Horror’s been my genre since I was little. At playschool, I used to draw gravestones and play vampire dress-up. As a child, I watched The Omen, Buffy and The X Files (I also read Goosebumps, bit more age appropriate). As a teenager, I regularly got into trouble at school for writing horror stories and I was the one sitting in the cinema demonstrating to my mates how laughable Twilight was on every single level. And as an adult, I’ve tried to deconstruct how horror stories work in any media – mainly for my own ends (still part way writing a horror novel). So, here are a few top tips – they’re not foolproof, but they are food for thought.
- Write characters you can care about
Your protagonist is being chased through the woods by the killer – or maybe she’s scared that she’s been bitten by a werewolf and that full moon is looming through the clouds, high, bright, merciless. So what? If you’ve spent a hundred pages not really fleshing your characters out, why should the reader care that they are in mortal peril? By creating rounded, believable characters, the reader becomes invested in them and feels their fear – your characters’ horror becomes your reader’s horror.
- Show, don’t tell
‘Show, don’t tell’ is one of the most obvious ‘Writing 101’ things there is, but the key to writing good horror is to write well – full stop. Don’t just write: ‘Alicia was scared’. Show your audience her reaction, the way the cold air prickles her goosebumps, the way her throat tightens. Again, this will also help to add life to your characters – simply stating they’re scared doesn’t have the same impact as describing the sweat slipping and sticking to their collars.
- Suspense, suspense, suspense
Don’t be afraid to keep your audience hanging – having jolt after jolt, gruesome after gore, can be tiresome and actually desensitise them to the horror. In Paranormal Activity, there are nights in which nothing really happens, making the viewer even more alert and dreading what’s next. Fake scares before the real thing are also effective, but suspense is a fine balance – keep the reader or viewer hanging for too long, and they’ll just lose interest. It’s all about the timing.
- It’s not a bad thing to keep it simple
Sometimes, being clever-clever and convoluted can drain the energy, and thus the horror, from the plot. The simplest horror is often the best horror because it speaks to something primal deep within us. Look at Paranormal Activity – nothing much really happens. But by the end, you’re hanging on every creak of the door, every possible whisper, every might-be shadow on the floor. Think about what scares you (especially in childhood) – is it that dark corner of the room you can’t quite see at night, that gap under the bed or the tapping of the branches on the window? (Re: gap under the bed – used to chilling effect in Luther, Series 3 – primal works).
- Don’t be scared to make it funny or shake it up a bit
Those stock scares (such as creaking doors) are used time and time again because they work. But because they are used time and time again, they can also be a bit cliché. Shake it up a bit: have the door creak. Have the protagonist go to the creaking door. But then…reveal that the monster is already in the room and it’s coming up behind him. Also, scares and funnies go hand in hand – humour can relieve the tension, lulling the audience into a temporary false sense of security, or actually heighten it – see pretty much any episode of Buffy.
Your own vision is the most important ingredient to writing anything, but sticking roughly to the above guidelines will help alright horror become good horror. Don’t forget to check under the bed tonight…