How to Write a Horror Story That Will Keep You Up At Night
Do you want to write something that will stick with your readers forever… but in a horrible way? Something that will give them nightmares, make them walk a little bit faster through the shadows between street lights, or question their own sanity?
Well, you either want to write a horror movie or should be on a federal watchlist. We’re going to assume the former and leave this questionable joke behind.
Writing a horror story is different from writing in any other genre. Our goal, as horror writers, is to shock, appall, disturb, unnerve, and—ultimately—scare our readers.
Sometimes we do this to give our moral message all the more power when our protagonists come out on the other side. Other times we do it just to create that primal, visceral feeling that only terror can instill.
Tackling this unique genre requires planning, research (which should probably be done in incognito mode), and a strong grasp of all the spooky elements that make up a horror story. And that’s why we’re here.
In this article, I’ll guide you through the dark corners of:
- Horror subgenres
- Making your Big Bad Spooky Thing
- Writing the scary stuff
So get your favorite blankie (for protection), turn out the lights, and get ready to write the scariest story your twisted mind can conjure.
Content Warning: Before we go any further, please note that the horror genre includes some messed up stuff. I’m not here to judge anyone’s taste in storytelling, but understand that this article, especially the next section on subgenres, contains words that may trigger trauma or make you uncomfortable.
What’s Your Subgenre?
If someone told you they liked “horror” stories, what would you think they meant? Like most genres, horror is an umbrella term that encapsulates a bunch of different subgenres. Some horror fans like all of these subgenres, while others only like a few.
Before you get started on your horror story, you need to figure out what subgenre you’re writing. This will help you understand the beats and characteristics your readers want from your story. There is nothing worse than promising a reader something specific and not delivering, so let’s make sure you understand your subgenre.
Apocalyptic - In this subgenre, the world is ending. That’s not an exaggeration: the world is literally ending or society is collapsing. When this happens, it’s usually because of some creature, demon, or religious event (while climate-oriented apocalypses are more sci-fi).
Body Horror - This subgenre involves the mutilation, experimentation, or violation of the human body. It can focus on disease, dismemberment, infestation, sexual acts, or a complete transformation of the physical form. It gets pretty gross (in my less-than humble opinion).
Comedy - Horror and comedy seem so at odds with each other, but they work so well together (kind of like spice and chocolate). A trademark of comedy horror is how the protagonist somewhat stumbles through the story, arriving at the end through luck and ridiculous happenstance rather than skill or growth.
Cosmic/Lovecraftian - With its origins largely attributed to H.P. Lovecraft, cosmic horror makes us feel small against a threat that is ancient, massive, and incomprehensible. Cosmic horror looks at intergalactic entities, ancient gods, the machinations of the universe, and how helpless we are against it all.
Dark Fantasy - Another crossover, this time with the fantasy genre. In dark fantasy, you have elements of magic, fictional creatures or worlds, and everything else that makes fantasy great, plus you add in a good dose of scares. This can also involve other subgenres, like body horror.
Dark Romance - Another crossover genre, dark romance takes the feel-good romance genre and makes it horrific. While this subgenre can simply include morally questionable characters and a grittier tone than most romance, it can also include kidnapping, forced confinement, BDSM, psychological and physical abuse, and sexual violence or sex where there is no consent. Bear in mind that it still needs to include the tenants of romance stories, though.
Extreme Gore - Not for the faint of heart, this subgenre includes books that have detailed torture scenes or otherwise disturbing and depraved acts. This genre is all about shocking your audience with how awful your characters act or are treated. That’s about as much as I can comfortably say on a wholesome blog like this.
Folk Horror - A personal favorite of mine, folk horror embraces urban legends and folktales. These range from old pagan gods in the wood to weird rituals performed by isolated groups or villages. Sometimes there is a supernatural element to them, even if the “supernatural” is simply perceived or believed by some characters (think Midsommar).
Found Footage/Documentaries - Though this subgenre is more common in films than books, found footage and documentary horror stories are about a crew of people recording their experiences, usually unaware of the true danger they are about to face.
Gothic - The great-grandparent of modern horror, gothic horror is the brooding, atmospheric genre containing what most of us would consider classics. Dracula and Frankenstein are probably the two examples you know best. Sometimes you throw in a dash of romance, but these tales tackle topics like death and mortality.
Post-Apocalyptic - After some world-ending disaster, how horrifying have things become? Post-apocalyptic horror shows us a world without rules or structure. It can contain unrealistic elements (zombies, demons, etc.) or realistic possibilities (cannibals, gangs, and so on).
Psychological - Less about ghosts and monsters, psychological horror places the spotlight on trauma, mental health, manipulation, phobias, and everything else that causes you to become stressed and anxious. Home invasion stories (i.e., The Strangers) fall under this subgenre.
