Horror: A Not-So-Catch-All Guide on How to Write It

“Uh-oh, Olympia Author Hub is offering up ANOTHER guide on ‘how to write’.”

Woah, woah, slow down. If you’ve read our “how to approach writing…” or “101” guides before, you’ll know that we’re not trying to give you the impression that this is the ONLY way to write anything. We just love writing, we love encouraging people to write, and we want to share some general pointers on how you may want to approach writing in a specific genre.

Fall has fallen (That one sounded better before we wrote it out), the air is cooler, nights are longer and everything’s just that little bit spookier. It’s a great time to sit down and read some horror literature, and if you know your way around language and storytelling, it can be a great time to write some, too. Let’s examine how you can craft yourself a good horror story, and hopefully avoid pitfalls.

#1: Warp the Tropes

Tropes are archetypal characteristics in literature, and they aren’t necessarily a bad thing. That being said, they do have the possibility to morph into something much uglier; the cliché. A great way to write a good horror story is to take an already lovable trope and bend it a little bit, or change a significant aspect. Take, for example the 2021 slasher novel “My Heart is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones. Of the many, many slasher films and books that have existed since the popularisation of the sub-genre, one aspect of the genre that is seldom changed is the “final girl” trope. The final girl is almost always studious, virginal, straight-laced, and more often than not, white. Jones adds a whole new layer of depth to his final girl in “My Heart is a Chainsaw” with his subversions. His final girl is deeply idiosyncratic; unlike most, she views the world through the lens of a slasher movie, and unlike the unassuming fodder that feature in most slashers, she has some idea of what’s going on. She is outcast, disobedient in the face of authority and feels alienated by her father. Even more than that, she is Native American. So, when you write, think of a trope, and twist it until you’ve made it your own.

#2: Keep One Foot in Reality

Personally, we think horror is at its scariest when it’s grounded in something real. You might say; “Well, what about Alien? That’s set on a spaceship and it’s horrifying”. Sure, it’s set on a spaceship, but Alien is grounded by the all-too-familiar sight of watching human beings arrogantly march into the unknown with big ideas and dollar signs in their eyes, and ultimately end up catalysing unimaginable chaos. Keeping a real-life parallel in mind, or a familiar setting, can be really useful when writing horror. The suburban backdrop of Halloween. The bustling, sunshine-y streets and cosy New York City apartments of Rosemary’s Baby. Familiar settings help immerse the reader, and the more immersed they are, the more effective your writing will be.

#3: ‘Horror is What Happens Before you Open the Door’

Horror- particularly films- is rife with cheap, needless scares that are piled on to supplement a lack of real dread, tension or meaning. It’s also rife with over-explanation. The fear of the unknown is always greater than the fear of what you do know, and you must be mindful to not rely only on brief build-ups with explosive, meaningless resolutions, nor should you pressure yourself to explain every tiny detail. Maybe your protagonist sees a shadow looming under the door, but its source is never revealed. Maybe the detective never really does catch the killer, leaving many things up to the imagination of your- hopefully very frightened- readers.

#4: It’s Not all Blood and Guts

It’s important to consider that when you’re writing horror, you are not resigning yourself to writing a shallow, two-dimensional shock-fest. Remember to include those aforementioned aspects of psychological horror; tension, suspense, dread, the works. But it’s not just that. Remember, you are creating a story that features characters who have their own thoughts, feelings, quirks, and agency. Try to avoid treating your characters as fodder for the bloodier moments in your work. Develop them, breathe life into them, just as you would when writing in any other genre. 

05 Oct 2023