Toolbox 15: Horror Writing

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.


I’ve read all kinds of how-to writing manuals. That said, I know that I won’t write romance, but some of my stories will have romantic elements. I include several genre elements in my work, so why not horror.

It’s October and during this month I watch, read and eat up horror stories.

Stephen King built his career on horror in the early years. Some quotes to consider:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
― Stephen King

“There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”
― Stephen King

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” 
― Stephen King

My favorite is psychological

Some people imagine blood and guts when it comes to horror. I don’t. I’m more of the person who makes sure the windows and doors are locked because I suddenly suspect there is a vampire outside. I’m all about atmosphere and the creepy feeling that doesn’t go away after the story is over.

It’s exhilarating, and to me that’s horror!

It starts off in a normal world we are all familiar with. Then slowly changes into a world no one else would recognize.

Why it works

Horror has monsters—human and otherwise.

Darkness brings an element of the unknown it. Degrees of shadows that warp everything from playgrounds, and backyards to our neighbor’s face. Friendly streets become sinister when the lights flicker off.

We can’t help but instinctively want to avoid the imagined danger.

A flashlight is just a flashlight swinging in someone hand. But when it falls to the ground and rolls to a stop, it changes.

Without the deepened shadows, we’d easily see the fellow who dropped the flashlight bending over to pick it up.

And if we can’t see what’s there?

For all we know something’s lurking. Possibly behind the flashlight carrier. When the flashlight falls and is left untouched, there is only one answer. The answer is unique to each of our imaginations. If it frightens us, and we can’t call for help, the most we might do is watch as the batteries die.

Already imagining what we’ll find only inches from the Maglite come dawn.

Suspense is not Horror

Just as not all fingers are thumbs and all thumbs are fingers.

Suspense and tension are in all good stories. We want the reader to care. To feel the emotional escalation that drives the page turner.

Horror uses suspense with a mix of the fear factor (maybe sprinkled with the terror of it all) to drive the story forward.

Heroes are different too

In horror, we count on the hero doing more than we would dare. It has become cliché for a hero, alone and unarmed, to hear a sound and pursue it into a dark basement. It’s a cliché for a reason, fellow horror lovers.

Heroes offer hope. Out of all the things that happen, one person might live.  And when we watch or read on, we need our hero to fearlessly face what scares them most. They jeopardize their lives saving others or trying to.  To feel the failure, the heartache and shake it off long enough to try one last time.

Survival brings with it a giddiness that makes life sweeter, even if we still carry a little fear with us afterward.

Are you writing any horror this month? Reading some? Tell me about it.

Also: I’ve joined Wattpad. If you’re there too, let me know. Link’s on the sidebar. 😉

Gleaned from:

81 responses to “Toolbox 15: Horror Writing

  1. Good post for Halloween! You’re right, suspense is not horror. In horror, villains and heroes do the unspeakable.

  2. Heroes definitely offer us hope, even more so in horror stories. I’m not writing or reading horror this month, but I’d love to see the new Halloween movie.

  3. Great post to get me in the mood for Halloween!

  4. I have creature horror flash fiction due this month, so I’ll be working on that, and the next GhostWriters book, which is supernatural suspense and plenty spooky.

    I love psychological horror, and am a big fan of antiheroes. Great post!

  5. Great post and the perfect time of year. Have a happy Halloween!
    sherry @ fundinmental

  6. Hi Anna! Your post totally just got me in the Halloween spirit. 🙂 I’m sick right now, and I think a horror movie might be just the thing for me. 🙂 I added you on Wattpad. The picture for the link to wattpad in your sidebar didn’t show up for me. I had to guess where it was.

  7. I don’t read a lot of horror books – or even watch horror movies. But I have just attempted writing a ghost story for Halloween – Calan Gaeaf Hapus

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I tend to stay away from the horror genre, whether in books or movies, but there are some psychological thrillers that I can get into. Also, I’m taking a sustainable agriculture class right now, and we just wrapped up a discussion on horror movies and depictions of rural spaces/people and plants in horror movies! It’s an interesting genre!

