections we covered here are just a taste of what Dabble has to offer us masters of the macabre. To understand all this tool has for you, though, we need to dissect the genre itself.
Understanding What Makes a Good Horror Story
No writing software can write a horror book for you, not even one with AI (in fact, fiction written by artificial intelligence right now is a horror in itself). So if you want to maximize the tools Dabble offers, you need to know your horror ins and outs.
If you haven’t unearthed it yet, here’s a complete guide to writing a good horror story. It’ll walk you through a bunch of things you might not have considered before.
For the purposes of this article, though, I’m going to hit on the most important aspects of a great horror story or novel and how you can use Dabble to make them extra scary.
Because this is the horror genre, I don’t even feel bad using “mundane” when I really mean “normal.”
When we think about spooky things, we often jump right to extremes like ghosts, home invaders, extradimensional gods, and the like. But all of those extremes stem from the same place: they disrupt the mundane.
A haunted house isn’t scary if ghosts are commonplace in your novel, right?
We want to slowly build pure terror in our readers, and that starts by establishing what is ordinary and normal.
If I were writing a horror story in Dabble (which you can assume I am if it’s a day ending in -day), I’d use the Plot Grid and Ribbons to make sure I sprinkle in the mundane throughout the story and especially at the start to give the reader a baseline.
Let this be an anchoring point to let your characters breathe while also reminding the reader how bad and abnormal things are.
If there’s one hill I’m willing to die on, it’s that horror movies in the early 2000s are the best in the genre. And while I recognize that’s mostly due to nostalgia and that A24 makes horror movies like Hereditary that scare the heck out of me, there is one thing those flicks all do exceptionally well:
They isolate the protagonist.
This is a must in horror. When our protagonist is isolated, it limits their resources and ups the stakes when facing our BBST.
It was a lot easier two decades ago when not everyone had (or understood) cell phones and our main characters could just lose reception for plot reasons, but there are still so many ways you can isolate your characters:
- Physical isolation (in the woods, out at sea, locked in a house, trapped in an elevator, etc.)
- Social isolation (hallucinations, social outcasts, substance abuse or other stigma-causing situations, etc.)
- Emotional isolation (phobias, strained relationships, loners, victims of trauma, etc.)
A lot of sources of isolation are real struggles for people, so make sure you research and understand these topics and treat them with respect if you use them.
Now for the Dabble spin. You can add anything as a column in your Plot Grid, so I suggest adding one titled “Isolation.” If you’re using the template, it’s already there.
You don’t need every scene to introduce or remind the reader of isolation, but this will let you see where you’re leveraging this crucial element and make sure you’re maximizing it.
An Impossible Dilemma
Even when a character in a horror story is isolated, we often ask ourselves, “Why don’t they just leave? Why don’t they just do this or that?” If the answer isn’t clear to the audience, it completely shatters the illusion you’re spending all these words crafting.
We solve this by creating an impossible dilemma, one usually fueled by two different phobias or fears.
One of the best examples I’ve seen of this in recent horror books is in The Spite House by Johnny Compton. In this book, our protagonist, Eric Ross, is a father who is moving from motel to motel with his two daughters, keeping away from something in their past that threatens to catch up with them.
He applies for a job that seems simple: stay in a house, document anything that seems paranormal, and get a six-figure payday. That’s life-changing for the father of two who is struggling to feed his kids and establish a real home for them.
So when Eric starts seeing ghostly activity—and he clearly does—he makes the choice to stay in the house by himself. Why? Because it’s the only way he can provide for his children.
That’s an impossible dilemma: you can run from the haunted house, but doing so means your family, your very purpose in life, will continue to suffer.
When you’re creating your character profile for your protagonist, include what will create an impossible dilemma for them. You can even mark where your character needs to make this terrible choice throughout your novel with the Plot Grid to ensure you aren’t over- or under-doing it.
Do you know what isn’t an impossible dilemma, though? Choosing Dabble as your preferred writing platform. So let’s dive into exactly how you can (digitally) pen your next scary story with Dabble.
Setting the Stage for a Gripping Horror Story
I get that where a story takes place is important in every novel, but some genres use setting more than others. Fantasy and science fiction, for example, whisk us off to incredible kingdoms and distant galaxies, and their worlds are a hallmark for their tales.
While horror stories don’t usually have the same level of worldbuilding as those genres, they make use of their settings in a very unique way: where the characters are can almost function like a character itself.
Hear me out on this one. The settings in a horror story aren’t just backdrops or ways to introduce contrast or theme, or even a sweet rollerdisco where the gang hangs out.
Instead, the stage your scenes take place on interacts with characters, adding a sense of claustrophobia, dread, isolation, or any other emotion that can mess with your protagonist.
