HOW TO WRITE A SCARY STORY
(from a presentation originally given at Lorain County Community College, October 27th, 2021)
So, how do you write a scary story? In order to answer that question, we first have to consider: what IS a scary story? What makes a scary story different from a story that's not scary? You might think it's obvious—it SCARES us. It makes us feel fear. But why?
Normal stories reinforce what we know and what we think we know. They teach us about a world that's understandable and about people who live their lives with at least a tiny semblance of logic underlying their actions. On some level, normal stories comfort us. They expand our deep conviction that everything—even tragedies and disasters and typical human violence—can be understood through rational thought and, thereby, controlled or mastered or, at very least, overcome.
But scary stories? HORROR stories? They disrupt our deep convictions about how the world and the people in it work.
Horror stories fragment our trust in normalcy, in our ability to have any power over any aspect of existence. They tear holes in our manufactured knowledge of how things are “supposed to” be.
When a monster pops up in a scary story, it's there to shatter the normalcy of the world of the story; it's there to show that all is not as it seems and we (as individuals and as the whole of humankind) are not as strong or intelligent or in control as we suspected. Monsters scare us because they SHOULDN'T be. They aren't SUPPOSED to exist. And they certainly shouldn't be greater masters of reality than we are. If they do exist, if, for instance, an undead creature that flies in through your window and sucks out your blood in the middle of the night really is out there somewhere, then everything we had thought we knew about how the universe works (including our place within it) is disrupted or outright destroyed. This lack of knowledge and power frightens us, and rightfully so. It implies that we are not in control of our lives and our destinies. It implies that we are never truly safe. It implies that our world does not revolve around us in the slightest.
So here's the first key to writing a scary story: start with our world, our normal, boring old world that we think we know, filled with all kinds of predictability, and break what we consider normal. Write a nice, average world just like ours and introduce something into it that causes its people to question whether they are really the most powerful and the most knowledgeable beings in their world. This “something” is probably a monster, but it could just as easily be an abstract or unknown force, an unexpected disaster, or even a radical (or outright insane) idea. Whatever form the “something” takes, it needs to violate the expectations and “normal” or conventional ways of being that exist in the world.
An alien that crash lands on earth and then proceeds to make copies of itself by infecting all biological life with fragments of its DNA would violate the expectation that other beings in the world are who we think they are. It also violates our conventional knowledge concerning how DNA replication and reproduction work.
An infestation of enormous, venomous, and carnivorous millipedes the size, shape, and speed of buses would completely destroy our understanding of biological size for insects. It would also shatter and invert the conventional relationship we have with the insect world, with humans suddenly the ones underfoot of the much larger, much more deadly millipedes.
A serial killer who removes the eyes from his victims and sews them onto his body so that he can supposedly “see God” would violate how we believe the human mind normally functions.
A ghostly apparition who electrocutes all those who enter its former home would violate our belief that the past is gone from our lives and that the dead cannot affect the living (at least, not in any physical way).
An unknown fog appears and disappears at random and strips the flesh from all those it touches would violate our understanding of what fog is and how weather can work.
On and on the examples go. Scary stories are only as limited as the variety of conventions and norms they can undermine.
This element of violation is the one piece of a scary story that cannot be missing. Without the reversal or outright destruction of convention and normalcy, without the shattering of our safety, our understanding of the world, and our way of living, we will feel no fear at even the most extreme violence.
A war with horrifying human rights atrocities fought halfway across the world, for instance, will cause most people to shake their heads in consternation and feel perhaps sadness or hopelessness, but it probably won't make them feel fear unless they know someone involved in the conflict—unless it stands a direct threat to their personal bubble of existence, their normal way of living in the world. Even in that case, with, say, a loved one involved in the fighting, that war will still most likely not be viewed as a “scary” thing as long as the media has covered the conflict in depth, the government has sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) its existence, and the violence has been mediated to outsiders as something normal, something understandable, something that can be controlled on some level. Rather, the violence and loss of life will be called “tragedies” and swept into the realm of our normal—and no doubt horrible, but not “scary”—everyday living.
Scary stories, horror stories, therefore, require an element of true violation to be “scary.” So, start there. Create a nice little world—maybe even our own—and introduce into it a monster or a force or SOMETHING that breaks the foundational normalcy of that world.
Okay. Then what? Surely this one piece of advice can't be the whole of telling a scary story.
Of course not. It's the main course, and we need plenty of spices to flavor it as well as a fair amount of garnishes to make it a satisfying meal for the mind.
Plot is one of the most obvious place to add some of these flavors.