  9. I also prefer psychological horror. It’s the anticipation, the sense of something that’s about to happen, that lies at the heart of great moments in suspense and fear.

    Once the “something” happens, no matter how horrible, audiences know the scope of the “something”, but until that moment, audiences are suspended in uncertainty.
    That’s why “the dark” is so potent. Anything could be in the dark. When I was younger I was afraid of the dark, and part of my strategy to resolve it was to study monsters and populate the dark with creatures that were known, creatures that could be defeated.

    In regards to horror this month, I’m revisiting old favorites like Hellbound Heart, Coraline, Thief of Always, and HP Lovecraft.
    I’m not currently writing any horror, but I do have a couple pieces on my to do list.

    I find that when I write horror, I often like to explore that very Lovecraftian theme of “knowledge is a burden”. The hero doesn’t want to realize the horror of what’s happening, or the horror of what they’ve done. One of my favorite motifs is a protagonist who struggles to unravel a mystery, only to uncover that they themselves are the monster who perpetrated it, and then chose to forget to escape the guilt. And now, at the end, they have a choice, to forget again, or to pay the price for their misdeeds, even though they are not currently the person who did or is even capable of them. I think there’s something extra potent about horror stories where the true horror is being confronted with the monster within the self, the truth no one wants to learn.

    Happy Halloween!

  10. I have never tried to write real horror. Spooky yeah. I will be writing a short for Storytime Blog Hop on Oct 31st. Have not decided yet if will try for horror or just spooky. Thought I would go for the Halloween theme this year since it falls on Halloween. Enjoyed the post tips. Thanks.

  11. Great tips on writing horror 🙂 I’ve tried writing it, but prefer dark fantasy (more psychological horrors than icky guts and gore).
    Here’s a short horror piece I wrote in 2016 that makes me think I’m brilliant at everything (LOL): Blood and Ice

    Ronel visiting on Author Toolbox blog hop day: Running Your Author Empire

  12. I’m with you. I LOVE the art of suspense in writing. Gore doesn’t interest me. I’m not looking for shock. I’m looking for the story and the anticipation. I’m thinking of the Alien Movie series and how I love the first one so much because of the art of suspense. I admit, I haven’t attempted horror yet, but I have read quite a few books that work for me. Happy Hop Day 🙂

  13. Louise@DragonspireUK

    I wish i could write better horror, and practising it is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Perhaps this October’s a good time to start? Psychological horror is my favourite too, and by favourite I mean the type that terrifies me most!

  14. I’m all about the creep factor and the atmosphere, too. I don’t mind a little blood and guts mixed in with my horror, but I don’t care for the splatter stuff.

    • Splatter? That word made me think of ‘Dead and Loving it’ with Leslie Nielsen. A Mel Brooks’ film.

      There is one scene where the hero is being trained on how to stake a vampire. I was so grossed out and laughing so hard…. I guess you had to be there. 😉

  15. I definitely get the seasonal itch for horror, though I don’t read or watch a lot of it at other times. I’m always on the lookout for great short stories. Got any recs for great ones in the horror genre? (There are some creepypastas that are very scary; have you encountered any of those?)

  16. Haven’t really read horror but have read suspense. I do watch horror especially around the Halloween season. Don’t think I’ll ever write horror though. I’m one of those people who get fed up and yell at the TV when the character runs towards the noise, goes into the wood, the cemetery, etc. Most likely will throw my computer across the room before I can finish writing my MC doing any of those things.

  17. Love your take on horror, and I agree with all of it. Splatterpunk and gore are really not my thing, I like more atmospheric suspense as you do! Currently reading Pet Sematary since the reboot is coming soon!

    • Pet Sematary and Cujo had me walking away from Stephen King for years. I was pretty young…

      And didn’t like the kids being hurt (even a little). I’m such a baby. 😦

  18. I think there’s something wrong with your wattpad link. It doesn’t show an image to me, and when I clicked it, it sent me to an embed, and when I clicked that, then I got to your wattpad page.

