Whether it’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Stephen King’s The Shining, horror stories have spellbound readers since Greek and Roman times. The genre seeks to create feelings of fear, dread, and terror, and takes skill and patience to perfect.
“Horror is most successful when it unsettles the reader with the ordinary,” says History, Literature, and Arts Lecturer Meher Manda, MFA, who’s teaching the College of Arts and Sciences’ “Fiction Writing Workshop.” “People talk about Stephen King as the great bastion of American horror, and many of his novels revel in suburban disturbance where this well-meaning town of well-meaning people has a darker underbelly.”
As a writer, editor, and cultural critic, Manda enjoys horror — especially the stories that shock readers into imagining fears they never knew they had. To help individuals who are creating their own bone-chilling stories, she offers the four following writing strategies.
1. Rely on discomfort
Picture this: Your main character is minding their own business when a monster, with tentacles for a head, charges at them. While this scenario is scary, Manda says it operates on a level of unbelievability that makes it easy for the reader to detach from the story.
“To evoke fear, suspense writing doesn't need the creation of something fantastical or something unimaginable. A good suspense story understands there is a level of fear that lies just under the surface of our everyday lives,” Manda says.
For instance, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline follows a family that moves to a new town. Everything is fine except the main character’s parents are replaced with new parents who have buttons for eyes; it’s a subtle change that creates discomfort. Manda notes that a person’s story should have a believable universe. Whether that world is a bedroom where the entire novel takes place, or an intergalactic kingdom, a sound story helps readers remain invested.
2. Justify character decision-making
We’ve all groaned when a character’s done something that seems ridiculously foolish. Whether it’s opening a door that most people wouldn't go near or descending alone into a dark basement, readers can be left thinking: Why would a character do that?
“I believe it's not the choices that are stupid or half-baked, it’s the character. You can believe any choice a character makes so long as that character has been fully fleshed out,” Manda says, noting that readers should be aware of a character's instincts, fears, and insecurities.
Fear, discomfort, tension, and anxiety regulate behavior in horror. Manda says It introduces readers to a crew of kids and provides details on their fears and choices. This context helps people understand why each child is compelled to be scared in specific ways as the novel’s clown goes after them.
“We understand that under moments of stress, human beings are completely capable of making choices that do not seem plausible in any other lived context,” Manda says.
3. Lean into your fears
There’s no one way to attempt a horror story since everyone has different tastes for what they find scary. Therefore, Manda suggests writers look at what they personally find frightening and implement that into their story.
“Where are the tensions in your life?” Manda asks. “Whether that's college, family, or community, look for how you can turn the volume on that tension to make it scary.”
She recalls how Carrie uses cliques as a point of tension, which King explores by looking at how bullying culture coupled with domestic abuse can render a character who can cause actual damage.
“It ultimately comes down to what piques your interest and what you find terrifying; you can then cull fear out of that,” Manda says.
4. Don’t let commitment scare you
Dedicating the time to consistently write with intention is vital to the creation of any story. Manda says the best writers have the discipline to show up to the writing desk again and again. She adds that successful stories require some type of change — whether it be emotional or intellectual — from beginning to end, and writers should realize that their first draft is never the best.
“Your first draft is raw and has the energy of incorrectness, which is great, but the successful story comes out of revision; know that your first draft is potent but also needs to be adjusted to be a better version of itself,” Manda says.