by Sean Wesen ‘22
You’re staying home tonight. Your roommates all went out for steak, but you told them to go without you because you’re a vegetarian. That was a lie, but much less embarrassing than trying to explain that you couldn’t afford it. You think to yourself “I’m going to make a great starving artist one day” and smile.
While you feel bummed about being left out, you have decided to make the most of the night by being productive. Homework? Studying? Job searching? No no no. Sure, you want to be productive, but not THAT productive. Instead you are going to finally work on that horror story you've been sitting on.
You have only managed to just barely get out a page, but you are so sensitive to sound that you can only work in complete silence. With everyone gone and the house all to yourself, now is the perfect time. Or at least that’s what you thought.
Just because your roommates aren’t home doesn’t mean there isn’t any noise. Just after you finish a paragraph, you hear a whine. It’s so high pitched that it would normally go unnoticed. But, being the only sound aside from your breathing, it’s deafening. It must be an outlet, you think to yourself. You unplug everything in your room, lights, chargers, fans, to no avail. Finally, you decide it must be the very laptop you're writing on. You sigh and resign yourself to writing by hand as you shut down your laptop. The screen goes black and the cooling fans begin to slow until they stop completely. But the whining? It’s more deafening than ever.
It is then that the truth is whispered to you. What you hear isn’t sound, it’s its absence. The high pitched ringing isn’t in your ears, it's in your brain, drilling deeper into your gray matter like a many legged parasite. You can’t even think, let alone write. You had no ideas for your story to begin with, and now in the silence you have to accept this fact as there is no one else to listen to but yourself. Nowhere to hide. And your voice is so loud, and shrill, and IT HURTS. There is only one way to stop the sound of silence from digging deeper into your mind like an ice pick. With something long and sharp, maybe you can reach your eardrum… maybe…
If you're stuck on how to write a good horror story, maybe you can try reading this article instead? It is a step by step guide on how to craft a terrifying story from start to finish. After all, it's better than the alternative…
Start with A Likable Protagonist:
A likable protagonist is always important, and horror is no exception. Typically with horror, you have a protagonist who is slowly subjected to horrific things and moments. Eventually, she, he, or they may fail to defeat the “antagonist” or may even become the antagonist themselves (I suppose there are happy endings too, but where’s the fun in that?). If your readers don’t empathize with the protagonist, then why are they going to feel uncomfortable or scared when bad things happen to them? If you have trouble making a likable protagonist, consider how you might create a person with some flaws balanced out by some likable traits. Also, unless you feel comfortable with experimenting, try to make your protagonist an indisputably “good person” despite whatever flaws they have. All of this should be the first thing you establish within your story. We want to be rooting for the main character, even if they don't make it out of the story alive. An example from a classic novel would be Carrie White from Stephen King’s Carrie. We’re rooting for Carrie because she is the underdog. She has been raised by an unstable mother, doesn’t know the first thing about how adolescence works, and is bullied at school. When she starts to unleash her terrible powers of telekinesis, we’re rooting for her to succeed because we relate to her.
Push Boundaries on Your Comfort Zone:
While there are many (oftentimes valid) critiques of Sigmund Freud and his studies, his ideas were a jumping off point for many incredibly important discussions in psychology and literature. So despite his controversial status, here is an EXTREMELY watered down description of Freud’s term “uncanny”: You have the “heimlich” and the “unheimlich” which directly translate to the “homely” and the “unhomely.” The homely is what you know and understand and feel safe in, like your home (hence the name). The unhomely is when you change that, when you take what you know and distort it into something foreign. Why is this important for horror? Well, when you have a place that feels like home and you take the protagonist away from that home or change it in some way, this is a really easy way to unsettle your reader and give them an uncanny feeling. That is why you need to establish a comfort zone, a place where your protagonist and readers feel comfortable and safe: a home, a town, a school, a work office, etc. By establishing this comfort zone, you're setting up the possibility of removing your protagonist and reader from it or making the comfort zone uncomfortable. For example, in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, we start in a small town, recognizable as our own. Slowly, we start to realize that this town has a deadly tradition that will make us rethink our vision of the friendliness of small towns.
Foreshadowing is an important aspect of horror or really any short story. It signals to the reader that something isn’t quite right, that the comfort of the comfort zone isn’t so comfortable, which creates an immediate unease for the reader. It can also give the reader the “answer” before you’ve asked the question. When you eventually do “ask the question”, the readers will already know what’s coming because you told them, they just didn’t know it yet. Having something dangerous or perspective altering in view of the reader without them noticing is like having your reader realize they’ve been walking past a bomb on their kitchen counter everyday without realizing it's been sitting right there next to the toaster (an excellent way to turn the homely into the unhomely). An added bonus to foreshadowing is re-readability. If you can add retroactively obvious foreshadowing throughout the entire story that is undetectable on the first read, then you have given your book two lives in the hands of the reader. This is what makes horror stories like The House Next Door require a second read. We go back to the beginning and discover that all of the signs of trouble were there in the first few pages of the novel.
