HOW TO write truly SCARY STORIES using techniques all the BEST horror writers know
Updated: Sep 29
Ever wonder how great horror writers can lure you in, scare the pants off you, and hang around in your mind for days, months, and sometimes even years to come? Today, we are discussing some of the techniques used to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Can horror books be truly scary?
Movies have ruined me. Horror movies to be specific. Nearly every night, I like to curl up with a good horror film before I drift off to my own banal nightmares.
Horror movies (well some) have perfected the deep infrasound undertones that make you feel like you’re in danger, they know how to raise the tension and mood just before a good jump scare, so you reel back even if you saw it coming. And don’t get me started on how gruesome practical effects have gotten (sorry CGI, you will never replace good ol’ fashioned corn syrup blood and...whatever the other stuff is made of).
But alas, FFF is a book publisher, not a film studio. And let’s face it, books don’t have the same ability to make us jump out of our seats nor can they use extras like infrasound to make us feel a certain way. And when books try to get a reaction in the same ways it often falls flat.
I pose the question...Can horror books be truly scary? Can they be the thing of nightmares, can they make us put down what we are doing to turn on all the lights…..?
No! Because to read, the lights need to be on in the first place!
Dad jokes aside, it’s true. Books will never be able to scare us in quite the same way as the movies. But horror writers have been around for a long time, and they have figured out a thing or two over the years.
So here is a quick overview for all of you potential horror writers or readers who are just interested in the many tricks horror writers use to scare us. Today, we will discuss:
Dread of impending doom that never comes.
Making you unbearably uncomfortable.
Relatable characters in everyday situations that go wrong.
Dread of Impending Doom
One of the most effective techniques authors use to keep up on the edge of our seats is to promise us something big and not give it to us. Well...eventually they will, but they will hold out for as long as possible.
The author piles on the dread to the point where the reader just can’t take it anymore. Better yet, when the pinnacle finally does come it was something completely unexpected. The twist that we all love so much!
This is a highly satisfying form of story writing—there is a reason writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley were so successful and remain staples of a horror library collection today.
P.S. Did you know that we published a collection of terrifying horror stories, Human Beings (Amazon affiliate link) from Rachael Llewellyn? Included in that collection is “The Mouth Kept Screaming” which makes expert use of this technique.
Making you unbearably uncomfortable
Ah, discomfort. It is not something we often think about as an element of fear. When you’ve experienced something terrifying and traumatic and were asked to describe the experience, you probably wouldn’t say, “Well, the serial killer made me really uncomfortable.”
But in fact, that is exactly what happened. Fear is merely a degree of how uncomfortable you are. Mix in a bit of adrenaline and other stress hormones and you have yourself a full-on fear response.
Ok, so maybe you know all that. But since writers can’t make readers jump out of their seats screaming (you know I have seen someone actually faint in a horror movie, but I think he might have had a health issue….), we will have to settle for making our audience really, really, really uncomfortable instead.
Adept writers can do this in as many ways as there are spiders behind the walls, but a few notable ways are:
Hitting on topics that are usually avoided
Avoided for good reason mind you. See: every trigger warning ever for ideas of what these could be.
I will say though, that including topics such as child abuse, rape, suicide, and pedophilia just for the scare and nothing else is a recipe for disaster. You need to be saying something important. Stories need to be meaningful to get away with this. (At least to my own sensibilities.)
I seriously suggest exploring your motivations for including something like that and always approach your writing with honesty and integrity whatever that means to you.
To use Llewellyn’s Human Beings (affiliate link) as an example here, the whole thing starts with a trigger warning on the first page and Llewellyn did not shy away from any touchy subject. She went in unapologetically and authentically portrayed the gamut of uncomfortable human experiences.
That being said, Llewellyn has an academic background in trauma in folklore and approaches each topic fully understanding its importance to the real people whose lived experiences reflect those told in her stories, even if they are exaggerated and fantastical at times.
Characters acting in ways that go against societal expectations
...and as they should!
Now, I’m not saying that writing your character facing the wrong direction on the elevator is going to make your story scary. But there is something about people who behave in unexpected ways that terrify us.
I recently talked with someone about a friend of theirs who has “found herself.” She went from her regular self who she had been for years and years, and now, since covid lockdowns and the like, she has become someone different. Even more, she is not acting destructively, she seems to be trying to help others with her new-found activism. But the person I was talking to felt weird about seeing this change in her friend and she couldn’t put her finger on it, but she began to avoid her friend. She felt like a bad person for not being supportive and even doubting her intentions. Was she a bad friend?
Not at all!
It is a natural reaction when someone we know starts behaving in a way we don’t expect, even if it appears to be a good change. We get the same feeling if a stranger behaves in a way that deviates from societal norms. Because behaviors like that can be signs of mental illness. And as uncomfortable as the idea of being seen as prejudiced might make us, mental illness makes people unpredictable. And unpredictable people are scary! It’s instinctual in every person to be wary of that.
If they break these rules, what other rules might they break?
I’m not sure this one on its own could make a scary story. But it is used alongside other techniques.
Sort of related to the last one, I think unreliable narrators add to the scare because a) they allow for some pretty cool twists (though can easily become cliches if you’re not careful) and b) security.
What gives us a sense of security? Well, I don’t know about you, but if I’m in a sticky situation, I want to be with someone I know well (obviously) and someone I trust (even more obviously).
The problem with unreliable narrators is the same problem with unreliable friends in a fight. They don’t provide you with any security. Worse, they may give you a false sense of security and then rip the rug out from under you at the worst moments. And in most horror, this ends in murder and mayhem, blood, guts, and tears.
Relatable Characters in Everyday situations
Wow, that sounds scary!
Hear me out. About a decade ago, I was innocently walking down the hall of the University I was attending, when I came upon the same cement staircase I traversed every single day. It was wide and long (about 20-30 steps) and could get slippery on winter days when the student body came trudging in with snow-covered boots.
I took the first step down, when beside me another student slipped and tumbled. His head bashed the cinderblock wall on the way down, his jaw hit the edge of the steps and he bit off a chunk of his tongue, that landed in front of me. When he reached the ground with a splat, his arm was twisted behind his head unnaturally, the blood pooling out underneath. His dead eyes stared up at me, one as blue as the sky, the other red from popped blood vessels.
...ok...so that didn’t happen…
In reality, he slipped and recovered quickly. But in my imagination, all that stuff had happened to him and it was at that moment I realized that this particular flight of steps, nay! All steps were the most dangerous contraption made by man! Everyday, on my way to class, I was taking my life in my hands—especially in winter!
You may not agree with me that stairs are the thing of nightmares, but there is literally danger everywhere. Sometimes the stories that affect us the most are the ones that present us with perfectly mundane situations where something goes wrong.
I watched a movie whose title I don’t remember, where skiers got trapped on a ski lift for the weekend, they faced all the things you’d expect, hypothermia, frostbite...wolves.
I can’t remember if I liked the movie, but you best believe it is the first thing I think of when I get on the ski lift.
This brings me to the last technique on this list (by no means in existence).
No. Not the movie/book/play.
What those skiers found themselves in. A crucible is the locked room, the ski lift you can’t escape, the lifeboat on the open ocean, with no land in sight. It’s the small island with only a volleyball for company, it is the prison where you must play dumb kid's games or perish.
Perhaps one of the all-time best ways for a writer to add tension, suspense and create dread, and explore deep emotions and psychology.