Updated: Jan 17
We’ve gone over the mechanics of writing that first scary story already. And we’ve talked about r/NoSleep, one of the most popular places on the internet to share horror fiction. If you are at all interested in spreading some friendly nightmares around the world, NoSleep is worth checking out. However, it’s a hyper-competitive environment where 90% of stories posted each day get buried, or removed, or buried then removed in the creative writing equivalent of digging up old bodies just to toss them over a cliff.
If your goal is to have a story standout on NoSleep, I’m afraid there is no guaranteed trick or silver bullet. But there are several steps you can take to improve your chances of a post catching on getting a few hundred, or thousand, readers.
Read the Rules
The first tip is the simplest; check overall r/NoSleep’s rules. There are...a good number. Some of them are subjective and difficult to guess. Most are straightforward(ish). You can find posting guidelines here. Having a story removed is not a pleasant feeling. If you’re careful, you should be able to keep most stories between the rails. Any time there’s doubt, you have the option of contacting the moderation team via modmail and asking them to review your post before you submit it. Just be prepared to wait while they check over the story. The mods also might ask you to make some edits.
Personally, I follow the rules as closely as I can then try my luck posting directly. I’ve posted roughly 30 stories to NoSleep and only ever had two removed (one of which I was able to appeal and re-post with no edits). Shoot your best shot, try to get a feel for the rules, and what stories are getting removed. Usually, even if a story is removed you can work with the mods to edit it then repost later. If you ever have a post taken down and it feels unfair, that’s a milestone nearly every NoSleep writer has experienced. Just remember to remain professional and calm when talking to the moderators, then go yell into a paper bag like the rest of us.
Titles, Little Flares in the Dark
NoSleep averages around 100 original posts per day. During that 24-hour period, 1-4 stories will jockey for the top spot on the feed, which provides anywhere from about 1k reads to 5k reads any given week. Occasionally, a post will catch fire and climb to 10k-15k+ reads over the following hours and days. The top post of all time on NoSleep accumulated 43.6k upvotes (Reddit’s method for measuring engagement) before it was locked in after six months.
The potential to have tens of thousands of readers interacting with your story will cause a lot of typewriters to start salivating ink, but keep in mind that the vast majority of stories posted to NoSleep don’t get traction. If 1-4 per day compete for the top spot, maybe 15 or 20 will rotate through the top 10, each getting somewhere from 50 to 500 upvotes. The remaining 80 or so stories usually won’t break into triple digits. So how can you make your submission stand out in the crowd? The first step is a vivid title.
You may be tempted to take extreme measures with your titles: all caps, no caps, writing the words backward, puns, promises, poetry, paragraphs, or wingdings. Know that all of those methods are on the table but if used indiscriminately, all you’re going to end up with is noise that readers will avoid. Clickbait, i.e. titles that provide a short summary of the story plus a hook, are extremely popular on NoSleep. Thematically, it makes sense; the subreddit is an online campfire for swapping scary stories, only with screens and hyperlinks instead of...bears.
If you were telling a friend a ghost story, you’d probably lead in with something along the lines of, “When I was the night security guard at a haunted muffin factory, I found a list of freaky rules.” Clickbait also incentives a reader to, well, click the story to find out what happens. I understand why the style is popular on NoSleep, but I don’t believe it’s at all necessary.
Looking back at some of the top stories of the past, a few trends leap out. The majority aren’t pure clickbait, which I’d categorize as two more sentences containing a set-up (I’m a semi-pro waffle whisperer with a heart of gold and nothing left to lose), and a pay-off ending in a hook (You won’t believe the dark future my breakfast warned me of this morning). There’s an eclectic mix of traditional lit titles, usually containing a few words, with a hybrid style between lit and click. Those titles often contain a single sentence posing a question or other subtle catch. The stories have a soft gravity, pulling in your attention without force or demands. Some of my favorites:
Have you heard of the Left/Right game?
A shattered life
If you’re armed at the Glenmont metro, please shoot me
I knew a woman who never took off her wedding dress
Even the popular titles that use multiple sentences tend to exercise restraint.
All of the women in my family die at age 27. I turn 28 in 2 hours and 32 minutes.
My girlfriend talks in her sleep. She's been saying the most horrible things recently…
The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. I’m not sure I want to live here anymore.
There is no formula for perfect titles that will always catch readers but try to create something that feels like it fits the story. Add some mystery, don’t be afraid to experiment. If all else fails, screw it, ALL CAPS TITLE. My favorite title of 2020 was simply titled:
FUCK ME, by Max Voynich.
