How to Write a Horror Story in 10 Not-So-Scary Steps

POSTED ON Aug 13, 2023

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Learning how to write a horror story requires calling upon our deepest fears and orchestrating terrifying moments that readers didn't see coming.

Don’t look now, but do you see that shadow in the corner? Is it real or your imagination? How fast can you race to the door and escape? The lights have suddenly gone out, and you feel someone in the room with you…

The goal of the horror author is to make readers tense up. And we have the tips and tricks to help you do just that in your next book.

A Quick History of the Horror Genre

I promise I’ll be quick. 😊

Edgar Allen Poe (also said to have written the first detective novel—The Murders in the Rue Morgue is often held to have written some of the first horror stories, such as The Telltale Heart. Others soon followed. Probably the most famous of the 19th century are works such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

The Victorians especially loved spooky tales, and this enjoyment bred a whole new breed of work with the Penny Dreadfuls. One of the most famous, “Varney the Vampire” was a precursor to Dracula. The 19th century also saw the emergence of the Southern Gothic subgenre, covering all number of grotesque topics and thoughts.

In the 20th century, there were people like Dennis Wheatly, James Herbert, Dean Koontz, and to me, the undeniable king of horror, Stephen King.

How to Write a Horror Story: 10 Steps

Both authors and readers are fascinated and drawn in by the horror genre. When choosing between puzzling over a cozy mystery or getting drawn into a thriller vs reading horror books that deliver the scare factor, many choose the latter.

That being said, this genre isn't all about gore and jump scares. Learning how to write a horror story requires a basic understanding of how to write any book – with some added (scary) elements.

1. Choose Your Subgenre

There are many subgenres in horror fiction, and a large part of your book's success is nailing your book's positioning. This is what attracts the right readers to your content.

For example, some people are in it for the gore. Others the dark and macabre. Still others the supernatural. There may be a bit of overlap between these groups, but they are clearly distinct audiences.

Instead of starting with how to write a horror story, think about what kind of horror story you want to create.

Are you planning something that will play on your readers’ minds or horrify them with violence? Will you make them suspicious of every stranger they see for the next few days or terrify them with empty buildings?

After getting some clarity on the overall theme of your story, you can look at a list of book genres to find the perfect category for yours. This will also help you solidify the difference between horror and thriller books – many authors confuse the two and accidentally list their book in the wrong category!

Related: Horror Book Title Generator

2. Map Out Your Characters (Mindfully)

Readers need to care about the people in your story and what happens to them. If they don’t care, they’ll stop reading. This is true of every genre and every type of character.

If someone is walking down a dark alley and hears someone behind them, but they’ve just been mean to a waitress, is the reader going to care what happens to them? But what if the character is the waitress who’s working three jobs to go to law school or feed her kids—does that change things?

Spend time working on the character development of each person in your story to help evoke the right reactions and connections with your readers.

3. Establish the Setting and the Mood with Detailed Depictions

Once you've chosen your subgenre, you might already have an idea of the setting, mood, and/or general vibe of your book.

Knowing how to write a horror story requires creating a very scary scene.

Think about what puts you on edge and has your senses on full alert. Vivid descriptions using all the senses will help create a sense of dread and foreboding. Bram Stoker’s descriptions of Jonathan Harker exploring the castle in Dracula still give me a tingle every time I read them.

4. Drip Feed Tension

As you create your book outline and start writing a rough draft, you want to think about how to gradually escalate the tension with eerie happenings and foreshadowing of the horrors to come.

Seeing something out of the corner of the eye or a scratch left on a door is much eerier than seeing the monster full-on at this stage. Including subtle, slightly hidden, or mysterious clues like this of what's to come is called Chekhov's gun. It's the idea that every element in a story is necessary or has meaning. And employing this narrative convention can help you if you're wondering how to write a horror story.

Need another example? Think of the hole in the floor dripping with acid in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Then he made the characters hear something scuttle across the floor, but they’d missed it. He raised that tension masterfully.

5. Practice Creating the Perfect Monster

If you want to know how to write a scary story, don't overlook the importance of the monster.

Now, this doesn't need to be a mythical creature, ghostly being, or actual monster. It just needs to be the scary thing.

Dig something original and terrifying from your imagination. What makes your ‘monster’ unique and fear-inspiring? While authors in the 19th century may have got away with simply saying “too terrible to describe,” you can’t. Your readers want the details. They want to feel the fear. And you are going to deliver it by dredging up something dreadfully scary.

