Way back when I was still in the clutches of my short story competition addiction, I wrote a horror story. It was a twist in the tale affair about a man who spends a night in a haunted house as part of a television game show. He is convinced that the spooky noises and manifestations are special effects and manages to keep his cool – until the director phones him and says they will have to reschedule the filming because there has been a power cut. It was entertaining to write but it didn’t make me want to get up and put all the lights on, which, according to Adele Hartley, is one of the criteria of a good horror story.
Hartley drew on her experience as the editor of several horror story anthologies to give the Edinburgh Writers’ Club some tips on how to write good horror:
Know the genre well. “The audience has been reading and watching horror since they were children. They know all the conventions and have certain expectations.”
There are six types of horror story:
- Possessed – a house, a car or a toaster
- Vengeful spirit
- Phobias – snakes, spiders
- Evil children
If possible, steer clear of the types that are particularly oversubscribed. “If the world gets any more zombie in it, it might just implode.” Avoid jumping on any bandwagons, like the current trend for vampire fiction, because you will just be “contributing quantity, not quality.” Come up with a fresh approach to one of these story types. “I’m not looking for new ideas, I’m just looking for a new perspective or voice to tell it.”
Don’t try to second guess what the reader will find frightening. “Write about something that really does bother you. Horror is subjective but if it is personal and frightening for you there is a good chance someone else will find it frightening.”
Write from your own experience. “There’s all manner of vulnerability in ordinary situations.” For example, walking alone at night and thinking that you are being followed or being on the last train home in a carriage with a stranger. A good horror story could be inspired by a time when you have experienced “panic, loss of control, or the knowledge that you made a bad decision and there’s no way to take it back.”
Blood and guts are not requirements of good horror. “I would rather see a horror story induce fear by discomfort than horror by revulsion. I want horror that unsettles people and makes them feel slightly disturbed and not know why.” A good way to do this is to set up the atmosphere well but be sparse with details of the action. You don’t need to describe every blow of the axe.
Try crippling the senses of your main character to heighten the fear. An evil creature that you can’t see is much more frightening than one that you can.
Don’t overwrite the ending. “With horror it is so much better to leave something unsaid and unshown. If you spoon feed people you take away all the horror. Most people have a worst case scenario trigger in their head anyway.” Hartley cites the 1963 film The Haunting as an example of the perfect structure of a horror story because “everything is set up but not really paid off.”
Character is crucial. “For me plot is kind of secondary to character. If you have someone that you really care about, it’s terrible when something bad happens to them.”
Ready for publication? To find out if your horror story is frightening, “get someone else to read it by torchlight.” Look at ralan.com for a market – “it is a fabulous website.” If you are sending your story to a journal with a short submission window, “send your work at the end.” Hartley confesses that in the past she has looked more favourably on submissions that arrived close to the deadline because they tended to come from writers who had read the guidelines and written a story specifically for the anthology. The quality was better than that of stories that came at the beginning of the submission window from writers who simply sent in stories they already had that had been rejected elsewhere.