15 March, 2024

Top Three Tips for Writing Horror by J. L. Willow


J. L. Willow is the author of several works including the Amazon bestselling novel Missing Her. She graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Engineering in mechanical engineering and a minor in engineering management. While she spends her days working in her field of study, her nights are spent dreaming up new thrilling (and often horrifying) tales.

Website | Instagram | Facebook I Twitter | Youtube I Amazon I Goodreads

Top Three Tips for Writing Horror

When people think of horror, a few things often come to mind: gore, jumpscares, and ghosts to name a few. It’s easy in film to make the viewer jump with a loud noise and a sudden scary image, but with reading, it’s much harder. How do you instill a sense of dread and unease into someone without the help of any visuals, who’s likely curled up someplace snug in the comfort of their own home? I’d argue it’s much more of a challenge to accomplish fear with a book than with a movie, but over the years I’ve come up with quite a few tactics that help boost tension and get the reader on the edge of their seats. With each tip I’ll give, I’ll include an example from one of my own books to better expand on the idea – so minor spoilers ahead.

  1. Give the audience more information than the MC (Main Character)

This is one of my favorite things to include in horror or even thriller novels. There are several ways to accomplish it, but it’s a great tactic for putting the reader on edge. If the audience knows something that puts a character in danger and they’re helpless to communicate it, that can easily invoke stress.

See the example below from my newest novel. Two brothers are peering into a forest, curious and fearful of what may be lurking just beyond their view:

“It looks like it’s only a few steps in,” said Austin, oblivious to his brother’s unease. “I can reach it.” 

Levi grabbed Austin’s arm. “I don’t like it here. We gotta–”

Off to their left, a twig snapped. Levi’s head twisted in the direction of the sound, his eyes wide.

He didn’t feel Austin slip through his grasp.

  • The Ainsworth Killings of 1879

If Levi had realized immediately he wasn’t holding onto his brother any longer, there would be no tension on the reader’s part. By making him preoccupied, it puts the audience at an advantage and puts the MC at a disadvantage. It also introduces the question of “how long will it take the MC to realize what happened?” This creates more unease, which is a key component of the horror genre. 

  1. The art of the slow reveal

This tactic is, in my opinion, the most powerful of the three. As a writer, you have control over what gets explained to the reader in what order. It’s not like a movie or a television show where the viewer is taking in an entire scene at once. The reading audience is forced to only absorb one sentence of information at a time, as provided by the author. That means the writer has control over how much is given the audience, in what order, and how quickly. This can create a great slow reveal, like in the excerpt below. This story takes place in an abandoned school with portraits of children painted on the walls:

Liam glanced around the room. “Well, I don’t hear any whispers now. And the kids in this room don’t seem to be moving. They’re just standing there.”

“I don’t —” I broke off, my mind catching up a second later as the words processed. “What do you mean, standing? They were lying down before.”

Liam froze. The four of us turned as one to face the walls. I felt my knees go weak beneath me when I saw them. 

Every single child painted on the walls was standing, their blank faces staring straight at the center of the room.

They were looking directly at us.

  • A Weighted Soul and Other Dark and Twisted Tales

Just like the example from Ainsworth, if the MC had immediately realized what was wrong with what Liam said, there would be no build and release of tension. But even more importantly, there would be no sense of discovery or reveal on the part of the reader. Having the MC piece together their thoughts until they reach a scary conclusion is much more satisfying than the characters knowing everything at once. It’s also more realistic, as the characters are experiencing all of these strange events for the first time and may backtrack or rethink things as the story continues. 

  1. Show the reader, don’t tell

This last tactic might seem basic in terms of writing skills, but it is even more critical for authors writing suspense or horror. In a movie, if someone gets injured or is scared, they wouldn’t say, “I’m hurt,” or “I’m scared.” Not only because a normal person probably wouldn’t say those things, but also because it’s more interesting for the audience to read the characters’ emotions based on their facial expressions and actions. See the excerpt below for a similar example, but with a twist. This scene takes place when the MC, James, is in a runaway car:

James saw the side of the brick building from afar. But the car turned to speed toward it without a second of hesitation. He barely had time to scream before impact.

There was a terrible crunching sound, the tinkling of glass — and then silence. A tendril of scarlet slowly crept down the side of James’ face, trickling into his half-open eye.

  • A Weighted Soul and Dark and Twisted Tales

In case it wasn’t clear, James is dead (spoiler!). While I could’ve simply written “the car crash was fatal,” it’s much more interesting and disturbing for the reader to have it shown and focusing on small details. The trail of blood tells the reader that James is injured – the half-open eye tells the reader James is dead. Little moments like that where you take your time to show the reader the scene without flat-out telling them anything makes it not only more interesting for the audience, but also more compelling and engaging. 

I hope these tips have provided a bit more insight into how I structure and focus my storytelling. If the excerpts from my work intrigued you, A Weighted Soul is available on Amazon now and The Ainsworth Killings of 1879 launches on March 13, 2024. Good luck with your spooky stories and happy writing!

Missouri, 1879. Levi Oakley and his younger brother live on their father’s farm in the small town of Ainsworth. Their simple lives are suddenly uprooted when one of their classmates is brutally killed – and Levi finds himself under suspicion. To convince the town of his innocence, the boy must hunt down the real culprit and uncover what truly happened that fateful night. He soon realizes, however, that whoever he’s searching for is far more dangerous than he initially believed. And with his father’s continued insistence that he stay away from the ominous woods bordering the farm, Levi begins to wonder whether a murderer on the loose is the only thing he should be scared of.

No comments:

Post a Comment