Along with my first fantasy novel, I am starting to delve into horror, and I'm starting to sketch out an outline of a horror story (I have decided no gross-out today).

If it helps, the story is about a man who was attacked by a demon. The man begged for his life, and the demon accepted, but the demon made the man immortal, and every time he came in contact with a friend, family member, or anyone he knew or loved, the demon would be sitting there, staring at him, right before it killed them. The man is eventually forced to isolate himself in a box, essentially be buried alive, to stop everyone he knows from dying, so he spends billions of years trapped in a box, nearly forever.

But, as far as actual writing goes, I have no idea where to start (or end, for that matter) and the small sketches I do have are boring, non-suspenseful, and sound more like a children's story than anything related to horror.

Where do you even start with horror? How do you create the feeling of fear and dread that keeps you up at night in the readers (without disgust), while also maintaining interest throughout the entire story?

  • 5
    How much time have you spent analysing how existing horror writers do this? Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 9:47

5 Answers 5


It got closer and closer, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

If you don't want gory horror, then fundamentally horror is about losing control and a sense of violation. For intellectual horror to work, you strip away people's ability to deal with the things in their lives they must deal with.

A horror story could be as simple as an old woman who has fallen in the kitchen and can't reach the phone. As long as you can keep adding levels of suspense and anxiety to the situation, ratcheting up the levels, it keeps getting more horrific. The old woman has a bit of food and water. Then these are gone. She has no bathroom and soils herself. She dwells on how she will be taken from her beloved home and put in a nursing home. She's angry with herself for her failure to get an emergency button. The injury she suffered falling gets worse. Mice become threats as she feels them scuttle over her when she's weak and asleep. Her son was supposed to put out traps, but didn't. Finally, they start biting her and there's nothing she can do to stop it. She's weaker and weaker, more and more hurt. Finally, her nephew arrives (who she trusts and has put in her will), and rather than help her, he leaves so she can die and he can inherit her house. Then the mice come back out, staring at her.

Horror takes our lack of control over things in our lives, the things we feel helpless in the face of, and our deep-seated fears, then it keeps adding new levels of badness. The best horror story I read (Survivor Type by Stephen King) was a short story where a former surgeon is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, stuck on a barren rock in the ocean with a kilo of heroin he was smuggling. He injures himself trying to catch a bird to eat, amputates his foot, then eats the foot in desperation. Finally he starts amputating more and more of himself to stay alive.

The man started out a dishonored surgeon, desperate enough to be smuggling heroin, then placed in a shipwreck, abandoned on a rock, starving, then crippled, and finally forced to slowly eat himself. All in the course of (I think) 15-20 pages.

At each step, you can sympathize with the person, understand their pain, and move on with the story. Barring supernatural horror, each step is possible but unfortunate. But the levels keep needing to be amped up with each step. The violations can be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Ideally, they are all of the above. And unlike a traditional story, you don't get to solve your problems. If you do solve a problem, the solution is it's own terror OR is replaced by two new ones as soon as it's fixed. Then it's up to you if you want a happy ending. But the standards of happy are pretty low in a horror story.

  • 7
    I want to read some horror written by you. Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 23:53
  • 3
    @Fivesideddice I made up the old woman example, but the other story is by Steven King (early stuff before he got too commercial).
    – DWKraus
    Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 23:56
  • You do know you have to share the sources, right? *wink
    – Neinstein
    Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 17:00
  • 1
    @GammaGames Thanks for recalling the reference on the Stephen King story. It's extra fun that even Stephen King felt it might have gone too far.
    – DWKraus
    Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 23:18
  • @DWKraus He doesn't really like his bleak endings, he also thinks Pet Sematary was too far but that's one of my favorites.
    – GammaGames
    Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 14:07

Typically horror starts with the ordinary world. Establish your character's lives and personalities. This is the start of a typical day... however there's an element that is "wrong" both to the protagonist and the hero. As their typical life wears on the "wrong" thing becomes more and more noticeable... It's a slow creep until the nature of the antagonistic force becomes more menacing... then it's a matter of the dramatic reveal.

