As you all know I have been posting quite a lot of short stories in the horror genre lately and I want to thank all my readers who have been requesting more. Especially @FrederikaFerrar for suggesting a scary short story compilation. I definitely plan to do one in the future! I am also sending a shout out to Judika Illes and Carol Perry for requesting this week’s topic. I actually wasn’t going to blog this week, but absolutely wanted to answer the question that is coming up a lot in my comments and DM box. And what is that question? Drum roll please… Danielle, how do you write a good scary story?
First of all let me ask you a couple questions. Do you like nightmarish tales that give you goosebumps? Do you get freaked out by stories of suspense? Scary stories, like any story, will follow a basic format that includes developing the premise, setting and characters. But scary stories also rely on tension that builds throughout the story to a frightening or horrific climax. Find inspiration in real life, drawing on your own fears, and write a story that scares you silly.
Fear is one of the hardest reactions to provoke in writing. Just flip through the pages of any ghost story anthology; how many of them are genuinely scary? It takes more than tortured groans, rattling chains, and a splattering of gore; anyone can do that. But the art of raising goose bumps? That is an elusive art indeed. If you can write a scary ghost story, you can write anything. Are you ready to inspire nightmares? Then follow me…
Explore what scares you.
Start with one of your greatest fears—not to be confused with things generically considered scary. Whether it’s something trivial like clowns or something huge like losing a child, the best stories start with something personal. So what scares you? Explore it for a while and take that fear to its darkest place.
Identify your main character
A strong main character in a horror draws readers into their experience and makes them feel the fear. This stands true whether you’re telling the story from the perspective of the protagonist or a true villain. Personally, my favorite horror characters are often the ones can’t be trusted. Actually, come to think of it, this is also true for real life characters as well.
Work the suspense
Hitchcock wasn’t one of the greats for nothing. The soul of a good horror story isn’t the terrifying killer, it’s the fear of what the killer is going to do. A good horror story exposes just enough for the reader to know something isn’t right, but not enough for readers to know why until the very end.
Fear of the Unknown
People don’t fear death. No one’s afraid of ghosts. Monsters, murderers, darkness—none of the horror staples are really terrifying. If you rely on your audience being scared simply because your story includes any of the above, you’re doomed to fail. Instead, you must understand where terror truly lies. Everyone fears the unknown.
People don’t know what comes after death, so they get scared. They don’t know what’s making that noise in the other room, so they call it a ghost and get scared. Darkness could be hiding anything—what exactly, we don’t know—so we get scared.
We fear what we can’t understand. That’s why a touch on your shoulder when you’re all alone is so frightening: it should be impossible. The best ghost stories take full advantage of this. You won’t see the ghost; you’ll only hear it, smell it, feel it. A ghost is like the wind; you see a curtain flutter, and the question remains in your mind, what is it?
When writing your ghost story, don’t be afraid of withholding information. Your readers, by the very act of reading, have activated their imaginations. Use this against them! Don’t bog them down with long descriptions of a gruesome specter; instead, use simple words to sketch a vague impression. Your readers will imagine the rest, filling in the gaps with whatever scares them most.
Something Is Not Right
Why is it that one smile can put you at ease, while another makes you want to get out of the room as quickly as possible? Does it reveal just a few too many teeth? Are the eyes above it just a little bit soulless? Is the accompanying laughter a tad too enthusiastic?
We may not be able to tell what, but something is…off.
Something friendly has been distorted. You were climbing a familiar staircase, and the last step was missing. You were listening to a pleasant tune, but that one note—was it off-key? What’s wrong with this picture?
This is a natural extension of our fear of the unknown. A defense mechanism. It tips us off that someone around us bears a sickness that we don’t want to catch, that someone is pretending to be something they’re not. It is when something comes so close to being real but falls short in some subtle way. This is why mannequins, dolls, and clowns are common phobias.
So how can you leverage this in your ghost story? There’s the obvious: characters with slightly deformed features or unnatural movements. Houses with strange angles. Unexpected behavior works as well.
Then there’s the more subtle: mentioning a detail that would be innocuous anywhere else, but in this particular scenario is out of place. There’s nothing quite like a child’s laughter—especially coming from your basement at 3 in the morning. Is it really a child? Or something like a child?
You can also work it into your writing style. Phrase something in an odd way. Intentionally break the rules of grammar. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as illiterate instead of terrifying.
A Dreadful Descent
Fear must be built up gradually. Think of it like you’re taking the reader on a journey from the safety of their world to the nightmare of yours. Like any journey, it’s a transition from point A to point B. If you skip that transition by presenting your scariest scene right up front, it won’t have any effect. The audience is still comfortably seated at point A: a soft armchair by a warm fire. Fear must be built up gradually.
