How to Write Horror: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors

I was never much of a horror fan at first, but as I grew older, I realized that horror allows us to confront our deepest, darkest fears in a safe fictional setting, and it became far more interesting to me after that. 

My love for the genre eventually led me to try my own hand at writing horror stories (still unpublished). Over the years, I've learned a lot about the horror fiction craft through trial and error, advice from more experienced horror writers, and studying successful works in the genre. 

In this article, I want to share everything I've learned about writing horror in the hopes that it will help aspiring authors.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What the horror genre is
  2. All the different subgenres
  3. What makes a good horror story
  4. Step-by-step tips for writing horror effectively
  5. The typical plot structure of most horror stories

What is the Horror Genre?

Horror is a genre intended to make the audience feel fear, dread, disgust and unease. 

Unlike thrillers which focus on suspense and mystery, horror aims to provoke visceral reactions by showing the disturbing and the macabre.

The horror genre has its roots in ancient folklore and myths about evil spirits, monsters, the afterlife, and the occult. Some of the earliest known stories with horror elements are Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Homer's Odyssey, and the English poem Beowulf. 

Gothic horror as a genre emerged in the late 18th century with the classic horror novels like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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Types of Horror Stories

In the 20th century, horror fiction expanded into numerous subgenres:

  • Supernatural horror – Stories featuring ghosts, demons, cursed objects, unexplained entities, and paranormal phenomena. Eg. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
  • Monster horror – Tales focused on vicious monsters and creatures like vampires, werewolves, zombies, and aliens. Eg. Salem's Lot by Stephen King.
  • Body horror/Splatterpunk – Graphic depictions of gore and mutilation of the body. Eg. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker.
  • Psychological horror – Terror arising from the mind, perception, and sanity of characters. Eg. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.
  • Survival horror – People trapped in an isolated setting trying to escape a terrifying threat. Eg. The Mist by Stephen King.
  • Cosmic horror – Threats from malevolent cosmic entities beyond human comprehension. Eg. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Slasher horror – Serial killers stalking and murdering victims in gruesome ways. Eg. Psycho by Robert Bloch.
  • Paranormal horror – Uncanny events that contradict the laws of nature. Eg. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
  • Zombie horror – Stories focused on zombies or zombie apocalypse scenarios. Eg. World War Z by Max Brooks.

Horror books certainly aren’t limited to these types of genre, but they are some of the most common.

What Makes a Good Horror Story?

Not all horror fiction works. Great horror stories have some common qualities that elevate them above mediocre attempts at the genre:

  • Strong atmosphere and tone – The setting, choice of words, and imagery establishes a tense, creepy, and unsettling mood right from the start.
  • Suspense and tension – Keeping the audience guessing about what might happen next. Using mystery and thrill to build suspense.
  • Vulnerable characters – Having empathetic characters that the audience can relate to and worry for when danger approaches.
  • Creative monsters/villains – Original and frightening antagonists that pose a credible threat without seeming silly or contrived.
  • Blurring reality – Obscuring the line between the real and unreal to make the audience question what is actually happening.
  • Slow reveal – Withholding just enough information to tease the audience and make them keep reading to get answers.
  • Disturbing imagery – Visual descriptions intended to shock, repulse, and frighten, like gruesome death scenes.
  • Themes of dread – Touching on universal human fears and phobias – darkness, pain, disease, isolation, madness, death, etc.
  • Shocking twists – Surprising revelations that turn the story in an unexpected direction.

There is a reason why Stephen King is such a master of horror. When you read his book, you’ll notice that he hits almost all of these spot on.

What Are Some Common Horror Tropes?

Over the years, certain plot devices, archetypes and conventions have emerged as popular tropes within the broad scope of horror fiction:

  • The haunted house – A house inhabited by ghosts, poltergeists, or other malevolent entities. Eg. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
  • Serial killers – Charismatic but deranged serial murderers with peculiar motives and modus operandi. Eg. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.
  • Cursed objects – Innocuous items that bring misfortune and harm to their owners. Eg. The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs.
  • Man-eating monsters – Predatory creatures hunting humans as prey. Vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Eg. The Howling by Gary Brandner.
  • Evil children – Uncanny, sinister, or possessed kids. Eg. The Omen by David Seltzer.
  • Zombies – Reanimated corpses hungering for living flesh. Eg. Zone One by Colson Whitehead.
  • Torture devices – Elaborate contraptions used to torture victims. Eg. Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum.
  • Creepy small towns – Remote towns hiding dark secrets and sinister cults. Eg. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
  • Demonic possession – Loss of bodily control due to a demonic spirit. Eg. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.
  • Creepy basements – Dark, subterranean spaces hiding disturbing secrets or serving as gateways to the underworld.
  • Mad scientists – Eccentric, amoral researchers carrying out unethical experiments. Eg. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • Ancient curses – Malevolent supernatural forces punishing violations of taboo. Eg. The Mummy.
  • Sinister cults – Secretive religious sects with sinister agendas and occult practices. Eg. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Haunted asylums – Derelict psychiatric hospitals harboring tortured spirits of the dead.
  • Ghost ships/vehicles – Phantom or possessed modes of transport carrying a deadly curse. Eg. The Fog by John Carpenter.
  • Evil dolls/toys – Playthings possessed by wicked entities or springing to murderous life. Eg. Child's Play franchise.
  • Eldritch abominations – Grotesque monstrosities that induce madness and doom. Eg. The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Ancient burial grounds – Tombs and burial sites harboring vengeful spirits and curses. Eg. Pet Sematary by Stephen King.

