Updated: Jan 17
Have you ever thought about sharing a scary story online? If you enjoy writing, no matter the genre, there’s something intrinsically appealing about horror. Trying to freak readers the heck out is both a joy and a challenge. If being a door-to-door nightmare dispenser appeals to you but you haven’t taken that first poke at the page yet, I gathered advice and thoughts from some of my favorite online horror writers about how they walk the long, deserted road from idea to story.
What scares you?
Defining horror is never easy. Everyone has different fears, phobias, reactions, regrets, worries. When it comes to telling scary stories, I’ve always liked to aim for “danger at a distance.” At the root of it all, horror should tickle the lizard brain and make the reader uneasy, uncertain. Common fears are often the oldest ones: fear of the dark, of being trapped in tight spaces, of falling, and of unseen things that fix their attention on us. So much of it goes back to genetic-hardwiring back when our ancestors hid in caves at night. They’d huddle around fires telling stories trying to keep themselves distracted while hungry horrors thumped and slid around outside in the dark.
We do the same thing now, only replace the sizzle of a fire with the glow of a screen.
I asked some fellow NoSleep writers what scares them personally and how they transmute that onto the page:
According to u/rehnwriter, one of the most terrifying concepts is the fragility of reality. How easy it could be that everything around us is a lie, unanchored.
“What if we’re all just brains in a vat?”-Rehn
This is commonly referred to as Simulation Theory. It’s one of the oldest terrors. The first night that a human slept, we collectively started dreaming. And with the original dream we also got the primordial nightmare. When the line between waking and dreaming, reality and imagination blurs, that sanity-vertigo can make you want to fold into a little ball and scream. That hopeless awe is the inspiration behind most eldritch horror.
Ultimately, the most common fear is the simplest one: fear of the unknown. There is nothing as frightening as not knowing but still dreading. Human imagination is capable of building beautiful, monstrous, mind-breaking designs.
From Fear to Ink
Now that we talked a little about the basics of horror, let’s get into the messy translation of writing. How do you brainstorm ideas then rip them out of your brain and nail them, squirming, to the page?
When it comes to generating the first spark that can evolve into a story, there are a few approaches worth taking. The simplest is just to leave yourself open to ideas. If you feed your imagination a steady diet of books and music and horror and art and anything else that transports you to other worlds and perspectives, you’ve probably been struck by the sneaky arrows of inspiration.
I asked u/CommonGrackle where some of her ideas come from:
“Literally, shower thoughts. I'll just be chilling there, washing my hair and my brain goes, "what if ducks were bigger and very aggressive carnivores?" I think having an active imagination that cannot be reined in is part of what makes writers who they are.”
The trouble with ideas is that they can be quick, slick, hard-to-catch. They’re stealthy, too, and an idea might be there and gone before you even realize it. If your goal is writing, in any genre, teaching yourself to recognize the random thoughts that might grow into plots is essential. I’d recommend taking notes, either by hand or on your phone. Jot down anything that leaps out to you over the course of the day whether it’s something usual you see, a dream, the way a song makes you feel. The more you get used to catching all ideas in motion, the better you’ll become at recognizing the ones with potential.
Staying open to inspiration is great but sometimes you need to be more active in tracking down the story. Both CommonGrackle and I agree that putting yourself in a comfortable place, turning on some music, and brainstorming can get the ideas flowing. Rehn likes to create outlines but usually only rough ones, the bones of a house that he can connect as he sees fit during the story. I usually avoid outlines unless it’s long-form fiction like a novel. Whether you’re a planner or a seat of your pantser, here are some good tips I found from author Jeff Goins on breaking Writer’s Block: https://goinswriter.com/how-to-overcome-writers-block/
Making Your Monsters
You’re sitting down at your computer or typewriter or with a tattoo gun and a long stretch of human skin. You have fears that you want to share, the spark of a story, maybe an outline or at least some solid bullet points to investigate.
Haunted house. Sound in the crawlspace. Dolls moving around the house. Demonic toaster. WiFi stealing serial killer, etc.
Now that you have the body parts, how do you sew them all together? Where does your story go?
Anywhere. That’s the exceptional thing about horror. Everything can be scary. You cut your own road through those spooky woods. A few notes to keep in mind.
Nothing is scarier
As in, the reader’s imagination will freak them out more than anything we can do. Try to provide enough atmosphere and information to trigger those imaginations without revealing every aspect of your scare.
A good rule of thumb is: don’t show your monster’s zippers. The shark in Jaws is terrifying because 90% of the time, it’s only a presence. When the audience does finally see the shark, it’s only glimpses amid chaos. The xenomorph in Alien is nearly always shown in shadow. Peeks and pieces. You can do the same when writing descriptions. Let us know enough about the monster to fear it but we don’t need to see every spike and spine. A good horror story is like a good marriage: try to always leave a little mystery.
Pick the right perspective for the narrative
Is this psychological horror where it benefits the experience to view the plot through the eyes of the narrator in first-person?
Or would the wide-angle overhead of a third-person point-of-view play to the story’s strengths? There’s no hard rule for either but third-person is often effective for world-building while first-person is fantastic at diving into characters.
Then there’s third-person, limited, omniscient, the narrator as a device versus narrator as a character, perspective hopping. Don’t sweat it too much, especially in the first draft. Just write and see what voice and view develop naturally.
Of course, where you plan on posting your story can influence how you tell it. Some sites have rules for first versus third, wordcount caps, and other guidelines that need to be considered. Next time we’ll chat about what to do with your story once it’s finished, where you can post it, and ways to grow your audience while making some revenue off of your content.