Writing scary stories

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I thought to celebrate Halloween, this week I’d look at writing horror. Horror is a genre that can easily fall into cliché traps. Clichés such as the creepy hotel, the hidden room, the character with multiple personalities, the evil child.

Clichés are a problem because they create boring writing with no imagination behind it. These clichéd storylines can be used only if they are approached in a new and exciting way that can push the reader’s mind away from the expected.

But what really frightens us? Is it the man down the road who everyone knows is a witch? Is it the ghost you see in the dining room on Saturdays? The vampire banging on your front door? Or, is it a finger brushing across your face in the dark, in a room that you are positive is empty?

The last one is the scariest- right? But why? What is it that we humans are most scared of? It is not the known: the man who we know is a serial killer or the monster in the window. What scares us the most is the unknown. The unexplained sound. An eerie light on an empty dusty road at night. A breath on the back of your neck when you get into your empty car. The unknown is scary. So your job as a horror writer is to create scenes and storylines where the fear is unknown for the bulk of the story.

One way to do this is by withholding information. Don’t let the reader know it is a ghost story on the first line or a zombie apocalypse in the first paragraph. Drop clues. Give reasonable explanation for those unknown happenings. Trick the reader, take them down a path that seems alright and then slowly introduce information that shows that it is very, very far from that.

In horror, there are two aspects of the writing craft that you must give some special attention: setting and character. If you have a believable, likeable character that the readers can relate to, the horrible things that are happening to the character will keep the reader captivated. Who cares if a vampire bites a flat, boring character? The reader might even be rooting for it to happen.

Description of the setting in horror is also important. Discordant settings work well. Happy, secure, beautiful settings that turn on the reader and become part of the enemy are good.

It is best to write in first person or third for horror. Second person is not effective at all. As in all good writing, showing not telling is the key. Look at these examples:

Example 1: I looked up and on the road in front of the car was a woman crying. I became very scared.

Example 2: I looked up and on the road in front of the car was a woman crying. As my body tensed and my breathing sped up, I checked the doors were locked. Something was not right about her.

You can see in the first one how ineffective it is to tell your reader the character is scared. It is much better to show it. That is what will instil the fear in your reader.

This Halloween why not try your luck at writing a few horror stories. Below are some magazines waiting for you to submit to them- good luck!

1. Nightmare- They accept submissions through their online system. From their website: “Nightmare is seeking original horror and dark fantasy stories. All types of horror and dark fantasy are welcome. No subject should be considered off-limits, and we encourage writers to take chances with their fiction and push the envelope.”

2. Dark Moon Digest- Submit online at their website. From their website: “Dark Moon Digest is looking for quality short stories and flash fiction for future issues. Any category or topic will be accepted as long as it is in the horror genre. There are no deadlines for submitting your work as submissions will be selected for future issues, so submit at your leisure.” 

3. Aghast- They are accepting submissions by email at [email protected] .  From their website: “Aghast is looking for original, unpublished horror and dark fantasy short stories and longer works of fiction. We prefer supernatural and weird tales. We’re unlikely to publish stories featuring serial killers, werewolves, vampires or zombies. Science fiction is okay if it’s dark.” Short Fiction: 1500-7000 words. 5000 words or less is best. Flash Fiction: 250-1000 words. Novellas/Novelettes: 10k-30k words.

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