S.M.Pope shares Tips for Writing Horror – Blog Tour

When experts tell you to ‘write what you know’, how on earth do you write horror? Unless you’ve lived through a zombie apocalypse, have been haunted by a malevolent spirit, or experienced other, otherworldly phenomena, you would be well and truly stuffed.

The good news is you don’t have to have first-hand experience of horror to write it well; this is where our wonderful imaginations come into play. There are, however, other things you could and should be doing to make sure you give your readers a mighty chill.

1. Decide upon your favourite type of horror

First things first – you have to choose an area of horror that appeals to you most as a writer. My type isn’t the slasher-movie kind; it’s about restless spirits, some of whom have a (metaphorical) axe to grind. Or it features flesh-and-blood humans who might or might not be experiencing what they say they are. I also like a good supernatural revenge plot. You might like vampires or dystopia. Choose what really interests you – don’t go with trends. They change all the time, anyway. You’ve got to love what you’re writing about.

2. Read, read, read, read … ad infinitum

Once you’ve decided on what type of horror you want to write, you need to do as much reading as you can. This is for two reasons:

  1. Fortunately, we don’t live in a world that resembles most of the horror output out there.
  2. We need to look to previous and current horror writers to inspire us and to make us think about what does and doesn’t work in stories. 

In my case, for example, reading Victorian ghost stories was absolutely vital to develop my understanding of how they work. I devoured short stories by MR James, Henry James, and Edgar Allen Poe to see how they created terror in so few words (relatively speaking). I then looked at authors from the modern era who were inspired by the Victorian Gothic, eg Laura Purcell and Susan Hill, both of whom have set some of their stories in the 1800s. As a contrast, I also read stories by Michelle Paver, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, for example, to see how they brought the Gothic into the modern world to see how I could achieve it.

3. Consider your character

I mistakenly believed that ghost / supernatural stories were more driven by plot and atmosphere than by character. In my novel, I knew what the plot was early on but I couldn’t get a handle on Lindy, my main character. At first I thought it didn’t matter but, when I showed the book to beta readers, I realised it did. I’d written a mishmash of a character who no one could understand and who was putting people off my story. I went through countless revisions – attempting to write the story in the first person, then the third, then back to the first, to try to see if I could find her voice. I did eventually but it would have been better to have understood her from the beginning. That’s not to say that characters don’t change – they will! – but at least try to glean a basic understanding at first. One good way of doing this is to interview them, or write about them as if you’re doing a magazine feature on them. 

4. Don’t go OTT

It’s tempting, when writing something scary, to try to pack in every horrific, frightening detail you can think of to try to scare your readers witless, endlessly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work – for you or your reader. It’s impossible to maintain that level of tension as a writer and your reader will become exhausted. Your best friend in writing scary stories is to keep a sense of unease constantly bubbling under the surface before building up to one big frightening reveal, perhaps with some smaller ones along the way – like they do with jump scares in horror films. 

5. Look for inspiration in the every day

Sometimes the scariest stories are the ones that create terror in normal situations. Cliches like haunted houses and cemeteries can be very scary but, as readers, we expect something to happen so it’s less of a shock when it does. Just think, though, how shocked we would be if something terrifying happened on a sunny day, somewhere pleasant. 

Also, be aware that inspiration can be found almost everywhere – from news items to overheard conversations. One of my short stories, ‘One-Way Window’, was inspired by a news article about penitentiaries in the USA suffering from a lack of volunteers to watch executions, and running recruitment campaigns. What if you were that person who decided to give it a go – to do your civic duty?  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s