While not a hard rule, and there are certain violators, most horror films will spend about 40 to 60 minutes before the audience gets to see "The Monster" and most films will typically run from 90 to 120 minutes... with 96.4 minutes being the average run time in 2018. Often called "The Jaws principle", the longer the monster is kept from the viewers, the more scary it becomes, because ultimately fear of the unknown is very compelling threat (this principle is so named after the film "Jaws" and Steven Spielberg's dislike of the Shark Prop Bruce, which he felt was laughable... and was very expensive to remake... so he decided to limit the shark's on screen visibility, with only small portions of the shark being seen until the very climax... and the film was scary because of it.).

This isn't a hard rule, however, as Terminator had the titular villain quite visible but no one knew why he was doing what he was doing... it was a fantastical explanation to a very real threat of a lone gunman out in your neighborhood possibly targeting you. The real build up was to the explanation of the Terminator and the horror of his true nature: There was nothing you could do to stop it from trying to kill you. Terminator 2 was even quicker to reach this point, both because the monster's set up was almost identical... save for the fact that the audience was now in for a surprise: The "monster" from the first film was now a hero... and the new guy who nobody knew was an even worse monster. It helped that here, the "warning signs" were hidden if you go back and do a rewatch of the film. (Robert Patrick's character noticeably lacked scars, something in the first film was focused on to highlight the nature of the hero and his biological nature in contrast to the villain and his artificial one.).


Different authors go about this in different ways. You mentioned that your sketches sound like children's stories instead of horror. But children's stories actually are the basis for a massive amount of horror, with the difference being the mood of the writing.

What's the difference between a story where a baby girl is kidnapped from loving parents, locked up in a cold stone room, then spends her youth having a witch lasciviously rubbing the girl's hair all over her body, and Disney's Rapunzel?

Well, the singing mostly.

But also the sun, the hopefulness, the friends, the heart. In short, the voice of the author. It's not the events, it's the style.

When I was first learning to write horror, I had to find an author whose style I understood, to see how they made that transformation from kid's story to adult scaring. In other words, the right teacher. Whether that is King, Lovecraft, Simmons, Matheson, Hodgeson, Carpenter, they all do it very differently.

For you, I kind of suspect Angela Carter might be the one. Her focus is exactly on making fairy tales modern and scary.


I'm working on a horror novel now, and I've found that it helps to envision the terrible scenes like a movie I'm watching. What would be scary to me to watch?

In one scene, I have a character "Joe" forced to commit a murder. Just relating that fact wouldn't be particularly horror-filled, so I let the other characters in the scene be horrified, one at a time. Start with Joe: he contemplated the weapon; to Joe's girlfriend: she begged him to put the weapon down; back to Joe: he felt the pressure to act building; to the sheriff: you don't have to do this, son; to the victim: he prayed to be released from this nightmare; back to Joe...

And so on. Seeing the horror coming and being unable to stop it. Knowing that the horror is inevitable. King does this a lot: "Joe stepped up to the mic, not knowing he had only ninety seconds left to live." Now the reader knows the horror is coming, and the next ninety seconds are (if we care about Joe) excruciating.

Spend time on the page in your characters heads and senses, and don't be afraid to draw it out. What do they see, smell, taste in that moment. "The man pulled the knife across his chest. Joe closed his eyes and tried not to see: it wasn't just the blood, though the coppery taste at the back of his mouth was bad enough. It was the sound of the blade, not quite sharp enough, skimming across living bone. It was the man's labored breathing, a sound like the edge of a scream."

There's an old recording by Arch Obler called "Drop Dead: An Exercise in Horror." It's a great listen and explores these very thoughts through a series of radio shows. You can listen to it here..


You can start with the most horrific description of hell itself to shock the reader with. It then turns out to be the dream of the main character. The I perspective works best but switching between ffirst and third person can be effective too. Even the second person, adressing the reader himself.

After the schock, normal life continues. The normal life then is slowly infiltrated by elements that were seen in the horror vision. Even normal events or objects can get an emotional load when seen in connection with the initial vision.

You can work towards a climax of any kind. It can be a real horrific one, in contrast to the dreamlike start. It can be a dreamlike one giving a symmetric touch.

The end must of course not be happy or open for horrific speculation at least.

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