While tropes can be useful shorthand for conveying certain ideas, overusing them can make stories seem unoriginal and predictable. The best horror writers use tropes selectively and put their own spin on them.

11 Tips to Write Horror

Here are some tips to guide you in crafting captivating horror fiction:

1. Read Plenty of Horror

As with any genre you want to write in, read lots of existing works in that style. Study how the masters of horror fiction like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Shirley Jackson create atmosphere, build tension, and deliver scares. 

Make notes on effective techniques you could incorporate into your own horror stories. Understanding what works will help you avoid bland clichés.

2. The Setting Creates the Atmosphere

Establish an ominous mood from the very first page through your descriptions of the setting and location. Use sights, sounds, smells and other sensory details to make the place seem creepy and foreboding. 

Isolation – trapping characters someplace inaccessible – can heighten a feeling of vulnerability against supernatural or deranged threats. Make the setting itself feel like a character, interacting and affecting the characters in sinister ways.

3. Mix Mortal Peril with Real-world Horror

While monsters can be scary, everyday real-world horrors resonate more profoundly. Stephen King often combines supernatural elements with psychological realism – dysfunctional families, abuse, addiction, grief – to ground the horror. 

The scariest stories feature threats that could plausibly exist in the real world, even if taken to fictional extremes. Readers find visceral, real-life horrors more affecting than fantastical monsters because they seem more likely to encounter them.

4. Ask Yourself What Frightens You?

Think about your own deepest fears and phobias. What scares you in real life? Bringing personal dread into your horror writing will make it more intense. For example, if you have a fear of losing your mind, you can channel that into stories about characters going insane or losing their grip on reality. 

Draw upon your nightmares, both sleeping and waking, as inspiration to explore the dark corners of your psyche.

5. Flesh Out Your Characters

Weak character development can ruin an otherwise scary tale. The audience has to care what happens to the characters for the story to have impact. Take the time to flesh out distinct, relatable personalities. Give each character clear motivations, quirks, strengths and flaws. Make them seem like real people so that when you subject them to horrific ordeals, the audience worries if they will survive.

6. Ground it in Real Life

While horror often features supernatural threats, grounding stories in a believable real-world setting makes them resonate more deeply. Have your characters react in natural ways, with all the confusion, disbelief and denial actual people would exhibit. 

The mundane details of real life juxtaposed with the bizarre enhances the fright factor. Keeping supernatural elements to a minimum also gives your story a veneer of plausibility that augments the horror.

7. Personalize the Stakes

Generic horror tales are easy to shrug off, but when characters we care for are imperiled, we get invested in their predicament. Build up emotional connections between characters early on so that later we truly fear for them. 

Have threats target their vulnerabilities or personalities in some way. Personalized stakes make a horror story more intimate, raising the tension level.

8. Happy Moments Increase the Tension

While horror is often bleak, moments of hope, humor or tender character connections provide contrast that amplifies the darker elements of your story. After a traumatic event, show characters clinging to cherished memories or optimism to survive emotionally. 

Brief interludes where everything seems like it might be okay lull the reader into lowering their guard before you unleash the next shock or threat.

9. Preserve the Secrecy of the Antagonist

The greatest fear comes from the unknown. Give only hints about the nature and origin of supernatural entities or villains in your story. Keep their appearances brief and clouded in shadow. 

The less readers understand the threat, the more their imaginations will conjure something uniquely chilling. Allow the audience's mind to fill in the blanks with their own deepest dreads.

10. Jumpscares Do Not Make a Horror Story

Cheap jump scares that briefly startle through loud sounds or sudden activity are not enough to carry a horror narrative. These should be used sparingly for occasional shock value. 

True horror comes from sustained atmosphere, engaging characters in peril, and tapping into primal fears. Unnerving psychological dread will stay with a reader long after a jump scare's momentary surprise fades. Don't rely on them as a crutch.

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Plot Structure of Most Horror

While not universally followed, many successful horror stories adhere to a three-act dramatic structure that does some of the following:

Act 1: Setting Up the Situation

  • The Hidden Monster – Hint at the existence of a sinister threat through ominous events and unexplained phenomenon. Keep the audience guessing.
  • Introducing the Characters – Establish the characters, their relationships, and individual fears or weaknesses that can be exploited later. Make the audience care about them.
  • The Inciting Incident – A events which initiates the problem and draws the characters into dangerous circumstances or the path of the threat. The point of no return.
  • Meeting the Monster – The characters first come face-to-face with the threat, confirming its frightening nature or powers. Still keeps secrets for later.

Act 2: Rising Tension

  • The Turning Point – An event that escalates the peril and leaves the characters vulnerable to the monster/threat at the halfway point. Raises the stakes.
  • The Pursuit – The antagonist now relentlessly pursues the protagonists. Creates a constant sense of danger as the threat closes in.
  • The First Failed Confrontation – The hero or heroes attempt to defeat the threat but are unable to for some reason. Increases desperation.
  • All Is Lost – A low point where the characters seem totally helpless and all hope is lost. The threat will prevail.

Act 3: The Climax

  • The Breakthrough – The heroes rally, resolve their inner turmoil, and discover a way they might vanquish the threat at the last possible moment.
  • The Final Confrontation – The protagonists confront and do battle with the threat, either defeating it or failing nobly with consequences.
  • The “Death” – The demise, usually of the threat itself. However, one or more characters may also perish for a melancholy resolution, or there is a psychological death of some kind.
  • The Fallout – Wrap up the aftermath, showing how characters and the world at large were impacted and changed. Evil might still lurk, awaiting a sequel.

While there is more to a horror story than just these elements, this should hopefully allow you to get started writing your next horror story, and getting those words on the page.

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