Genre Tips: How to Write Horror

Note From KMW: I’ve been delighted to hear that so many of you have enjoyed the “Genre Tips” we’ve been exploring these past five weeks. Today, I’m happy to share a surprise post to finish off the series! Welcome to “How to Write Horror.”

As you may remember, I crafted the series around the five major genres to which I felt I could bring value (those being FantasyRomanceHistoricalMystery, and Literary). One major genre I did not feel qualified to write about, simply because I don’t read or watch much of it, is Horror. In response to my mentioning this in the series’ opening post, Horror aficionado Oliver Fox stepped up to go deep in a guest post on this popular genre.

Today, I’m happy to share with you a thought-provoking and thorough examination of this archetypal genre. 

In the post, Oliver talks about important tips and tricks for structure and theme in Horror, as well as the symbolic “character triad” of the Haunted House, the Average Joe, and the Monster.

Keep reading for more!

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Horror may be the least understood and most maligned genre. It is usually portrayed as revelry in violence, gore, and nihilism, and thus something immoral—perhaps even wicked. Or horror stories are thought of as loose narratives punctuated by a series of jump-scares. Sadly, these are accurate portrayals of many stories that have become mainstream in the horror genre. However, it’s worth considering whether glorying in the darkest human tendencies is necessary or even desirable in horror.

My aim is to determine the essence of horror and explore it using stories that provoke our deepest fears without relying on our reactions to surprises, deformity, and death. I believe great horror aims for more lingering types of fear brought about by experiences of the Uncanny and the Unknown, unsettling us and filling us with dread. Thus, equipped with a more nuanced understanding of horror, this article will explore how to write horror.

Now that we have a better idea of what isn’t necessary to horror, let’s consider what the genre’s essential qualities are and how to write horror using the Big Three of storytelling as our guides: Character, Plot, and Theme.

3 Tips for How to Write Horror

Character Triad in Horror: The Haunted House, The Average Joe, and The Monster

The Haunted House

In this article, I’m treating the setting as a character, which isn’t unprecedented; the idea of setting as character has existed for a while. Like a human character, a setting that is a character has a past with consequences that linger into the present. Through an understanding of the setting’s past and present, we get hints how it might interact with the characters within—what it might “do” to them in the future.

The archetypal horror setting is the Haunted House. The setting doesn’t have to be a literal house—it could be anything: a derelict research lab, a stranded spaceship, or an arctic research facility. What’s most important are a few key features.

The Haunted House must be:

  • Isolated
  • Disempowering
  • Evoke a sense of Lingering Dread because of some terrible past events that occurred there—although often that past isn’t immediately apparent.

The horror setting is haunted by its past, perhaps metaphorically (in that there are still hints and vestiges of said past) or perhaps literally (by something monstrous tethered to it, actively stalking its corridors).

For Example: In the film Alien, there are two Haunted Houses. The first is the planet where the Nostromo’s crew lands to investigate the source of a signal. There, they discover a collection of unsettling tableaux: a crashed spaceship, within it a fossilized humanoid alien, and a room full of large, leathery eggs. Nothing is actively stalking the setting, but the Nostromo’s crew can tell this was the site of some horrific event. While on the planet, one of the crew members foolishly tinkers with the eggs and becomes host to a parasite which injects him with an embryo. Soon the embryo gestates, bursts from the unfortunate crewman, and begins actively haunting the Nostromo, picking off the crew one by one.

Alien (1979), 20th Century Fox.

The Average Joe/Jane

In many genres, the protagonist is someone extraordinary, whether in capabilities or because of some special origin and destiny. However, this trope doesn’t work for horror. In horror, the protagonist ought to be exceptional only in a lack of any capabilities or resources. This is to emphasize their vulnerability as they navigate the Haunted House and face the Monster, increasing the audience’s concern for their safety. Think about it: a story about Thor going up against a Japanese ghost girl inspires zero tension, no matter how spooky the ghost is. To build tension, we need to be acutely aware of the protagonist’s helplessness.