Slasher - This is a subgenre involving violent horror that is more about a single killer stalking and eventually killing a group of people (traditionally targeting teens and using a blade). This subgenre isn’t necessarily as violent or gory as others, but uses suspense to make the reader hold their breath.
Splatterpunk - Another subgenre that’s tough for me to describe here, splatterpunk is known for its disregard of limits when it comes to violence—both physical and sexual. Gore and depravity are grossly abundant in splatterpunk stories.
Supernatural/Paranormal - Some folks separate these two subgenres into different categories, but there is so much overlap that they’re basically the same. If you have to, think of supernatural horror as stories that involve werewolves, witches, vampires, and other monsters. Paranormal horror, on the other hand, prefers ghosts, demons, and haunted houses.
Gee, that’s a lot. Can you see why subgenres are important to understand? Not every horror fan is created equal.
For example, I’m a huge fan of folk horror, ghost stories, and other paranormal horror. Sometimes I’ll indulge in a mainstream slasher flick, but gratuitous violence and gore isn’t really my schtick.
But there will be folks out there who love the ultra-violent horror subgenres. To each their own.
If you have a subgenre in mind, it’s time to move to the next element of your horror story.
What’s your Big Bad Spooky Thing (BBST)?
A horror story isn’t a horror story without a Big Bad Spooky Thing (henceforth known as the BBST). The idea of a BBST might be straightforward for some subgenres: the killer, the ghost, the devil, etc. But every horror story has a BBST, even if the BBST isn’t a person or entity.
Let me explain.
Your BBST is whatever causes fear, tension, or trauma in your horror story. While it will affect your characters, the BBST is there to affect your reader first and foremost. It’s not the impact on your characters that sticks with your reader; it’s the impact on them.
There are four different categories of BBST that you can choose from when writing your story: phobias, monsters, people, and social issues.
Phobias and Fears - One option for your BBST is a phobia (or multiple phobias) that cause a sense of panic or helplessness. Phobias like claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), scopophobia (fear of being stared at), and coulrophobia (fear of clowns—a fear we should all have), are just a few from a long list you can choose from (bookmark that link!). You can also work with a fear that isn’t a defined and diagnosed phobia. Whichever you go with, use the primal nature of fears and phobias to keep your reader up all night.
Monsters - I’m including anything non-human (ghosts, demons, vampires, zombies, etc.) in the category of “monsters” for all our sakes. Thankfully for us, monsters aren’t real. If they were, I’d probably be dead by now, let’s be honest. But an effective monster BBST makes your reader doubt that, if only for the two seconds it takes between turning the light off and climbing into bed. Prey on that uncertainty to unnerve your reader.
People - Unlike monsters, people are real. Right? And that’s what makes this BBST so freakin’ scary. We like to think we’re all in this life together and people are generally kind to one another. So when you use your story to show the very worst that people are capable of—the most depraved, terrible acts possible—you don’t need to make your reader wonder “what if?” Instead, they wonder “when?”
Social Issues - Social issues are real problems that affect countless individuals. So, instead of forcing the reader to experience the worst that a person can be, force them to experience the worst of what we all can be. Think of a Black couple in a sundown town after dark or a homeless person forced to endure the Purge without any shelter or safety. Sure, it’s individuals who are doing the bad stuff, but it’s us, as a society, who have enabled this evil.
What is your BBST going to be? This is something that you should know before diving into your story, because it will shape everything from your first word to your last.
Writing the Scary Stuff
Now we’re going to talk about the meat of your story: how to write the scary stuff. What follows are a bunch of things to keep in mind while writing your horror masterpiece.
Note that you still need things like story structure, character arcs, conflict, and everything else that makes a great story (bookmark all those links so you can up your writing game). But the following tips are horror-specific.
And I’m not even asking you to sell your soul or use a ouija board to get them.
Determine your POV
Point of view (POV) is important for any story, but it is especially important when you’re writing a horror story. If you want a complete breakdown of point of view, click here. For the sake of writing horror, I’m going to cover the pros and cons of first-person and third-person POV.
By choosing to write your story from a first-person perspective, you are putting the reader exactly where your character is.
- More immersive (which is helpful when trying to terrify someone) and increased tension
- More intimate understanding of the impact of your horror elements
- Possible to use an unreliable narrator
- What the reader can know or see is limited
- If written in past tense, you’re basically telling the reader that the narrator survives
- Tough to keep something hidden without being obvious about it
While there are two types of third-person POV—limited and omniscient—I’d advise you stay away from omniscient. As you’ll learn later in this article, part of writing a good horror story is withholding information from the reader, which third-person omniscient doesn’t really allow for.