Tease the Reader:
Once you’ve established a solid foundation, now you can start building the tension. But don’t rush! Take your time by giving your readers quick glimpses at what’s under the blanket without pulling it off entirely. One way you can do this is by using foreshadowing to signal to the reader that something is amiss. Another is you can start changing the protagonist's comfort zone in small ways like slightly moved or misplaced items or introducing new people. You can also use common uncanny imagery such as inanimate objects, the dead coming to life, giving your characters doppelgängers, having your character notice repeating numbers or phrases, having something massive in scale, putting the protagonist in claustrophobic situations, changing people's bodies in strange and unusual ways, hint to the reader that your protagonist is being watched, etc. These are all ways of getting the ball rolling in terms of making your story unnerving. At the end of the day, true tension is all about what you don’t know. Fear arises from the unknown, so the anonymous caller on the phone, the scratching on the door, the shadow in the water–these are all teases to create suspense about what’s to come.
Scare Your Reader:
We’ve already gone over how to unsettle your reader, but once you’ve done that, now is the time to scare them. The best way to do this is to understand what scares YOU. Everyone is afraid of something, so find what that is for you and embrace it. Submerge yourself in fear and take note of how it makes you feel. If you are afraid of spiders, find one and observe it. You don’t have to touch it, this isn’t exposure therapy, be look at it and get close enough that you feel a little scared. Then pull that feeling apart. What is making you feel that way specifically? The number of legs? The number of eyes? The tiny hairs on something that shouldn’t have hair at all? The way they move, frantic unpredictable movements of a creature made of pure desperation, a creature that clearly will do whatever it takes to survive even if the danger it faces is infinitely larger? And how do all these things you’ve identified make you feel, either emotionally or physically? Where does the fear sit in your body? Do your lungs tighten? How about your heart? Maybe your whole chest gets tight and you can’t breathe so well and you can think straight? Maybe if your fear is more existential the fear sits in your gut like a rock, that feeling of needing to run but you’ll always be too heavy and too slow but it doesn’t matter because there’s nowhere to hide. Being familiar with what scares you, how it scares you, and why it scares you, alongside the sensations involved will allow you to instill this same terror in your readers. Your readers may not be afraid of spiders, but if you can replicate the experience well enough for them, then they will, at the very least, be afraid of your spiders.
Move Toward a Payoff:
You’ve set up a safe setting, you twisted and distorted that setting, and then had the protagonist confront scary experiences. What’s next? The climax. This is where all of the tension you’ve been building up throughout your story is released, so it is important to have the payoff meet the expectations created by that tension. The best way to do this is to TAKE YOUR TIME. If your story is a car crash, then when the two cars collide you want to slow down time. Follow the cracks and crumples of the metal and plastic as the two cars meet and fold under the pressure of each other. Show the glass shuttering from the impact and finally shattering from the center outwards. You get the idea. Whatever your big moment is, don’t make it smaller by rushing it. Your readers have eaten their dinner vegetables and all, so let them enjoy their dessert.
End with a Bang:
If you’ve made it this far, you can fly the plane. Now it’s time to stick the landing. In horror, you want the ending of your story to sit with your readers long after they’ve finished reading. Your first instinct may be to kill the protagonist. If your readers were invested in them, then their death will definitely stick with them, right? While this may be true and can be done successfully, you also run the risk of your readers feeling slighted or like their time was wasted. This may also have the opposite effect and may make it so the reader thinks of your story LESS after they're done. After all, why would they be invested in the story if the character they cared about the most is gone? Instead of killing your protagonist, consider fates worse than death.
A good example is the famous “The Licked Hand'' urban legend. One of the classic campfire stories you probably remember hearing as a kid, it’s about a girl who is left home alone for a night with her dog. Whenever she hears a strange sound, she holds out her hand for the dog under her bed to lick. When she awakes in the morning, she finds her dog dead, and spelled on the wall with the dog's blood is “Humans can lick too”. The reason this story keeps getting told at sleepovers across the country is because of how well-crafted it is. It has a protagonist you don’t want to see hurt, a home that is made unfamiliar by strange noises, foreshadowing with the dripping sound that is revealed to have been the dog's blood, and the slow build up, followed by a horrifying scene that involves a dog corpse. All of these elements already make for a terrifying classic, but pay attention to the ending. The girl is not only alive, but she is also not physically harmed in any way. It is the psychological terror of knowing too late what danger you were in that gives this story its staying power. If you want your story to be just as memorable, then show your readers that there are many things scarier than dying.
Hopefully, this article helped to stave off the writer's block madness (although in this genre maybe a little madness is a good thing).
For regular updates on more articles, as well as current and future events, be sure to follow @RU_WritersHouse on twitter, @Rutgers English on Facebook, and @ru_writershouse on Instagram.