For Example: In the book and film Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is a young stay-at-home wife pregnant with her first child. Rosemary has recently moved into a new building where she knows no one. Virtually everyone marginalizes and disenfranchises her: her new neighbors gaslight her whenever she raises concerns about strange goings on, her doctor insists she ignore her instincts about her pregnancy, and even her husband abuses her. Rosemary is disempowered in every way imaginable and has no one to turn to when she realizes she and her child are at the center of a cultic conspiracy. With the odds stacked against Rosemary, we can’t help but fear for her safety.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Paramount Pictures.

The Monster

The Monster is the central figure in all horror stories. According to horror philosopher Noel Carroll, a horrific monster is anything outside the natural order.

It is unnatural because it is a:

  • Fusion of opposites (eg., vampires, who are simultaneously dead and alive).
  • Fission. This indicates oddly paired or sequenced elements (e.g., werewolves, who are humans most of the time but can change into creatures capable of indiscriminately murdering loved ones).
  • Formlessness. These are misshapen (even shapeless) creatures, which break down our established categories (e.g., a sentient blob or mist consuming everything in its path).

But Monsters can’t be just unnatural; they must also be morally impure deviants. Deviant Monsters willfully upend moral values by indulging in harmful taboos, such as acts of violence toward the self and others. Such moral monsters are the perverse mirror image of a hero. Just as heroes represent an idealized vision of humanity who sacrifice their own desires for the needs of others, deviant monsters are vicious in every way, sacrificing the needs of others for their own desires.

For Example: One film that features a Monster in which all three categories are combined into one terrifying creature is The Thing. The Thing is a fusion of opposites: an alien virus that perfectly replicates the infected host at the cellular level, so the resultant hybrid organism is convinced it is still whatever it was originally… until the dormant virus feels threatened. That leads us to fission. The Thing usually appears as a perfect doppelgänger of the organism it has infected, but if it fears it has been found out, it will rip apart the host and repurpose body parts as weapons or extra limbs so it can escape. Third, when the Thing dismantles its host, the person’s appearance becomes misshapen to the point of formlessness. Finally, the Thing is morally impure because it inflicts violence on its victims at every level of their being by invading their bodies, destroying them, and co-opting their constituent parts to serve its own purposes.

The Thing (1982), Universal Pictures.

Story Structure in Horror: Tension-Release Cycles

When writing horror, the temptation is to dive headlong into the action, to throw the Average Joe into the Haunted House straight away and cut loose the Monster. However, the audience needs time to connect with the protagonist, to unravel steadily the mystery of the setting’s dreadful past, to wonder what kind of monster lurks just out of sight. That may all sound counterintuitive, but consider this: if you don’t know the characters well enough to care about them, are you going to worry when a Monster stalking them from the shadows of the Haunted House? If we know all the gruesome details about the setting’s past from the get-go, it’s like working a puzzle with detailed instructions on hand; we won’t get the sensation of dawning comprehension—we don’t experience the chilling realization, “Oh, _______ happened in this room. This place was for _______!” If we are familiar with the Monster too early on—its appearance, methods, and intentions—it is demoted to the status of a typical villain.

To create tension, skilled horror writers set up the expectation of something terrible happening while ensuring the audience can’t predict when it will happen. The buildup to a scare is as important as the scare itself. Let the audience do the work of building tension for you during the long, quiet moments by filling these stretches with false threats: moving shadows, deceptive images in mirrored surfaces, background noises, etc.

Okay, so build tension, then let all heck loose and keep it coming nonstop, right? Nope! Just as it is essential for tension to build to a breaking point in horror, so too should we ensure the audience is given time to recuperate and catch their breath before introducing the next scare. Otherwise, you risk exhausting them until they are emotionally spent by the time you reach the final confrontation with the Monster.