- More effective atmosphere and world building
- Easier to add more details and commentary
- More fluid for changing perspectives between scenes
- Less intimate and engrossing than first-person
- Sense of detachment from characters
- Can’t use an unreliable narrator
Establish the Mundane
Mundane is just a fancy way of saying normal, but the message still rings true. Most story structures tell you to start by establishing the Ordinary World: what our protagonist’s normal life is like. This is important for showing us how important the larger conflict is, because it threatens the protagonist’s normal.
In horror, establishing the mundane is arguably more important. In a story where connecting with the character and empathizing with them over the godawful stuff you, the author, put them through, the reader needs to understand just how bad life has gotten.
Then you can take both your characters and your reader from a place of comfort and familiarity and plunge them into whatever shadowy hell you’ve concocted.
Want Tension? Sprinkle in Some Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a powerful tool in your writing arsenal, but it is particularly effective in horror, especially when writing in third person. In case the definition’s a little fuzzy, here you go:
Foreshadowing is when an author alludes to a future event by showing us something now.
Pretty generic, and maybe you already knew that, but think about how you can use foreshadowing to increase tension in your horror story.
What will your reader think about your protagonist’s family renting a cabin if they just read about the occult ritual that took place there?
How will they react when the main character’s crush has the same tattoo as the killer we saw at the beginning of the book?
How many chapters will they devour after finding out the house the monster is nesting in is your protagonist’s home?
The key to foreshadowing is to use it sparingly. We want to up the tension and the fear our readers are experiencing while they yell at the oblivious protagonist not to open the door. We don’t want the reader to know every single thing that’s going to happen.
Sprinkle in some foreshadowing, but don’t be heavy-handed about it.
Less is More
In that same vein, take a less is more approach to most of the scares in your horror. When it comes to building up suspense and a sense of dread, throwing everything in your terror arsenal at your reader isn’t the best idea.
This is especially true when showing your BBST.
Have a BBST that’s a phobia? Save it for when you really want to fill the reader with dread. Don’t remind them of it every other paragraph.
What about a BBST embodied by a monster or person? The more you show them, the less impactful their terrible actions become. You also lose any sense of mystery associated with them if you show them too much.
A BBST that is a social issue? The genius behind a terrifying social issue is your ability to weave it in subtly. The more explicit you are about it, the more you detract from the horror of its message. A great example of a horror movie that uses a social issue *chef’s kiss* perfectly is Get Out (and this article explains it very well, but spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it).
When thinking about less is more, it’s helpful to think of Jaws and its sequels. The former is considered a classic. All of the ones that followed are usually avoided in conversation. One of the biggest issues the sequels suffered from was too much shark.
In the original Jaws, the shark was rarely seen. In fact, it was the isolation and helplessness (the real BBST) caused by the shark that was so freakin’ scary. So when you start giving the shark more and more screen time, you aren’t actually amping up the scares… you’re doing the opposite.
An Impossible Dilemma
How many times have you watched a horror movie and yelled at a character for making a dumb decision? It’s an incredibly frustrating experience all horror connoisseurs endure.
We can avoid this in your story and elevate the fear factor by giving your protagonist an impossible dilemma.
An impossible dilemma, for the sake of our horror stories, is when the protagonist is faced with two opposing forces that make neither option a good one.
For example, maybe you have a widow whose house is haunted by a malevolent spirit. Solid place to start off a ghost story. But why doesn’t said widow just leave? Because she has a rare condition where the sun immediately burns her skin.
So she can’t leave during the day, forced to endure the haunting, and is isolated at night when most stores are closed and no resources are available.
What about a mom who needs to steal a vaccine for her sick child, but that vaccine is housed in a laboratory filled with experimental monsters? Leaving isn’t an option, because her child will die, but there are literal monsters.
An impossible dilemma ups the ante and the tension, making for some truly dreadful moments in your horror story.
Pace Your Scares
This is an easy one: don’t be heavy-handed with your scares. Similar to how you should be subtle with the use of your BBST, throwing in a scare every chapter will make your scares less effective overall.
Worse, it totally messes with your overall pacing. Stories ebb and flow. There’s time for action and reaction, scene and sequel. If you just throw one thing after another at your main character and reader, you’re writing an action book with horror elements—and not a very good one at that.
Reality is Secondary
This is more of a mindset tip than a writing tip, but there’s almost an unspoken rule between horror writers and readers that reality is meant to be played with in a horror book. Disorientation and the possibility of insanity are not just real in horror but a staple of some subgenres.
Play with that notion in your reader’s mind. Make them lose a grip on reality for a moment. You want them to wonder if there’s a monster under their bed or a killer lurking across the street.
Write a Killer Horror Story with Dabble
We’ve reached the end of our time together here, and you’re all set to go and write the most twisted, horrifying tale your messed-up mind can imagine.
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The best part? You can try all of that and so much more that Dabble has to offer without even putting in your credit card info. Just click here to get started with a 14-day free trial and start writing your best, most terrifying story today.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.