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Finding the Fear by Steve Shrott

Writing Horror short stories can be a lot of fun. In many ways they’re the same as other stories. You need a great idea, an intriguing protagonist, and an exciting conclusion.

However, horror stories differ in that they need to spook the reader. Writers from other genres have confessed that they sometimes find this part difficult.

They say that while they’re able to make the reader experience happiness and sadness in their other stories, scaring them is a completely different matter.

So to help those of you who feel horror-challenged, here are some tips.

   1) Write it Down

The best way to learn how to scare people (at least in stories) is to read a lot of horror.

After you’re read a story, try and analyze what the author did to make it frightening to you. It might be the words they used, the characters, or the situation, maybe all of them. Perhaps it’s something else entirely.

If you keep at this, eventually, the techniques of writing horror will come easier to you.

2) Begin with Fear

I’ve always believed you should indicate the genre of your story right from the start. Immediately, show your reader that your tale is going to be scary. After all that’s why she wanted to read it.

Some writers begin with a chilling opening line. Others start even earlier with a scary title.

You certainly don’t have to indicate the horror aspect that quickly. However, I do believe you should have some element of horror within the first paragraph or at least page.

3) Stay Away from the Obvious

 There are a lot of horror stories out there so to capture your reader’s interest, do something different. Create a new creature/situation.

How do you know if what you’re written is original?

You read lots of horror to see what’s been done before.

You can also take an idea that you’ve seen, and tweak it so it becomes original. Have your vampire turn into a crow rather than a bat, make your zombie fly.

4) Create Fears

Some books suggest that you make a list of your fears and then use one of those as the basis for your story.

The problem with this, for me, is that many of us have the usual fears–darkness, being in enclosed spaces etc. These have been used in countless published stories.

So my suggestion is to make a list of unusual fears, and try to create a story from those. You might also make up your own weird ones.

5) Trap Your Character

Whatever fear you character has, you should trap her in a situation where she experiences that fear.

So for example, if your character is squeamish about cats that happen to have three legs, put her in a house with many creepy three-legged felines. If your protagonist constantly has nightmares of being stuffed alive into a coffin, then, create a story where she ends up in that situation.

6) Use all kinds of Horror

 When I teach my comedy course, I always suggest writers use various types of humor in their stories to make them more interesting. I believe you should do the same in this genre.

Stephen King suggests that there are three varieties of horror. The first is the gross type. It might be that a slimy creature crawls up the janitor’s back or a dry cleaner’s head rolls off his body and falls into the machinery in his shop.

Another type is where people or animals go against nature. For example, a baby rat becomes a hundred times bigger or an optometrist develops a third eye.

The third variety is more cerebral. Perhaps a dog walker believes that one of her dogs is telling the others what to do. Maybe a man wakes up one day and realizes that his apartment is shrinking.

 7) Bad Decisions

 Once your protagonist is involved in a ‘horror’ situation, a good way to escalate the story is to have him respond with the wrong decision.

At the time he thinks it’s the right one. We’ve seen that in movies where several people have been killed in the creepy house down the street. But the protagonist goes back inside the house just the same. This creates more problems.

Keep in mind that the decisions the character makes must seem reasonable to the reader. Otherwise it takes away from the integrity of the story.

8) Drop in a Monster

Most of us don’t believe monsters exist. Yet, when they appear in a story, it still makes one’s heart beat a little faster.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that they look so different from us. Another is that they don’t operate with the same rules that we do.

Of course, there’s also the fact that most monsters kill people.

But all this is why monsters are so intriguing. They definitely help carry your reader along in the story. So think about dropping in a monster.

9) Keep it Spooky

Once you’ve established that your story is going to be a scary ride, the next step is to continue the creepy atmosphere throughout the tale. One way to do this is through your descriptions.

The right words or phrases can help a lot. You might talk about the air as ‘decaying,’ or ‘smelling like a witch’s brew.’

Instead of calling a man, thin, you could say he is ‘skeletal.’ You might call someone’s smile, ‘disturbing.’

The idea is to make your readers feel the oppressive nature of your story.

10) Make it Unknown

H. P. Lovecraft once said that “the strongest fear is the fear of the unknown.”

When you watch a horror movie, you’ll notice that while they may share some of the horror with us, the viewer, they tend to keep a portion of it hidden till later in the story.

You might see what a creature has done to one of the characters, but you don’t see the actual creature for a long while.

This is effective as it creates tension and suspense. In short stories it works the same way. Introduce the horror element and then gradually reveal more.

11) Transmit the Fear

 In life when one person is frightened, the fear often transmits to others. So when we write a character that is spooked by something, the reader will experience that fear as well. This can be used to good effect in short stories.

The key is to have the reader identify with your main character. One way to do this is telling your story in first person. Edgar Allen Poe wrote many tales in this POV, probably for that very reason.

However, you can also get the reader to identify with the protagonist in third person by making them seem like the average Joe or Jo-Ann.

If I write something in first person and it doesn’t appear to be working, I will often switch it to the third person POV to see if it’s scarier.

12) Use the Ordinary

 Every day each of us experiences many of the same situations. We get up, go to work, make dinner, sleep etc. Adding a horror twist to one of these can be a great starting point for a short story.

You might have a woman making soup for her family. This seems quite normal until she opens up a can, and instead of beans, a strange creature pops out.

Perhaps a 1958 Plymouth Fury you just bought starts developing a mind of its own (Christine—Stephen King.)

I hope these tips help you write your scary short story. If you want to learn more, join me for my workshop on writing the horror short story.


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Steve Shrott is an award-winning comedy writer who has been affectionately nick-named, "Comedy writer to the stars." He has written for a vertible "Wh...

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