For Example: Stephen King’s IT brilliantly shows each aspect of the tension-release cycle in horror. The story opens by introducing each member of the Loser’s Club, giving you time to get to know them enough that you care about their safety. We then see a brief encounter with the monster, IT—just enough that we have some sense of what he’s done, but not to where we fully understand the extent of ITs intent and capabilities. Then we move on to the next member of the Loser’s Club. This cycle occurs for each character, creating emotional peaks and valleys. The setup for a new character’s story functions as the emotional valley for the previous character’s tension-release cycle.

Theme in Horror: Facing the Monsters Within

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

For me, all these elements come together to suggest that horror, at its best, holds up a mirror to the audience, helping them consider a central thematic question: what is monstrous within themselves and how can they overcome that monstrousness?

The horror protagonist is ordinary, as are we, allowing us to  empathize with them. They become our avatar. The Haunted House represents self-reflection, a place wherein we feel alienated, isolated, and disempowered because we are alone with ourselves. The Monster is an embodiment of the worst aspects of ourselves, the things we keep hidden from the rest of the world out of shame; these are our darkest desires run amok, haunting our conscience.

If we apply this theory at every level while designing our Horror story, we can create a truly rich narrative. For example:

  • The Average Joe character is haunted by a deep moral flaw and/or selfish past action (or failure to act)  that they find monstrous about themselves.
  • Both the Haunted House and the Monster evoke that flaw, embodying it so the protagonist cannot ignore them.
  • The story climaxes when the Average Joe enters the Haunted House and faces the Monster who embodies their own flaw.
  • The ending tells us something about the destructive nature of the moral flaw the Monster embodies, or at least the danger of waiting too long to face it.

For Example: The Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a masterclass of the horror model described above. Strange things happen in a quiet, isolated suburb, prompting a little boy to draw comparisons between the strange events and a story he’d read about alien invaders. Some of the other citizens buy into the boy’s alien invasion theory and, fueled by old personal grudges, begin accusing one another of being alien monsters. The accusations devolve the situation into an all-out witch-hunt; the citizens of the neighborhood commit atrocities against those they fear are monsters. The theme that unfolds can be described as: “When we ignore our prejudice for too long, that prejudice grows into outright fear, then hatred—a hatred which demonizes others to where we can justify even the most evil actions taken against them until we become something demonic ourselves.” This terrifying premise unfolds with no jump scares and few depictions of violence.

The Twilight Zone (195-64), CBS.

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Contrary to popular belief, great horror stories are not just exercises in violence, gross-outs, and gore. At their best, they are apt, timely, and frightening social commentaries and self-reflections filtered through the lens of metaphor. True horror might even be the most moral genre, thanks to its uncompromising depiction of monstrous evil as horrifying. I hope you find this article insightful, interesting, and helpful as you write your own horror stories!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written in the horror genre? What are your thoughts on how to write horror? Tell me in the comments!

References and Further Reading

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About Oliver Fox

Oliver Fox earned his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis (’15) and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans (’21). He has worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch literary journal (’16) and as a manuscript analyst for The Spun Yarn. He is a regular contributor to Writers Write and the author of The Fantasy Workbook.

Comments

  1. what no audio file? I really enjoy listening to those…

    • Glad you enjoy the audio versions! But, no, not today. I don’t record audio for guest posts. I think it would be weird to have my voice for other people’s words. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing with us today, Oliver!

  3. Excellent summary — thank you Oliver.

    This really does bring horror together, to show how the monster is only the second-most-important part of it. The classic complaint against weak horror is “Yes, an okay threat, but it didn’t make me care about the *people* in it,” and people who dislike it write it off as all chills and no character. The characters have to be the center of it.

    So “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” captures it perfectly. In the best horror, the greatest terror isn’t the “monster” — it’s what people will do to escape it.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Thank you, Ken!

      I agree–without an empathetic protagonist to root for, Horror stories devolve into a weird betting game about who will survive the longest.