I’ve made you a setting profile under the Templates section in the horror project template. You can add whatever you want to your worldbuilding notes—it’s your process, after all—but I want you to think about these five things when crafting a horror setting:
This should be important for some obvious reasons. The where of your setting needs to make sense logistically (how did the character get here?) and logically (why is this part of your story in the first place?).
Think beyond the where, though, and ask yourself why you’ve chosen this location from a horror perspective. How does it play on fear or isolation? What does it do to up the scares?
Once you have the location, it’s time to put a spooky spin on it. Writers, even experienced horror authors, tend to default to describing the visuals of a place.
But the atmosphere is more like the vibes of a setting, and that incorporates all senses—what can be seen, smelled, touched, heard, and even tasted. If you want to really play with your readers, describing an absence of one of these senses or what someone should be hearing, smelling, etc. is just as powerful.
3. Architecture and Environment
Yes, these are both elements of the location, but both architecture and the environment provide opportunities for you to zero in on specifics.
First, use these fine details to evoke the emotions you want from your readers (usually negative ones, if we’re being honest).
Then make sure you don’t forget to think about ways they can contribute to plot or character development, too.
Everywhere has some sort of history. Even new builds in a subdivision carry the history of the land they’re built on and the people who built them. Let this play into the character of the setting and the effects it has on your character.
Plus, with Dabble’s Story Notes, you can get as detailed as you want, even pulling in atrocities and horror from real-world events and locations.
5. Symbolism and Imagery
Lastly, think about the underlying messages you’re sharing with your horror story. Leverage the power of subtle, yet recurring motifs and images throughout your locations. Colors, religious iconography, inconspicuous children’s toys, burnt photographs, or whatever represents the dark and dreary in your tale should influence your settings in some way (even if they aren’t obvious to your readers the first time around).
A handy trick with Dabble is using Ribbons to mark where specific symbols and imagery appear throughout your story. If you’re going to be using a recurring motif, you need to balance repetition and subtlety, and highlighting scenes in your Plot Grid can help you find that balance.
Crafting Chilling Characters with Dabble
If you want to generate the scares, you need some characters in your horror story. And I mean some great characters.
With Dabble, you can brainstorm and develop as many characters as your incredible author brain can think of. You can organize them into casts to help organize yourself and use profiles to generate so many traits that these fictional people feel more real than your actual friends.
If you’re using the horror template I dredged up from the darkest depths of the deepest pits, I’ve already included a character profile with more than 100 traits for you to use. Just click the three dots next to Characters and add Best-Ever Character Profile from the available templates.
But, when it comes to writing good horror stories, there are two characters we need to get just right, and each of them comes with their own unique needs in this genre.
The first person, of course, is your main character or the protagonist of your story.
And you’ve already met the second: the BBST (big bad spooky thing).
If you’re using the horror template, I’ve already set up some character profiles for these two characters, including spaces for the details we’re about to discuss. If you’re using a fresh Dabble project, though, make a character profile for both your protagonist and BBST so you can follow along.
Writing Your Horror Protagonist
The role of the protagonist in most horror stories is to show the reader their own fears, a reflection of themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a true reflection—your main character will have different fears, abilities, relationships, and other defining characteristics than every reader, of course.
But your reader should adequately see how they or any other normal person would react in this terrible situation. Horror hits on an individual level, so your reader (said individual) needs to understand the stakes and terror faced by your protagonist by envisioning themselves facing it.
To that end, your protagonist is your reader’s conduit to the fear in your story.
On top of the character development we’re all responsible for when we’re writing these imaginary people, here are a few things to keep in mind when developing your main character:
Their relatability - I’m slapping this here to reinforce how important it is. If your protagonist can’t be that conduit, they aren’t the best choice. Focus on backstories and flaws that contain common human experiences for readers to latch onto.
Their source of fear - Your protagonist, amongst all the other horrors, will face their greatest fears in your story. If you want that fear to come across as realistic, your reader needs to understand it. And, for the record, ghosts and creepy forests are not fears. Dig deeper into topics like fear of dying, losing those closest to you, being cut off from the world, being helpless.
Their motivation - Since your protagonist needs to face their terrible fears, they need a dang good motivation. If the emotions and experiences driving their actions aren’t as compelling as possible, it won’t make sense for them to face their fears.
Writing Your Big Bad Spooky Thing
Opposite your protagonist is the BBST, the driving force behind all the horrific things happening in your story.
Now, the BBST is usually a character like a ghost, killer, monster, ancient forest god, or some other inhuman abomination, but it doesn’t have to be. In some ghost stories though, a haunted house is the BBST. In others, it’s an ancient curse threatening our protagonist.
Whatever your BBST is, here are some things you’re going to want to keep in mind when developing them.
Their origin - Where did this evil come from? Was it born from a traumatic event? Was it summoned by a particularly jealous witch? Has it always been there, lurking in the shadows on the fringes of the firelight? Understanding what makes your BBST do the spooky things it does is essential.