Timing is Everything
A lot of new NoSleep writers will fall into the trap of watching the clock and attempting to predict the perfect hour to post. The truth is that NoSleep is an international platform that is active at nearly any time. Occasionally, holidays or events might diminish readership but it’s consistent on average. However, timing plays a critical role in whether or not a story does well on the subreddit. The key isn’t to watch the clock; what you want to look for is competition.
Once a post reaches the top spot on NoSleep’s “Hot” feed, it tends to stay there. Reddit is sharing that story with a lot of accounts who are subscribed to NoSleep. If you want your story to have legs, look for a window where the #1 story is about to start dropping and there’s nothing roaring up behind it. Reddit has a funky algorithm for rising and falling posts. Typically, you can expect “Hot” content to begin to drop in rankings after 10-20 hours depending on how much engagement it is getting.
A good rule of thumb is to wait until the top post on NoSleep is at least 12 hours old before you toss your story into the ring. If that top spot is still booming after being up that long, i.e., still raking in 1k or so upvotes per hour, you might want to give it a little extra time to cool off and look for a window around 14-16 hours.
You should also keep an eye out for trending stories on Hot or New. If a fresh post has 100+ upvotes within the first two hours it’s most likely going to rise faster than a helicopter made out of dozens of other tiny, efficient helicopters.
If you see a top story begin to dip without anything popular under it, congratulations, you’ve found an excellent window to post.
Please keep in mind that you don’t need to wait for that window. Stories shoot to the top even against heavy competition every week. Be patient, look for a good spot, but don’t stress about timing too much. You don’t want to end up holding onto your story for months because you were waiting for the exact optimal moment. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of pretty alright.
Besides, you’ve already got a banger of a title, right? That goes a long way. Besides title and timing, there’s one other major way to boost your chances of getting your fiction read (in addition to, you know, writing a completely kick-ass story).
Build an Audience
One of the most effective ways to connect to readers is to...already have some readers. How can I say something so controversial but so brave, right? Obviously, an established platform will help you reach a wider audience. Having followers improves the chances your story will get those critical early upvotes in its first few hours. But how do you gain followers? And what is the most effective way to use a following?
First, start a personal subreddit for your writing. Even if you haven’t posted a single story yet, create a sub. It’ll feel odd, maybe even a little self-indulgent, but you’ll thank me later. A personal subreddit gives you a platform on Reddit to collect all of your fiction (preferably in a pinned master post with links), to interact with readers, to create polls asking about future content, and as a focal point to connect followers to your other social media. Subs are also great for promoting projects you’re working on outside of Reddit like a book launch or a podcast or a YouTube channel dedicated to petting dogs. All dogs. Every dog on the planet. They deserve those pets.
What were we-
Subreddit. Definitely start one for yourself/your fiction. If you’re not sure how to structure it, check out some popular examples from NoSleep writers. I’m a fan of r/goatvalleycampgrounds, r/hercreation, r/TFTGS, r/ByfelsDisciple, and r/TheCrypticCompendium (which is a shared author sub I’m happy to be a part of). Once you have a sub, make sure to include a link to it at the end of your NoSleep posts so readers can find you. The link should be discreet; I usually embed mine in the last word of the story or in an “x” at the bottom of the post.
Now that you have a personal subreddit that is simply too legit to quit, it’s time to use it. After you post a story to NoSleep, you should create another post on your subreddit and/or personal Reddit user account with a link back to NoSleep. I always post a sample of the story to my subreddit with a link at the end which will take the reader to the full story on NoSleep. For example:
It was a dark and stormy breakfast. The waffles were covered in equal parts maple syrup and mystery. As I drank my orange juice, a noise alerted me to the SUPER ELECTRIC VAMPIRE THAT WAS CRAWLING THROUGH MY WINDOW.
You can read the rest here. (embedded link to full story)
I usually only post the story preview to my subreddit but you can also post to your profile if you have more followers than subs or post to both. However, don’t ask your followers or subs to upvote the story. Reddit considers that vote manipulation and you might face an account suspension or removal. Just drop a sample of the story, a link to the full content on NoSleep, and back away slowly. If your followers want to check it out, they will.
Hold ‘em, Fold ‘em
Sometimes, even when you do your best to make a splash with your story, it will end up fizzling out. That happens to all of us. It helps to think of NoSleep a bit like a slot machine. Even with the best odds, so much of it does depend on luck. Chasing upvotes is a great way to wind up with a big bucket of stress so try to write for yourself first and foremost. Share your stories because you love the craft; place a tap to your temple and let the nightmares leak out. You’ll gain readers along the way.
Stay spooky, friends.