  4. Grace Clay says

    This was great! Thank you! I am not a horror reader, but I do love Victorian Gothic literature, which is the predecessor of modern horror, and the reason I love it is because it tends toward all the excellence that you pointed out as good horror; strong sense of morality, an exploration of the darkness within people, the fact that it is normal (well, normal Victorian) people facing down the monsterous and depravity (sometimes -often- their own), the atmosphere….

    • Oliver Fox says

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Grace!

      You’re exactly right: Victorian Gothic literature is such an important forbear of contemporary Horror, along with many classic Folktales and Fairytales (believe it or not).

  5. Wow! Thank you for your insights! I didn’t realize how complex horror could be. The Thing is one of my favorite movies, but I always thought of it more as dark scifi. I can see now how it totally fits into the horror genre. I love that episode of Twilight Zone too.

    • Oliver Fox says

      I’m so glad you found the article insightful; thank you for reading it!

      Some have suggested that Horror is the oldest genre, so it makes sense that proverbial “well” goes as deep as it does.

  6. Eric Troyer says

    Great post on horror! I hadn’t thought about it that deeply before. Intriguing!

  7. Christopher Moore says

    I never thought of horror as a genre that Christians were allowed to read. Although I still may not like it, I now understand that it has the potential for good. Thank you Oliver!

    • Oliver Fox says

      Thank you for sharing, Christopher!

      I’m delighted that the article shed a new light on Horror for you, giving you a fresh perspective on its potential.

    • I once assumed there could be no such thing as Christian horror, simply because one assumes if there was a demon, a Christian protagonist would make the like the Apostles and exorcise it. Similar to how most horror movies would be short if characters had a gun and/or a cell phone 🙂

      But! In high school I stumbled across some of Frank Peretti’s horror novels, and he added a twist. The novels are written from a Christian POV, and the situations usually involved a town threatened by the machinations of demon-aligned people. You sometimes see the story from the POV of the demons influencing people, people who may or may not be “bad” but just “susceptible.” For example, in one case the state of “Complacency” is personified by a titular demon who attaches itself to a non-villainous character.

      The recurring characters in the novels are a squad of angels, who patrol the towns where the stories are set. They are ready to kick butt and take names, but they can’t do anything until they have a sufficient “prayer cover” to intervene. However, the human protagonists, if Christian, may not be aware there’s evil afoot.

      Other characters may be atheists or ex-Christians. All of them struggle with flaws, fears, or a need for atonement in some cases. And all of them have to twig to the evil conspiracy and get on the same page before the angels can get their “prayer cover.” Note Paul’s exhortations to pray for government leaders if you want to live a peaceable life, so the coverage conceit works.

      Just another data point for horror as a vehicle for exploring moral themes. Good horror scenarios often test faith, they test virtue. Someone — da Vinci? Einstein? Once said “adversity introduces a man to himself.” Horror is as good a crucible as any for exploring that idea.

      • Coco Janik says

        I read Peretti’s novels and never considered them to be horror, just clear images of the actual battle between Good and Evil.

      • Oliver Fox says

        Hey, Jamie– thank you for sharing!

        It sounds like I might need to check out Peretti’s work. 🙂

    • I don’t usually comment on the posts but I felt compelled to respond your comment. Not to regurgitate what Oliver said, but there is a lot of potential for religious horror. “The Exorcist” is the obvious answer, as are most of those types of movies. You have the priest (or some other morally-focused character) who’s trying to lead the right life. Maybe they have a dark past or sins they’re atoning for. They’re faced with a monster/demon who represents everything they’re fighting against. Maybe they become possessed themselves. In “The Exorcist” the priest commits suicide to save the daughter and prevent himself succumbing to the same sins. You could even write a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type story where the main character struggles to maintain their own morality (a character I’m developing is doing just that). Just as the main character must choose to be moral no matter what, we have a moral obligation to do the same. I’m not religious but I definitely see potential for some interesting stories.