Goals and objectives - Then you need to figure out what it is your BBST wants. They could be fulfilling the terms of an old blood contract or simply survive by consuming the fear of whoever is living in their house. Whatever it is, your BBST needs to want more than to just make their victims jump.
Connection to fear - While we encounter scary things every day, our protagonist is worse off because they’re facing a BBST directly tied to their specific fears. When developing your monster, consider how they’re going to connect with your protagonist’s fear and exploit it.
Symbolic meaning - Think about ways your BBST can be symbolic, too. Rather than just a force of evil, make its presence or actions mean something deeper. For more about themes and symbols, click here.
Of course, you’re going to have to figure out what your evildoer looks like, where they like to have breakfast, and what their feelings are on the whole “is a tomato a fruit or vegetable” debate.
If you want some more deets on making effective characters, both good and bad, check out these links:
- 14 Common Character Archetypes You Should Know
- How to Describe Characters
- 20 Original Questions to Ask Your Characters
- How to Write a Good Villain
- Character Development Questions That Aren’t About Eye Color
- How to Give Your Characters Personality
- Giving Your Characters Fears
- Fleshing Out Characters
- Things You Need to Know About Your Characters
- How to Write a Character Sketch
- A Character Development Worksheet
Some Horror Writing Dabble Tricks
I can’t give you specific steps to writing the best horror novel ever. That’s unfortunately a journey you need to take, and it’s one that could be a life-long process.
What I can help with, though, is providing some more tricks to help make your horror writing easier and more fun with Dabble. Here are some tips you can leverage when you’re writing your next best seller.
Set a goal, make a habit - The thing all authors truly fear is having the perfect idea for a book but taking years to write part of it. That idea usually gets abandoned, exiled to the dark recesses of our imagination. With Dabble, that’s not the case. I suggest starting every project by setting a goal and a deadline so you have a daily target to strive for. Just don’t be afraid to adjust if it’s too overwhelming!
Plot the way you want - While horror novels don’t have winding plots like fantasy epics or space operas, you still need to balance your story, subplots, and character arcs. The Plot Grid lets you plan as much or as little as you want, meaning plotters can go wild while pantsers can have the framework there once you’re ready to revise all the words you explored your way through.
Inspiration wherever, whenever - If you’re like me, nightmares can pop into your head at any moment. No, it’s not a problem, it’s just a horror writer’s curse. Dabble can be accessed on any device from anywhere, and it will sync whatever you jot into it. That means you can write a scene, toss some notes into a folder, or save an image you saw to a Story Note, no matter what.
Write the perfect word - Writing horror means drawing on evocative, often symbolic language. You aren’t just describing fear; you’re planting and tending to seeds of dread in your reader’s mind. That’s a delicate craft that requires perfect verbiage. Not only does Dabble have a built-in thesaurus, but the read-to-me tool can help you find any flaws or repetition in your writing (plus you can choose from a cast of different voices).
Revise with intention - Once you’ve drafted up your scary story, you still have a lot of work ahead of you. Namely, revising. Revisions usually take place over multiple rounds where you look for specific problems. Dabble comes in with a handful of tools to help with that, like:
- Highlighting to mark problem areas for later. You can even use each color for a different issue (repetition, reworking needed, fact check, add specificity, etc.), which can be helpful for people more organized than me.
- Comments to leave more detailed notes for yourself about a specific section.
- Sticky notes to leave reminders for big-picture changes.
- ProWritingAid integration to check for spelling, grammar, and style errors. You can also use Grammarly’s browser extension if you prefer their system.
Bring Your Monsters to Life
I mentioned in the last section that an author’s true fear is having an idea for a story and never bringing it to fruition, and I was only being a little hyperbolic with that statement. But when you’re passionate about writing like you and I are, that thought can be genuinely frightening.
Luckily, you’re already taking steps towards bringing your scary story to life, and hopefully you know how to write horror even better now. Every shadow, every ghost and ghoul and creepy crawly in your head has a way to flourish on a page because you’ve started working on your craft.
And whether you’ve already started writing your draft or are just conceptualizing your horror masterpiece, you can give yourself a helping hand by putting Dabble in your corner.
Can you write your horror story without Dabble? Sure! You could write it with quill and parchment if it tickles your fancy.
But I hope you’ve seen how Dabble can be that flashlight in the dark for you. If you haven’t grabbed the horror template yet, it will illuminate the process even more. Also I worked hard to make it for you, so don’t hurt my feelings. Click here to grab your copy of the template.
And if you haven’t even tried Dabble yet but want to give it a chance, click here to grab your free trial. It’s 14 days long, gives you access to all the tools Dabblers love and use every day, and doesn’t even require your credit card info so you only pay when you realize you’re a Dabbler, too.
Now get writing. I promise there’s no post-credit jumpscare here.
Or is there?
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