“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H P Lovecraft
Since we first gathered around campfires we have told stories to elicit emotion and one of the most basic emotions is fear. Writing great horror is about invoking that fear in the reader, it can be done in much the same way as you would elicit other emotions in any story. The elements you need to create that feeling of horror include characters, plot, setting, point of view conflict and theme.
Characters are paramount in great horror. We must hate and fear the monster and we must root for the good guys. To get deeply involved in the story and to feel the emotions of fear, revulsion or disgust that the horror writer wants to invoke, we must relate to, and care about the characters. If we identify with the characters we can see ourselves in their shoes, can feel their fear and the book will affect us more.
The monster is a character in a horror story and is just as important as any other character. It could be a physical monster like a vampire or a really bad person like the Numen in my novel Flee, or it could be a bad storm or jealousy or whatever you can imagine. The most important thing is that the monster is believable and is presented in a way that the reader can relate to.
Bigger is not always better. The story must affect us on an emotional scale and we need to believe that this could happen to us, that way we can imagine the horror and feel the fear. Big is not usually better when creating your monster, a Godzilla like creature may be scary but how many of us can relate to it, but hear about the latest super virus on the news and how do you feel when your work colleague coughs on your sandwich.
Setting is important in horror, and is often used to isolate the protagonist. If you can simply walk away then what is there to be scared of. This is why many horrors stories are set in remote locations, and why every time your characters try to escape something blocks them, this conflict and struggle is common to many stories but in a good horror it helps isolate the character and ramps up the conflict towards the resolution.
Settings in horror stories can also have character, the misty night scene is almost a cliché but darkness causes a primal fear and using your setting to up the emotion and create fear is part of writing good horror.
The other essential of good horror writing is the ability to show the story. Telling the reader your character is afraid is not effective, you need to show the fear and invoke the reader’s emotions in a way that leaves them breathless.
Writing great horror is really no different to writing any other genre. You simply need great characters, a great plot and the ability to show the story in a way that engages the reader. The only real difference is you are trying to illicit darker emotions than you would in other types of fiction.
Caroline Gebbie is an ex-accountant turned author who writes horror novels or dark thrillers as she likes to call them. She lives in the United Kingdom with two dogs a husband and a large number of Koi. She has two books on Amazon and will soon be launching her third. Learn more about Caroline and her writing from her blog.
Flee the Supernatural Thriller can be found on Amazon.
6 thoughts on “The Essentials of Writing Great Horror”
You are so right about so many things, Caroline. With horror, bigger is not always better. you have found a fan in me.
Thanks Blaze, it’s good to here from you.
Great insight about horror stories Caroline. I noticed that you were an accountant, some great thrillers in that business I’m sure. Anyhow, best of luck with your new books!
Yes were a scary bunch alright.
Now that’s a great article! I absolutely love horror genre and you hit the nail on the head, touching on the elements that I am looking for out of my characters. I keep thinking about what you said, “bigger is not always better”. You couldn’t be more right. The scariest things on the face of earth as related to horror…kids…dolls. Thanks for sharing such great insight Caroline.
Oh yes kids and dolls make great horror characters.
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