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Tips for writing Horror. More than just scares? (specifically in short stories)

Swordfry

Troubadour
I have decided that my first short story is going to be a horror story, one I have had in mind for a couple years and that I think would be just the right level of difficulty and interest for my first try. However, I think I might be in a little over my head here. I have never written any specific horror stories. I will admit that I have never even read any horror except for some Edgar Allen Poe, and a couple Stephen King short stories.

One real big problem I am having while outlining is that all I can come up with are scares. I have the introduction, the setup, but then all I can come up with are a series of scenes for scares, and then eventually the climax. There has to be more than this. If I were reading any horror story, short or full novel, I would be mad and eventually lose interest if most of the story was just scare scene after scare scene. However, I will admit that many of my scare scenes also provide character development, learning different things about each character during each scare scene.

So how do I go about fixing this so that it is not simply a series of scare scenes? What are some ways I can flesh out the in between parts, add some breathing room in between the scare scenes? Especially in short stories, which is what I am currently dealing with.

Any other tips for new horror writers is very much appreciated.

And just to help out, here is the brief setup for the story, without spoiling anything:

It all takes place in one house with a couple small imp like creatures terrorizing the house, and the family dealing with them. I say terrorize, but they are more of just very mischievous household entities like in folklore, not necessarily evil or trying to cause the family serious harm.
 
I think it's always good in horror of this type to delve a little bit into the family history and each character's personal problems. There may be "adult problems," "children problems," and interpersonal problems, ranging from the mundane frustrations to, potentially, significant social, psychological, family-historical issues affecting a given character or all members of the family.

The point is to

a) create some human weaknesses so that these characters may not be able to handle the final feather that drops (appearance of the imps or the imps' activities), which heightens the struggle to come

b) create sympathetic characters who already have much at stake before the supernatural horror starts – people we can root for and perhaps even a character we want to see fail (if there's a particularly deranged, abusive character; there may not be, in your story.)

c) provide contrast. I.e., horrific events show up just how petty some problems are; and, vice versa, the mundane, petty things, which may seem serious to the characters before the horror starts, give more of an edge to the real problem of the horrific events.

These issues are the things you can explore and write about before, during, and after each horror event. Possibly, the resolution of the "haunting" might also resolve some family issues one way or another.
 

goldhawk

Troubadour
If you want to truly scare your readers, you need a Shadow. Shadow is an archetype identified by Carl Jung. It shows up in our dreams when we are about two years old. It is the Bogeyman, The Thing Under The Bed, The Monster In The Closet. In short, it's fear. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector is a Shadow. He rated as one of the scariest villains of all times but for almost all of the movie, he does nothing but talk. How can he be scary when he does nothing but talk? Because you can never guess exactly what he's planning. Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing.

But whatever you do, do not cast a light on your Shadow. That's what they did in the prequel, Hannibal. They thought that if talking about scary things was scary, then showing them would be even more scary. It's wasn't. By making Hannibal the protagonist, the cast the spotlight on him. And light will always destroy the fear of the Shadow. Keep you Shadow in the shadows.
 

Mythopoet

Auror
I think part of horror is presenting a mystery, particularly a mystery that presents danger to the characters, and then not solving it. Humans are afraid of the unknown. Our imaginations conjure up far more frightening things than there are anywhere in the real world. So you have to make sure there's enough ambiguity to let your readers' imagination run wild. And then you have to leave enough ambiguity so that their fears continue to be plausible. Monster reveals are almost always disappointing.
 
If you want to truly scare your readers, you need a Shadow. Shadow is an archetype identified by Carl Jung. It shows up in our dreams when we are about two years old. It is the Bogeyman, The Thing Under The Bed, The Monster In The Closet. In short, it's fear. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector is a Shadow. He rated as one of the scariest villains of all times but for almost all of the movie, he does nothing but talk. How can he be scary when he does nothing but talk? Because you can never guess exactly what he's planning. Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing.

But whatever you do, do not cast a light on your Shadow. That's what they did in the prequel, Hannibal. They thought that if talking about scary things was scary, then showing them would be even more scary. It's wasn't. By making Hannibal the protagonist, the cast the spotlight on him. And light will always destroy the fear of the Shadow. Keep you Shadow in the shadows.
Do you mean Hannibal Rising? Hannibal is a sequel to Silence of the Lambs. Unless you're talking about Hannibal the television series, which is in isn't canon to the book or film and, in my opinion, an even better interpretation of the character.

