Writing horror is a real skill – it’s not just about literary jump scares and gross guts ‘n’ gore (though those are always fun, too). Creating a truly terrifying story takes a careful hand and a monstrous mind, so we asked asked the gloriously spooky Kirsty Logan for some tricks of the horror trade…
What are you afraid of? No – what are you really afraid of?
I believe that horror (followed by erotica) is the most psychologically raw genre of writing. The best horror strips out everything except the source of the fear – and makes us sit there, experiencing it and all of its implications. The best horror is deeply personal, even confessional. It’s the author digging deep into their own psyche, far deeper than is comfortable, and being honest about what they really fear. I love a slasher-movie cliché as much as anyone, but if I’m honest, I’m not really scared of them. The things that really scare me are the stories centering on fears that are more strange, more raw, more individual. The best way to write a universal fear that will appeal to (meaning scare the crap out of) many people is not to go broad, but to go personal. Dig deep and write what you’re really afraid of.
LEARN FROM: Misery by Stephen King, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Deep Dark Fears by Fran Krause.
How much can you leave to the reader’s imagination?
One mistake when writing horror is to try to describe everything. Every shriek of terror, every bit of gore, every gleam of light on a creature’s fangs. But is that scary? When reading the description of someone running and screaming, do we feel afraid? The most straightforward horror story introduces the reader to a character we identify with – and then puts that character in a situation that most people would find unnerving, unsettling or threatening.
Here’s a technique to try: get the reader to like a character, put that character in a situation that gets worse and worse, make it clear to the reader what would happen if the worst thing of all were to occur (the ‘worst thing’ depends on what the situation is), bring the character to the point where the worst thing is going to happen and there’s nothing they can do about it – and then finish the story. You need to ensure you’ve given enough information that the reader understands the next steps, but don’t describe them. Allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, to expand into the full horror.
LEARN FROM: The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez, Junji Ito’s stories.
What’s scary, tense, affecting or emotional – but not horror?
It’s great to take inspiration from the horror genre, and the best way to do this is learn to analyse it. When you’re reading a story and feel tense, anxious for the characters, like your heart is in your mouth, like you can barely stand to read on but also can’t take your eyes off the page – stop and look at why. Try to analyse what techniques the author is using to achieve this effect. A lot of learning how to write is figuring out how the magic trick is done. It can also be useful to do this with horror films, but keep in mind that some techniques that work on the screen can’t work on the page.
To make your fiction unique, it’s also great to take inspiration from outside the horror genre. You don’t just want your horror fiction to be scary – you also want it to be emotional, engrossing, vivid, resonant, and a really good story. Find elements in other genres that you can use in your horror fiction. Read romance to learn how to write strong relationship conflict. Read fantasy and science fiction to learn how to effectively world-build. Read crime to learn how to write a surprising yet logical reveal. Read literary fiction to learn how to experiment with language. Read poetry to learn how to be succinct.
You can also find effective horror techniques in other genres. My horror book, Things We Say in the Dark, was heavily influenced by children’s stories from the 1970s and ‘80s. When reading, make note of when you feel particularly affected by something, particular when you feel tense or unnerved. Try to analyse how the author is achieving this – how the magic trick is done.
LEARN FROM: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, children’s films (personally I find Who Framed Roger Rabbit, ET, Pinocchio and Return to Oz particularly unnerving), memoirs about people who have gone through traumatic or difficult events.
What’s the source of the horror?
Some horror relies on fear of the other, fear of the foreign, fear of the damaged or disabled body, fear of the ageing (particularly female) body, or fear of the homosexual, transgender or queer elements in ourselves or others. Horror which, basically, relies on tired and damaging stereotypes. It’s worth taking a moment to sit down and analyse the actual source of the fear in a story – and then thinking about whether that’s something that we as writers really want to put out into the world. Do we really want to say that a non-typical body is horrifying? Do we really want to say that older women’s bodies are a source of disgust? Do we really want to say that anything foreign or unfamiliar is a source of danger? Do we really want to say that a dark figure, or a rural community, or someone with a missing limb, is the source of all evil?
Of course, there’s the morality of this, but think also about our power of observation – which is one of the most valuable skills we have as writers. When we look at who’s actually committing evil in the world, is it the above people? Or is it a person who looks like a figure of power, like a person trusted in the community – or even rather like ourselves?
Ask yourself what you want your fiction to do. Ask yourself what you want to be putting out into the world. Not only are these old ideas offensive, they’re also lazy writing. You can do better. You can look deeper. Do the work, move past lazy tropes, and confront the real source of horror.
LEARN FROM: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman, Jordan Peele’s films Get Out and Us.
Alright, you little horrors – now go and write something truly terrifying. And if you need a some extra advice on creating suspense, tension, twists and turns, why don’t you check out our Writing a Thriller course?