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How to Write a Scary Story: 7 Tips for Writing a Terrifying Horror Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 3 min read

Horror is a genre within creative writing that relies on one thing: instilling a sense of fear in the reader. The horror genre is multifaceted—there is a kind of horror for every kind of person. For some, the most effective scare is the idea of being trapped in a haunted house. For others, it’s being chased by a serial killer on Halloween. The best horror comes from scary things that can manipulate an audience’s feelings, creating a sensation of uneasiness and fear that stretches beyond consciousness and permeates deep within the psyche.



7 Tips for Scaring Your Readers

Writing scary scenes is about more than picking a good thriller or horror premise—the way you write your story can also contribute to how scary it is. Good creepy stories rely on a blend of refreshed tropes, proper pacing, twist endings, and in some cases, strategically placed line breaks to build up and pay off the scary stuff. Whether you’re a horror writer crafting scary short stories or looking to write the next great horror novel, check out some of the writing tips below:

  1. Use the environment. Scary movies and television shows can use jump-scares as an easy way to frighten an audience, but writing scary literature requires its own method of manifesting fear. Setup your environment in a vivid way to fully immerse your readers into your setting. Vividly describing an enclosed space can elicit feelings of claustrophobia. A dark and quiet house becomes more frightening when a character suddenly hears the creak of an upstairs floorboard. Being an outsider in an unfamiliar place, like a small town with no cell phone service and where everyone knows each other, is already unsettling—and if you add a malicious paranormal force to such a setting, you can enhance the feeling of isolation and ramp up the anxiety of the scenario.
  2. Use your own fears. Let your own point of view on what is scary fuel the way you enhance the scariness of your writing—i.e. write what you know. If you’re scared of the open water, you’ll be able to better express the feelings of a character who wakes up on a raft in the middle of the ocean. If your biggest fear is flying, use that POV to encapsulate the feeling in a way that others who share your fear can relate to—don’t try to scare your audience with a werewolf if you can’t properly tap into that fear.
  3. Write longer sentences. You can heighten your readers’ fear by writing paragraphs with longer sentences. Periods provide natural pauses for readers to take a breath, but if you stretch out your sentences, you build anticipation for the reader—which they might not even realize until they reach the end of the sentence. By using tactics like this, you immerse the reader into your horror story, making them feel what the main character feels and creating a heart-pounding connection.
  4. Make your readers breathe faster. Whereas long sentences can amplify the intensity of a story, short one-sentence paragraphs can force your readers to take more frequent breaths while following your narrative. Crafting abrupt lines builds tension in your scary story writing, making the readers’ eyes move more quickly down the page searching for the relief that the protagonist is safe. This can make your audience breathe faster, contributing to the feeling of panic and anxiousness.
  5. Leverage fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown is a common theme that can be tracked throughout many of the best stories in horror fiction and horror movies. When there is something that negatively affects us that we cannot control or properly identify, it creates a feeling of panic and dread. Teasing your readers with something not quite definable or a bad guy no one knows how to stop can increase the level of tension and fear when writing horror stories.
  6. Avoid clichés. Clichés are boring and predictable, and a horror scene that is predictable is likely to not be scary. A good horror story can still use familiar horror tropes, but a great horror story makes them its own. Look beyond the obvious when trying to write a scary scene—what is something readers wouldn’t expect? How can you surprise them with fear?
  7. Practice. If you’re struggling to get a handle on writing a good story that’s scary, practice with story prompts. Writing prompts can expand your range of thinking and open up new avenues of imagination that you hadn’t thought of before.
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