That’s not to say you can never start with a spooky scene—in fact, it’s a good way to catch the audience’s interest and entice them to keep reading. Just make sure you save the best for last. Wait until the reader has gotten out of their comfy chair; wait until they’re curled up in the cold, damp corner of the basement. Once a reader is primed, they’re much easier to scare.
This priming process is called foreboding. It’s similar to the more common literary device of foreshadowing, but with an emphasis on the ominous. It helps your reader suspend their disbelief and gradually draws them into your nightmare world. Start small. In a ghost story, this is the quiet noise, unexpected but not altogether unusual, that the protagonist dismisses, attributing it to natural causes.
Then go a little bit bigger. A more demanding noise that piques the protagonist’s curiosity. Perhaps they investigate, but once more can only shrug their shoulders and move on with life. Then one night the noise becomes a knocking. Maybe someone is at the front door? But the protagonist looks and no one is there. Now they’re nervous, and maybe the reader is too. The next night, however, the knocking comes not from the distant front door, but the protagonist’s own bedroom door. And the wood begins to splinter.
Make the stakes for the character clear and extreme.
The “stakes” of a character in a story is what your character has to lose if they make a certain decision or choice in the story. If your reader doesn’t know what is at stake for the character in the conflict, they cannot fear loss. A good horror story is all about creating extreme emotions like fear or anxiety in the reader.
Be clear about what will happen if the character does not get what they want. The stakes of the story, or the consequences if the character does not achieve their desires, is what drives the story forward. The stakes also build tension and suspense for your reader.
Show, don’t tell, your story
The most effective scary stories use description to show the reader how the characters feel in a story. This helps the reader feel like he is stepping into the main character’s shoes and identifying with this character. In contrast, when you tell the reader exactly how to feel by describing a scene flatly and obviously, the reader will feel less connected to the story.
For example, consider these two ways of describing a scene:
”I was too scared to open my eyes, even though I heard footsteps coming closer.”
“I wrapped the blankets tighter around me and let out a sick whimper. My chest was tight, my stomach rotten. I would not look. No matter how close those shuffling footsteps came, I would not look. I would not, I would…not…”
The second example gives the reader more of an insight into the character’s physical feelings.
Avoid certain words that are too obvious
While we are on the subject of emotion and feelings, force yourself to describe what’s happening with words that evoke emotion in the reader. Don’t rely on words that tell your reader exactly how to feel. For example, avoid these words in your writing:
Use gore and violence with purpose.
Too much gore or violence can have a desensitizing effect on the reader. If the same pools of blood keep happening over and over again in the story, the reader will grow bored. Of course, some gore or violence can be useful for setting a scene, describing a character or providing action. Use gore or violence in a spot in the story that is impactful or meaningful, so it can punch your reader in the gut, rather than numb them or bore them.
The End…Or Is It?
If you want to make your ghost story truly memorable, it needs a killer ending. You want your reader to keep thinking about the story long after they’ve finished it—after the lights are out, when they’re trying to sleep.
The key is to put your scariest scene last. Your scariest scene isn’t necessarily the one in which your character’s life is in the most danger. This is the horror genre, after all; death is expected. Rather, your scariest scene is the one in which your character’s identity, sanity, or relationships are in the most danger.
This may mean leaving the reader with a disturbing question or a terrifying revelation. These reveals will threaten the character’s understanding of the world and trigger the darkest aspects of your reader’s imagination.
Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved.
Putting your scariest scene last might require a non-linear narration. If your scariest scene takes place three quarters of the way through your story, write around it, then use a flashback at the end to explore the scene in greater detail.
If you’re having trouble coming up with an impactful twist for your ending, try asking yourself these questions:
What single fact would make this good situation bad, or this bad situation worse?
What detail would alter the character’s understanding of the situation in a terrifying way?
How can the situation force the character into a choice?
How can that choice be bad no matter what the character chooses?
Regardless of how you end your ghost story, be careful not to overextend the ending. After the big reveal, it may be tempting to offer further explanation, but this can dampen the effect. Don’t be afraid to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved. This produces doubt in the reader and forces them to think about your story late into the night.
Well, that’s all I have for you this week. Thank you again to Judika Illes and Carol Perry for requesting this topic and to all my fabulous readers for your kind feedback on my recent stories. I am incredibly humbled and undeserving, but I must say it makes my little black heart so happy to hear! If you’d like to check out all the titles I have currently available, then head over to my Amazon Author Page (link below) and browse around. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!