  8. Thank you for this! I’m working on my first novel and it’s horror. Since it’s my favorite genre in books and on the screen, it just made sense. Plus, I feel there are a lot of horror authors who are really working to make horror more accepted, and I think it’s working. I’m referring to the literary successes of Sylvia Moreno-Garcia and Stephen Graham Jones. I’m hoping horror as a genre will become less and less maligned over time.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Thank you for reading, Michelle!

      Best of luck on your novel–and may you join the ranks of such authors in bringing a deeper appreciation of Horror to the wider world. 🙂

  9. James Mecham says

    Well said. Your points on great horror and examples are spot on and provide excellent templates for future works. Thank you!

    • Oliver Fox says

      Thank you for reading, James!

      I hope the insights you gathered from this article serve you well as you approach writing future works.

  10. Coco Janik says

    Thank you for such a spooky yet inspiring post. I read a few books that are bordering on horror, but not terrifying and won’t keep you awake at night. Some of Daphne du Maurier’s novels, such as Rebecca and House on the Strand are scary, but I realize they don’t actually qualify. When I was a teen, I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s “Carrie” and didn’t realize it was horror. Somehow when I got to the end and read of the girl unleashing her fury on the town, I was puzzled. Back then I didn’t recognize any obvious hints of what was to come. I wonder what your opinion is on that particular novel. I watched the movie “The Shining,” which was pretty creepy. I wonder how King’s novels compare with his books.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Hi, Coco,
      I’ll be honest–I’m a late-comer to King’s work, so I have focused on the high points of his career to get caught up: I’ve read Salem’s Lot, The Night Shift, and the Shining so far. Carrie is next on my list, though! And, if you enjoyed the film version of The Shining, the book is still definitely worth checking out as the two stories share little in common. The movie is creepy for sure, but the book is an enthralling, heart-wrenching look at the effects of addiction, generally, and alcoholism, specifically.

  11. Ooh I love this! And thank you for providing a reading list. Writer’s Digest has “How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction,” which has essays by Ray Bradbury and Dean Koontz, among others.

    For this post I especially liked the point about monsters as representatives of “Chaos” as opposed to Logos, the natural order of things. And you’re describing the kind of horror I do appreciate, and elements I want to incorporate in certain stories I have rattling around in the attic of my brain. Instead of gory nihilism, good horror like the kind you describe here can be … inspiring, oddly enough. It’s often about Light struggling against Darkness, and a test of virtues, and I appreciate you showing how to do justice to such a story.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Hi, Jamie,
      I think you are spot on that, “good horror can be inspiring”–especially for stories wherein the protagonist prevails over the source of Horror.
      I mean, what’s more inspiring than an Average Jane facing and overcoming the Monster embodying her greatest fears and deepest vices, right?

  12. Thank you for this post, Oliver. I’ve never been a fan of horror, but I realize now that it’s because I never understood the genre. Thank you for this insightful, interesting, and helpful article! I enjoyed it!

    • Oliver Fox says

      Hi, Joan–thank you for taking time check out the article despite not being a Horror fan.
      I’m delighted the article afforded you a deeper understanding of Horror. And I’m right there with you: the more I learn about the underlying symbolism of a particular genre, the more I come to appreciate it!

  13. I think I agree that perhaps horror scares us because we fear what we might be capable of under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.
    I recently finished two short stories with a sort of morality compass theme, one a haunted statue-type figure and the other a ruined building which resurrects itself to lure someone inside – surprisingly the protagonist in both survive and I wonder if this is classified as horror. The protagonists both go through a journey of self discovery, but are not harmed and neither is anyone else on the contrary several people are saved though the paranormal is in stong evidence in both stories.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Hi, Sylvia,

      You summed it up, beautifully: “…perhaps horror scares us because we fear what we might be capable of under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.”

      Horror is so unsettling because it shows us characters confronted with the gap between their self-conception/public persona and how they act when desperate and alone. And this forces us to consider how wide that same gap might be within ourselves.

  14. Thanks so much, K.M.

  15. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I enjoyed this piece. Horror is treated like the embarrassing step child sometimes when it’s really the crazed aunt in the attic who was locked up for telling uncomfortable truths.
    I liked the concept of the haunted house as just as much of a character as the villain and the hero. Rich vein to mine.