Anyway, OP, I often write horror short stories. The thing about short stories is that there really isn't enough room to fill it with scare scene after scare scene, so I usually do it as a build up of horror. For me, each short story has one horrifying event, and the rest is building it up with mystery and creepy atmosphere. The format, in terms of the reader's thinking, is 'okay, normal day for this character' 'wait what's happening' 'wait what' 'oh jeez!' (I know that's an odd description so sorry if you don't understand what I mean). I also suggest just reading more horror.
 

goldhawk

Troubadour
Do you mean Hannibal Rising? Hannibal is a sequel to Silence of the Lambs. Unless you're talking about Hannibal the television series, which is in isn't canon to the book or film and, in my opinion, an even better interpretation of the character.

I mean the movie Hannibal, which is the prequel to Silence of the Lambs.
 
I mean the movie Hannibal, which is the prequel to Silence of the Lambs.

This one? With the Ray Liotta / brain scene?

Hannibal is the sequel to Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Lector already knows Clarice - he's on the run in Italy... From what I remember - Clarice is still the MC in Hannibal though they swapped Jodie Foster for Julianne Moore.

You're either thinking of the wrong timeline or the wrong book/film in which case I'd agree that you're thinking of either Hannibal Rising or Red Dragon (with Edward Norton). Both of which are prequels to Silence.

I'd agree there's not much room in a short for lots of scare scenes. I think it'd work better if you pick one (or a few) and have them build up to the last one.
 

JCFarnham

Auror
I've never had the guts to write a true horror. (Did one in primary school once... does that count?) But I'm always musing about how different genres are crafted so I'll take a shot at this.

Mainly I think you need to find the one thing that absolutely scares the crap out of you the author more than anything, and really dig around in it. If it's terrifying you to write it, then surely the readers will too, right? They'll find the horror far more than just scares that way.

Case in point: I'm not a fan of horror films that exist purely to make you jump. I think they're cheap, ten a penny things to blunt. I do, however, love a horror that goes super psychological and plays on the really primal stuff like fear of the dark, fear of inhumanity, etc. Doesn't even have to be gory or dark, just... horrific? Know what I mean?
 

Swordfry

Troubadour
I should clarify just a bit on my scare scenes: They're not really big "Boo!" moments like in movies, but really just small creepy scenes. Yeah, creep scenes, I guess, lol. Like with these imps running about, the characters always get the feeling they are being watched, find misplaced items, some items go missing, and they always hear odd noises like rats running around and moving and scratching in the walls.

Imagine like watching a ghost movie, but never actually seeing the ghost itself or the ghost moving objects right in front of the camera. You just get this constant creepy feeling and keep hearing the ghost and finding the aftermath of its presence like misplaced items and such. But there are never any big "Boo!" moments where the ghost straight up shows on camera and actively scares the characters. Know what I mean?

So do you think that could work in a short story, along with one, maybe two actual big scare scenes?
 
I write a lot of horror, myself. Remember, horror stories are just like any other story with characters, plot, conflicts, etc. Just because it is a horror does not mean it cannot deal with real life issues and a lot of times those real life issues are the true horror themselves. The horror I am currently working on is a ghost story but much of the plot has to deal with child abuse and abuse of power. The fun thing about is it's a really interesting way to build a theme. The best horrors are more than vampires wanting our blood a zombies eating brains, they play on our human experiences and in some of the darkest ways. The monster itself is only a metaphor. What is an issue you want to get across? Do you see anything problematic about the world? Maybe your angry about the way we judge one another. Create a story where the hideous monster winds up being the good guy in the end and the sweet innocent child turns out to be the blood thirsty cannibal. Or maybe you find the justice system is corrupt. You could create a monster who is an embodiment of the justice system. I'm not sure if you ever watched the Twilight Zone, but it has a lot of great examples of creating themes through horror.

