Can you guys give a novice writer some advice on how to write good, frightening horror? I'm think more short story than novel, but anything that can give readers the creeps. I want to avoid being tacky or cliched, so I'd love the community's ideas!

  • 1
    This is very broad; whole books could be written on how to write horror. I'm putting this on hold temporarily; could you edit to narrow your question? Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 22:48
  • With suspense first. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 23:20

3 Answers 3


That's a pretty broad question, but they key thing about horror, or any other strong emotion, it that it is all in the build up. What creates the tension in a horror movie, for instance, is not the thing that goes boo, but the quiet period where we keep waiting and waiting and waiting for the thing to go boo until our hearts are in our mouths hoping and dreading at the same time that the monster will finally go boo. So much on the edge of our seats, in fact, that the tiniest sound or movement will make us jump out of our skins.

You cannot create a strong emotion or reaction in writing by writing the emotion itself. It is all about how you get the reader to the point of anxiety or longing in which there mere mention of whatever prize or terror or disappointment awaits brings an instantaneous burst of emotion.

  • 2
    I'd also add that sometimes, a completely inanimate object can also bring a lot of tension. Thinking of the first Scream film, every knows there's a killer on the loose. Everyone knows they phone first so a phone ringing is a point of emotion. Is it the killer? Is it someone's mum checking they're okay? Just the sound of a phone ringing.
    – Stephen
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 9:20

What mbakeranalecta wrote in his answer is spot on but it is, as he already wrote, a very broad topic so I want to add some things.

This should really go without saying but since I've seen it in several places I will still point it out: make the reader care! I've read horror stories that get all the basics right. Bleak scenery, slow buildup, foreshadowing, bla, bla, but the protagonist was so bland and two-dimensional and boring that I couldn't care less if he was ripped apart by a horrific, frothing monster. I usually stop reading those books about half-way through. Read some Stephen King. His protagonists are usually no heroes or saints but they are very relatable. I want to know what happens to this poor tormented guy/gal!

The next thing is contrast, which is closely related to what mbakeranalecta wrote about the buildup. You need to have light and friendly periods, otherwise the reader will become numb. When everything is grey and miserable and bleak and horrific, the reader will get used to it and nothing will scare them. Make the sun shine between the scares. Inject some hope in your story. There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel or you risk your reader becoming jaded. (Oh, to hell. Another one dead, they're not gonna survive anyways.) There is no shadow without light. Again, read some Stephen King for good examples.

And usually, also related, it's in what you don't see but what is suggested. A shadow, a noise, weird scratchmarks - on the inside of the room you locked yourself in all night! One of the reasons why the first Alien movie was so brilliant is that you don't see much of the alien for most of the movie. This builds tension and fear of the unknown and it lets the readers fantasy fill in all the worst details, more scary (and more personal) than the writer ever could.

As for the scares themselves I find that it actually works best if you kind of keep them more low key but there are many valid styles. Different people like different things.

I think it's important that the reader can relate to what you're writing. Something you can actually relate to will scare you a lot more than something unimaginable. That's why King sells millions of books and movies and Lovecraft falls flat for many. Some writhing, multi-eyed, multi-mawed space monster from non-euclidean space is just too abstract for me to feel just about anything, let alone fright. (Lovecraft has other qualities though, don't shoot me).

Now, using something that most people can relate to hits a lot closer to home. Bodily fluids and body parts in general (again, sparingly). Everybody can relate to the smell of stale urine. Saying that something has a sharp acidic odor doesn't do nearly as much to your imagination. Also, anything happening inside your own body or with your body (think King's Tommyknockers)

Along those lines, fear of the dark works well as does its big brother, loss of control. (The lights are out and it's coming. You can hear it. The grating sound. That sound! Like claws scraping slowly along the wooden floor in the hallway. Like a rusty knife. The ropes that tie you to your chair are digging deep into your arms and wrists as you try to break loose. The scraping sound has reached the door. It's here!) That's one reason torture and rape scenes are so hard to stomach. The victim is usually bound and totally helpless as horrific things are done to them. I think everybody can relate to that feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability. It's something from deep within us, from our childhood. Most people are scared shitless even by the thought of it.

Oh, and obviously use all senses. This goes for all fiction writing but for horror more than for most other genres. Use sound, smell, touch and taste in addition to sight and relate those to something known. Don't just say something has pungent stench. What does it smell like? Rotten meat? Excrement? A dead animal? Don't just say you hear footsteps in the hall. Do they stomp like an executioner, do they drag as if one leg was broken? You feel something slimey in the dark, okay. What feeling can you relate this too? Is it warm, like a body? Is it soft, like the innards of that fish you once caught and cooked with your uncle? Is it pulsating, almost as if breathing?

In summary, let the readers fantasy do the heavy lifting, create contrast, make the reader care and give them something to relate to. And read Stephen King! :-)

(man, do I sound like a fan boy)

P.S.: There's much more this obviously. A good start is to read a lot of horror and try to figure out why it does or doesn't scare you. It's pretty formulaic and easy to see, most of the time.


I've found that creative writing including a horror deserves to come from inspiration. Inspiration can come from many places. What inspires you? What would make your imagination take wing? Maybe if you lived alone in a log cabin with nothing but the sounds of the forest to 'distract' you, you'd be inspired to think and write about the horrors of city living. Depending on whether you already have a theme for the writing, see what would inspire your thoughts to write what it is you're looking to write.

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