6. Tap Into Psychological Fear

Fear of the unknown is much more powerful than gore or violence. The latter is something we often become immune to, sadly.

Many of us are afraid of similar things – being in the dark, an abandoned road in the middle of nowhere, a foggy forest. When I’m writing a scary story, I sit and think about the things and situations that frighten me. I try to conjure up the images and feel like I'm in that moment. Then, I jot down the sensations that my body is going through. Stomach clenching, hair rising on my arms and neck. Hearing my heart in my head as my blood pounds. Dry mouth. Scared to look behind me.

Finally, I make my character experience them.

7. Don't Be Afraid of Taboos

Societal taboos are great fodder for understanding how to write a horror story. They can get dark – very dark – but that's precisely what makes them work.

Yellowjackets on Netflix, for example, addresses the taboo of cannibalism alongside the fear of abandonment and being stranded without any hope of rescue. To me, it has strong elements of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as the stranded students become increasingly savage and deranged.

They both make the audience question what they themselves would do in a similar situation. Maybe it even makes them fear their own animal instincts.

No further spoilers from me since I haven’t finished watching season two.

8. Balance Actual Gore and Imagination

Slasher movies have their place in the horror genre, but pure gore is not something I would rely on.

Take some notes from other genres and create a mystery, a romance, or some healthy distrust between your characters against the backdrop of the nightmarish situation they are in. If you allow the reader an opportunity to fill in some of the blanks themselves, you can create a much deeper sensation of terror.

9. Add Twists and Surprises

You absolutely must keep your readers on the edge of their seats. Add in an unexpected plot twist, new character, or a surprise setback when they think the characters have escaped.

Though not in the horror book genre, Verity by Colleen Hoover does an excellent job of this. Even the most dedicated readers couldn't have seen all those final twists coming.

10. Create an Unsettling Ending

Does the good guy die in the end? Did they all die in the end? Was the good guy actually the murderer in the end?

Don't feel the need to finish writing your horror story by wrapping up everything with a neat and tidy resolution. You might want to leave room to do a book series. Or you just might want to let the fear stew in their minds long after they finish your book.

You want to give your readers ‘book hangover’ where your story lingers with them for days after reading it. One reader wrote to me about my police procedural novel, Recompense to say, “when I read that last page, a shiver ran down my spine.”

Cue my happy dance.

How to Get Ideas When Writing Your Horror Story

As authors, we are often asked where we get our inspiration from. As horror authors, creating especially scary story ideas can be uniquely challenging.

I usually fix people with a little smile and whisper, “I don’t see the world the same as everyone else.” And it's true, as creatives, we rarely look at the ordinary and leave it there. Our minds are always wondering about the ‘what ifs.’ For some of us, those questions lead to darker places than others.

If you're still wondering how to write a horror story and need some nightmare fuel, look no further than…

  • Your dreams, nightmares, and daydreams. Have you ever had a waking dream, and your mind has taken you to places you’d never imagined before? Or woken in a strange place in the dark, convinced that there’s someone else there? No? Okay, just me, then.
  • People watching. Observing the behaviors and habits of those around us is a great place to gather material for your characters. Pick and choose. Mix and Match. Don’t copy a real person exactly. That way lies litigation.  
  • Your own fears (whether rational or not). I once wrote a short horror story about a forest retaliating against being destroyed by a construction company. The workers would arrive each day to find machinery destroyed, complete buildings uprooted, and more as the forest fought back. The next time I was alone walking my dogs in a forest, I had to leave in a hurry. My imagination made me scare myself.
  • Scrapbooking. Collect snippets of news items or images that capture your imagination. Think about natural disasters, serial killers, unsolved mysteries, or animal attack stories. Anything that will fire your imagination.
  • Fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. When you look closely at fairy stories, they are quite scary (especially if you look up the original German versions). Similarly, I was once driven to the train station by an Albanian taxi driver, who told me about Albanian folk tales. I checked them out—they are super creepy.

Give those ideas a chance to roam freely in your head as you begin to outline and write your horror story. Make sure you keep your notebook or phone to hand to record those ideas.

Learning how to write a horror story is an incredibly exciting and creative endeavor to explore on your own. But you can also enlist the help of a book writing coach to help spark even more dark and terrible ideas – while keeping you accountable during your writing journey.

Read widely in the genre or listen to some of the best horror audiobooks before starting out to see what the best (and the worst) horror authors have done. Seek out ideas that are in the news, leverage overheard snippets of conversations, and think how you can twist them into something new.

Above all else, have fun, scare yourself, and, most importantly your readers, silly.

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