Gross in a Good Way: Notes on Horror Writing

The head-tilt “Hm.” When I tell people I like horror stories–horror movies, horror games, and horror books–that is the response I get. And if the conversation progresses and I say that I am working on putting more horror elements in my own stories, the head-tilt “Hm” intensifies.

What most people don’t realize is that the horrific elements in adventure stories, and pretty much all other genres, take a lot of attention to gory detail to craft.

Even if you don’t want to write a horror book, having a good foundation in scary writing is extremely helpful for adding tension and tragedy to your writing; it shows just how much is at stake for your protagonist and just how unforgiving their world can be.

I love a good spook, and I love the freedom and exploration that horror writing brings.

Here are a few things I’ve learned through my experimentation:

Horror writing is about shocking your audience. Take your inhibitions and throw them straight out that window. Write as wild as you can. Think up the grossest, worst, most violent thing you can imagine. Seems like odd advice, encouraging violent thoughts, but horror is dealing with the worst of human capability. Push the limit. How extreme can you get?

A tip: What scares you? Try putting elements of that into your writing. Most likely, it scares someone else, too.

Momentum is everything. Momentum is the pace at which the reader notices or experiences things.

Think of scary scenes in movies. Scary scenes have three parts: the build-up, the catalyst, and the scare. The build-up is quiet and gives the reader little hints of what might be hiding in the darkness. This is the longest part of a scary scene and it should put the reader on edge. A lot of the draw of horror stories is the mystery involved. Take your time. Make your readers do a lot of the work of piecing things together.

The catalyst is what causes the monster to be revealed.  For example, a woman is brushing her teeth at night and the mirror is slightly off angle. The audience suspects the monster is behind her, but they can’t see for sure. Then she shuts the mirror, and there it is in the mirror, standing behind her like you expected, but it still scares you. That’s the catalyst. Third is the scare. What the monster actually does in the scene. Lots of screaming and running, or not. That’s your decision.

The catalyst and scare should be short. Among the three parts, the build-up should be 85%, the catalyst 5%, and the scare 10%. Anticipation holds the most tension.

Word choice is everything, too. Do you remember those rumors that certain movies and music had hidden images and phrases in the background to subliminally influence the audience to feel a certain way or think a certain thing? That is what word choice does for your writing.

Because of how language evolves, almost every word has a deeper association. Make those associations work for you and you’ll find your reader is feeling on edge and gross, even before the spooky stuff starts happening. Word choice creates atmosphere.

Which words you choose will depend on what atmosphere you’re trying to create: are you going for cold and clinical? Cults and Religion gone wrong? Violence and butchery? Vengeful nature? Rot and sickness? The choices of spooky atmospheres is endless. Generally speaking, though, words chosen with any of these themes do a good job of putting the reader on edge.

For example, say you want to describe an angry character, but you want the reader to realize just how violent and unstable this character is. Don’t talk about clenched fists or about the other characters’ reactions. Mention the angry character’s blotchy purple face, their bulging eyes, how they’re shaking, how they’ve picked one of their bloody fingernails clean off. Use words that evoke a visceral reaction.

Lastly, read/watch/play great horror stories! You could call this “Do your research,” but it should be way more fun than that. There are awesome horror stories out there. Go experience them and be inspired! While you’re having fun being scared and being awed, you’ll be learning the craft.

Some of the best horror stories out there these days are actually scary video games. The complexity of the stories and the beauty of the atmospheres are incredible. They’re what got me interested in horror. Some of the very best, in my opinion, are: Soma, Until Dawn, Kholat, Resident Evil 7, and Outlast. (Warning, Outlast is very gory. Great for inspiration, though, if you’re looking to put some gore into your story.) If you’re not so keen on playing the games yourself, you can watch play-throughs of these games on Youtube. My favorite thing is to have one of these playing as I do something else, so if it gets too intense, I have something else to look at. 🙂

Some great horror movies with a lot of class and mystery are: The Babadook, It Follows, The Silenced, and Crimson Peak. These are my favorites. I’ve also heard that Get Out is incredible.

My favorite horror books are The Shining by Stephen King (shocked, I know), and The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey, especially the second book: Curse of the Wendigo. The Monstrumologist Series is great because it combines horror with comedy in a masterful and seamless way. Horror and humor share a lot of the same guidelines, actually. Momentum, word choice, wild experimentation, and research.

I hope this list is helpful to budding horror writers out there! If you have any other tips for scary writing, please leave them in the comments so we can all learn. 🙂

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