    I’m not big on horror, just because I don’t like being scared, but oddly, The Grudge was my first date with my husband! 🙂 And it took me by surprise when someone referred to my novella, This World Bites, as horror. I’m all “it’s humor” but they considered it horror just because it had zombies and other monsters in it.

    • Okay, third times the charm. I’ve tried to fix my Wattpad link again. Fingers crossed, visitors…

      By definition horror has monsters. So there is that. I don’t see why it can’t have comedy as well. I’m thinking again of ‘Dead and Loving it”.

      And I loved The Grudge. So creepy. hehehe

  19. I just started watching Pet Sematary (still wondering why it’s spelled that way… must find out) and love the creepy atmosphere. I generally like creepy stuff too! Nice post.

  20. I’m on wattpad too. I’ll connect with you there. Great post today!

  21. Such a wonderful discussion, Anna. I don;t write horror stories but I sure read and review a bunch.

  22. I find psychological horror more terrifying than creature features and slashers. Loved getting your thoughts on it.

  23. Great post. One type of horror that I like is where the characters can’t trust what’s real and what isn’t. But that’s not to say I can’t enjoy other types. In fact, tomorrow night Britt and I are doing a double bill of the original 1978 Halloween, immediately followed by the new release. Fun times.

  24. I’m not a fan of horror per se (I’m the one who walked out of Pet Semetary), but stories need a level of suspense (just like many stories need a romantic thread).

  25. This is excellent – I firmly agree that an element of psychological fear is the best way to really hammer horror home! Also, with horror vs suspense, I think you’re right on the money; suspense should be in EVERY story whether its horror or not!

  26. This is a really good explanation of the horror genre. It’s not one I read very often (too many nightmares), but when I do, I think the psychological fear is creepier at times than actual physical monsters etc.

  27. Victoria Marie Lees

    While I still can’t read horror, I’m afraid the locks aren’t strong enough; I do believe what you state about writing in general. My favorite line in your post is: Suspense and tension are in all good stories.

    Thanks so much for all you share with your fellow writer, Anna. All best to you.

  28. Whatever you’re drawn to embrace it. Even if it’s a mixture of everything, do it. The stories pick us.

  29. Hi, Anna,

    I really enjoyed your post! I also like your explanation of what HORROR is. I was never big for the blood and guts stuff, but the chill, the suspense, the terror of the unknown. Like you I LOCK THE DOORS. LOL..

    The WEP is hosting VOODOO and Deju vu entries, some are amazing with that spine tingling horror, so you may want to drop by and read of few. Please drop by my blog when you have a chance. I think you’ll enjoy my entry, Its’ another snippet of my MOMMY KAY memoir. Several commenters mentioned they loved the horror element to it…

  30. Not sure I could ever write horror. My forte is humor and whimsy.

  31. Horror… not a genre I’m familiar or fond of. I’ll probably never write anything remotely close to it, and I certainly never read it. When a movie comes recommended, I watch it, but I can’t say I like it either. Yet, I find it interesting the way you mention that horror (or the monster within) is part of living beings. Now, that’s interesting! 🙂

  32. Horror is one genre I can’t write. I could add elements of horror to a story, maybe a paranormal story, for a scene here and there, but to really write a true horror story? I just don’t think I have it in me.

  33. this was a great post, especially since Halloween is just around the corner.

  34. This post is inspired.
    I love horror stories and you are right, people have different perception of horror.
    For me it’s the scilence,the chill, the adrenaline rush.
    The horror combined with twists makes a story, live for centuries.

  35. I’ve written 2 short horror storues. One is a ghost story that starts off with 2 couples on a date. Its very romantic but i think that helps make the story more harrowing once the horror kicks in.

  36. I’m so sorry you’ve lost your publishing homes. Its very difficult for small press to survive today, isn’t it? Have you tried Dancing LeMurs Press?

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