5 things to remember when writing a scary horror story

On Valentine’s night, my husband and I watched Let The Right One In. Yup, we’re just that romantic. According to the cover, Empire described this film as the ‘best horror film of the year’. We disagree. While this is a brilliant film, both my husband and I have agreed that we wouldn’t classify it as horror. For me, the only scary moments was when there were no vampires in the scene.

Warning: Some small spoilers ahead


But the film had things that some people would consider scary. Limbs being pulled off, terrifying cat reactions, people being hung upside down and drained of their blood, bleeding from disgusting facial orifices, and yet none of this scared me. Why? Because our protagonist, Oskar, wasn’t scared. In fact, the ‘monster’ in the film is his friend. The real monsters, and therefore antagonists, are the bullies that plague Oskar’s life. They were the characters that brought fear into the film for me, but still, I wouldn’t classify this film as a horror.

So what makes a horror scary? How do you write a scary horror?

  1. Choose your monster wisely.
    A monster doesn’t have to be an actual monster. As Let The Right One In showed, your monster can be human. Think Doctor Frankenstein or Saw. Whether you choose to make your monster a human (which I personally find so scary I can rarely handle it) or something from myth, fairy tale or nightmare, try to add an original twist.It is worth mentioning that in a culture saturated with vampire stories, vampires are no longer scary. Maybe that’s why Let The Right One In works so well, because Eli isn’t the villain. If you do use the vampire, or something equally as well known, try to do something different with it.

    Let The Right One In Eli and Oskar

    Eli and Oskar in Let The Right One In

    Choosing your monster can also be a fantastic excuse to read fairy tales and research mythology. Or is that just me?

  2. Create a real feeling of fear.
    I know that Oskar was scared of his tormentors in Let The Right One In and yet the fear is subtle. Which means that instead of feeling fear while watching the film, those scenes instead invoke concern and sadness. It’s more of an acceptance of what Oskar must endure rather than a fear.If you want to write a scary story, you need to invoke fear. Your characters, at least your protagonist, should be scared. Author Richard Spurling suggests that what scares readers is not your writing, but the way your writing manipulates their imagination. In other words, get all the components right and your reader can scare themselves rigid. Think of the sound of the empty, moving rocking chair behind the locked door in Woman In Black.

    Woman In Black playroom

    That offending rocking chair in the equally creepy playroom in The Woman In Black

    Don’t worry, it’s not as difficult as it sounds. As with all writing, it just takes practice. Remember the main rule of fiction writing: show, don’t tell. You can’t tell them to be afraid, you can only show them what’s going on and let the fear come naturally.
    The best way to create a sense of fear to…

  3. Use suspense.
    Shocks are scary, yet. Imagine you’re watching a horror film. The music builds along with the tension. Our hero leans towards the dark window and then BAM! Their friend appears at the window with a six pack of beer. Phew. It made you jump, you threw your popcorn, but it’s over and everything’s ok.Shock’s are great to help build the tension and get the adrenaline running in your reader, but it’s nothing compared to suspense. After so many shocks, a reader will just get annoyed.

    Suspense, on the other hand, is much more satisfying. The suspense should build, at a reasonable pace, throughout the story. You do this by running up to an event, typically at the end. While most plots have obstacles for their protagonist to overcome throughout, your horror story should have moments throughout that build towards the event and therefore build the suspense. Horror stories require a lot of plotting. Preferably evil plotting with an evil laugh (perfect it in front of a mirror).

    Oh yeah, work that Dr Evil impression

    Oh yeah, work that Dr Evil impression

  4. Keep it simple.
    I recently read an article by another horror writer who claimed that she started off writing complex plots, giving her heroine a complicated back story, only to find that all that complexity fell away as soon as the protagonist was fighting for her life. The thing about really scary stories is that it all boils down to basic motivations; getting out alive.So don’t overcomplicate your plot. By all means, give your character backstories to explain their motivations and why they react the way they do, but don’t let those backstories govern the horror story too heavily. Unless of course your horror is about that evil stepmother who abused your heroine as a child coming back as a terrifying ghost to continue where she left off.
  5. The usual rules apply.As with all genre specific writing, there are particular ‘horror writing’ rules, but remember not to forget the usual writing rules. Make sure the ending is as tight and satisfactory as your monster and characters. And on the topic of characters, build them properly so that they develop and grow as your story builds. Make them believable and at least make the protagonist likeable. If your reader can’t relate to them on a basic level or doesn’t want them to survive, they won’t find their impending doom scary.

I highly recommend Let The Right One In. It’s a brilliant film and an excellent take on the vampire. If you’ve already seen it, I’d love to know if you found it scary. Would you classify it as a horror?

2 responses to “5 things to remember when writing a scary horror story

  1. I love vampire stories – movies and books. I watched ‘Let the Right One In’ and I loved it but then I read the book, and I found the experience so unsettling, in the best possible way. I watch and read horror for the scares; sounds obvious, but how many horror movies/books are truly scary these days? ‘Let the Right One In’ is most definitely horror but done in a beautiful and subtle way, which is all the scarier for it. After reading the book I found Oskar much more creepy than Eli, but that ratcheted up the horror experience, rather than the other way around. Some good tips here, and I love your use of the ‘Let the Right One In’ movie.

    • Thanks Jay! I haven’t read the book but you’re right, even in the film Oskar is much more creepy than Eli. There’s nothing more scary humans! Maybe the fashion for monsters has made some people forget that.

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