My best advice would be to really think about the world. Think about your human experience, and go from there because horror is more than just being scary. Horror is an art that can show us ourselves in a one of the most twisted, dark ways. It's almost tough love. Think about every fiction you read that really spoke to you whether it's fantasy, drama, romance, whatever it may be. Think of it's themes, growth of a character, and development of it's plot. What was it about that story that really made you think? That really made you enjoy it? You got it? Now, add a monster to it ;)

A really good story I would recommend for you is Let the Right One In if you haven't read it yet. It's a vampire story that has great scares, but one thing I really enjoyed about it was the lives of the characters and the relationships they had with one another. It was a really good read and I think you might enjoy it.
 
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Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Maybe read some Lovecraft? I love psychological horror. The fear of the unknown... The is this really happening? Question. For me, as soon as I "see" the monster, it loses the mystery for me and sort of becomes 'hokey'... Does that make sense?
 

pmmg

Vala
:zombie:

Personally, I strongly dislike jump scares in movies. I think they are along the lines of cheating, and I would liken them more towards startling than scary. I am not sure how they would work in a short story (jump scares), but I suspect just looking for scares would be along those lines.... I find I am hard to actually scare, and find it unlikely a written story could do so...but maybe.

But, why a necro a post to answer a question seven years old?

Only to say, I think horror reaches best when it lives long past the moment. I was asked recently which horror movies I thought were best (I watch a lot of movies and recently saw the newest/last Halloween one). Specifically I was asked which was best, and which was scariest. After some thought, well, I liked the SAW series a lot, I think no 3 was best...but scariest... I had to say the Exorcist, and after some days of thinking on it, I still cannot think of one scarier. (There was a movie/series called Phantasm that was one jump scare after another, so if that's scary...there you go.) The reason for exorcist is because after the movie is over, you still walk around thinking it could happen anywhere, to anyone. It could happen to you. And dealt with or not, the horror of it continued past the end of the story, and even beyond the fourth window of the screen. Its widely held in a 'not sure if paranormal stuff is true' world that demonic possession is a thing, and makes you think on it harder. It made me wonder about the horror on a personal level.

When I think back of cases of horror that have accomplished this, I the first time I saw Michael Meyers die and get back up. I remember thinking there is no beating that. How do you kill what cant be killed? Or in the Mummy movie where they locked the priest away in a sarcophagus with flesh eating beetles but cursed him to live forever....imagine being eaten by beetles for eternity. Or the pirates on the Flying Duchman, serving for endless years, becoming more and more a part of the boat. Or the man in Hellraiser, who suffers extreme lust, and is in a room full of ....er...women, but he can never touch them. Or a lot of stuff in American Horror Show.... I think being buried alive or walled up has this effect, even though it will end, it is prolonged.

Which to me says, something that can make me imagine the experience, find it antagonizing, and then know there is no way to overcome it, and then that it might endlessly continue, I think that is like a horror multiplier. More so than any slasher, or evil beast, because even with those, after its attack, its over. Beat if or not, but horror ends. If getting eaten by the horrid beat means I go to some place where it is endless chewing on me, then its frightening.
 

buyjupiter

Maester
The biggest thing I think you need is to establish whatever baseline normal is for your characters, before you start deviating into whatever is creepy/scary. Depending on how many words you have to work with of course.

I just finished a 500 word horror story this week. (It was for a flash fiction challenge so I had a very limited word count!) I had to establish that my character's circumstances were NOT normal within that first sentence. I had to continually build tension with what I revealed in each sentence. I had no room to let my character breathe and I kept dialing up the tension until the reveal of what was actually going on in my very last sentence. But all the actual information you needed to know about the horror of the story was there in that first paragraph, if you looked for it.

If you can write the ending before you start with the beginning, that way you have a goal post to hit. It doesn't matter if you keep that ending, or if another better one strikes you along the way. Sometimes circling back to something you said in the beginning is a good way to end things. Sometimes you absolutely KNOW what the beginning has to sound like once you have an end point in mind.

I hope this helps!
 

Nighty_Knight

Troubadour
Horror is also an element that can be added to fantasy. Think of some of the tense scary or creepy parts of some fantasy stories. Fantasy itself is being able to write all the elements that fit into the stories. So adventure, action, mystery, romance, comedy and horror are all important. So understanding how to write horror is helpful, even if you aren't writing just a horror story.
 
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