    • Oliver Fox says

      “Horror is treated like the embarrassing stepchild sometimes when it’s really the crazed aunt in the attic who was locked up for telling uncomfortable truths.”

      Wow! That’s a brilliant and powerful quote, sir. I’m going to be reflecting on that for some time.

  16. This is great. Whether I’m reading a book, watching a movie, or just waking from a bad dream, I keep asking myself what makes it scary. This is the best explanation I have found so far.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Hi, Tara,

      That’s an essential question to ask if we want to be great Horror writers. It reminds me of a quote from Henry James:

      “A writer should strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost.”

  17. Thank you, Oliver. This was helpful. You made horror fiction approachable.
    In effect, my appreciation of horror fiction is constantly increasing. Specially when you realize is more than just the monster.

  18. Alice Fleury says

    Thanks for sharing this. I loved it and now have some revisions to do in my MS.

  19. Sometimes horror stories hide in other genres. “Alien”, as mentioned above, is a haunted house movie disguised as science fiction – but so is “The Terminator”, a classic creature feature in which the undead monster can be fought off, outran, even taken out for a time… but never stops coming.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Hi, Andrew,
      I never thought of “The Terminator” as an undead creature feature, but I can absolutely see it now that you mention it! The Terminator could even be interpreted as a modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, more specifically.

  20. Oliver has the essence of the genre but does not have a real feel of the bitter backdrop of a great horror tale. As I was reading this article, I suspected that I was Olivers worst nightmare, and that turns out to be true. Before I start saying other things “Oliver” knows what he is talking about, he gives useful information, and I would recommend this post. But…. And there is a huge “but” here. He is young and handsome. Well educated. Seems to me a nice fellow. A talented writer. Capable.
    So, what is my problem? You ask? There is no problem. It is just that horror needs an edge. Ghost stories have been done before. Please never let us never see another zombie or vampire novel. Lol- they have all been done to death. Perhaps you ask my credentials for this criticism. Perhaps editing four horror fiction magazines for thirty years may suffice. The “new” is all that is wished for. The “Different” merges sometimes. Worked with twilight (lol- I turned that down). Daybreakers, warm bodies. My apologies, Oliver, for this but I must turn down writers every week. You meant well and gave good advice.

    • Oliver Fox says

      Thank you for your professional insights as an editor, sir!
      I have no doubt you’re right that editors often get the same cut-and-paste horror stories, and that we writers need to work hard to ensure we aren’t just educated in the genre’s tropes, we also need to find fresh premises and a fresh approach to writing them.

      • Thats the thing Oliver, you have it spot on, “the fresh premise”. To a certain extent you can ignore all else. If we get a haunted house story it doesn’t get by the boy on the desk. It could be the best haunted house tale ever, but it never gets to a “reader” the same applies to vampire tales. (Only two printed in four mags over the last five years one because it was a social vampire (narcissism)). The other was a genetic strain of vampirism created for interstellar space travel as they are immortal. We printed a zombie tale a couple of years ago about “Health, social care and housing for zombies during an epidemic”. Very clever. Should the local council provide homes for Zombies? Do they need help from carers? What are the sanitary implications? Should they be allowed pets? We are a caring society after all.
        I do not mean to suggest that there cannot be a good tale about Vampires, Zombies or a haunted house just that it has been done so often that to horror readers it is very dated and dull.
        To keep a magazine, especially a print magazine running today, it has to be clever and new all the time. Sorry for lecturing. It is something I feel passionate about.

        • Thank you for this insightful series and tips! I wonder about the fairytale genre. Do you talk about it anywhere? It is the most archetypal one and digging deep in the realm of the inconscious. I’ve always been fascinated by it, without being able to put words on my impressions. But I realize I most naturally write with symbols and events that have a marvelous feel to them, even when they seem prosaic.

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