The plot of a scary story usually involves some aspect of mystery. When you have a monster or a destructive force in a scary story, at first it's often unclear what this monster or force is, where it has come from, and what its intentions or goals might be; it is steeped in mystery and uncertainty. A famous horror author once said that the greatest fear was the fear of the unknown, so it makes a great deal of sense for monsters and disruptive elements of scary stories to be wrapped up in the unknown. It makes them all the more frightening. But this means that the plot of many a good horror story is really just a series of events that lead to the unraveling of the mystery surrounding the monster or destructive force. By gradually revealing the nature and origins of this disruptive element, you can create suspense and tension while simultaneously providing the audience progressive relief from their terror.
Have your plot be a dangerous quest for answers, wherein the characters go here and there in search of more knowledge about the monster or destructive thing. Have them uncover the truth about the monster: its nature, its origins, and, presumably, how to beat it. This series of revelations that leads to the story's conclusion are all in service of learning about the disruptive element—making it known rather than unknown—so that it can be defeated. After all, the only way to defeat something is to know HOW to defeat it and in order to know HOW to defeat it, you must know what it IS in the first place. Don't dump all the knowledge on the reader at once, though. Instead, pace events in a story to dole out tidbits of valuable information about the disruptive force. In this way, through a slowly unfolding understanding of the monster or destructive force, the disruption to the world can be put to an end and the readers will feel ultimate relief at the close of the story. In essence, then, if you want to give readers reassurance and a little bit of uplift at the end of your story—basically, if you want to write like Stephen King—you need to write a scary story as a mystery that is resolved, as a tale of a creepy monster that, through our gradual understanding and application of knowledge, becomes less frightening and less able to disturb our universe and our lives because we can acquire an understanding of it and thereby defeat it.
If, however, you choose to really scare your audience, if you want to leave them constantly looking over their shoulders, then you don't want to reveal too much of the mystery. Your plot elements can lead characters through a search for answers about the monster or destructive force, but the answers they obtain should be only partial answers or, maybe, the answers they find don't help in defeating the disruptive force at all; knowledge itself is useless.
In either of these cases, the disruptive element of the story cannot be defeated through any understanding or intentional action of the other characters. It remains active and destructive to the end of the story and becomes a disturbing—and possibly permanent—part of the world in which the story takes place, always crouching nearer and nearer, with no one ever sure when or where it will strike again. This kind of plot, with a lack of clear defeat for the disruptive element and an ambiguous future for the characters and the world in general, is the kind that will polarize audiences. Some readers will hate it because, they will say, the story “doesn't have an ending.” What they want is for the disruption to be conquered; they want to feel safe and know that monsters or destructive forces that cannot be beaten simply do not exist. But when you leave the disruptive force in play and allow it to continue disrupting (which usually means killing or destroying or changing the world in a way that people don't like), you're implying that the characters in the story and, by extension, your readers, are not—and maybe can never be—in control in this situation. You're showing readers that scary things do exist in the world and sometimes they cannot be wiped away. This kind of unsettling, ambiguous ending will probably not make you popular in the mainstream, but critics will love it.
Okay. So, monsters? Check. Plot? Check. What's next? Atmosphere and setting. Atmosphere and setting are important to scary stories. There's a reason so many horror movies begin at night, in the middle of a thunderstorm. It's eerie. There's a power far beyond human control in a thunderstorm and there's a complete unknown in what lurks in the darkness of a moonless night. It all makes us feel small and weak and very open to attack from a destructive force. This is why scary stories love to start in the deep, lonely woods, or the vast, open ocean, or the overwhelming, empty expanse of space. These settings, with their natural atmospheres, prime us to accept that there's going to be a thing that cannot be easily mastered in the story—a thing similar to a raging thunderstorm, an enormous ocean, or the seemingly infinite depths of outer space. They put readers in the right frame of mind. You don't have to set a story in any of these types of locales to create an effective scary story, but it helps.
To this end of creating a setting and atmosphere that accentuates the sense of fear that a scary story tries to convey, you'll want to choose one of a few tried and true backgrounds. As I just mentioned, wildernesses far from civilization, the open ocean, and outer space are all good for instilling in readers a feeling that they are insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things and that, ultimately, they have little power over the world. These settings also allow for a feeling of isolation, of being far from any meaningful aid, and, therefore, grip the reader in a sense of helplessness.
Abandoned (or nearly abandoned) places are also excellent fodder as settings for scary stories. Old houses and barns, ancient ruins, dilapidated and run-down urban areas, sparsely populated small towns, and vacant buildings are all able to convey a certain loneliness, as though entering these places cuts one off from the rest of the world and the rest of humanity. Abandoned places force two questions into a reader's mind, as well: first, why was this place abandoned (hint: it probably wasn't a nice, happy reason), and, second, what might still remain here (hint: likely some sort of disruptive force). In either case, setting a scary story in an “abandoned place” already begins the work of laying down plot, as the monster or destructive force is almost certainly tied to this location in some way and, thus, one of the elements of mystery concerning its nature and origin has already been partially developed.
When thinking about atmosphere in horror, night is usually better than day because night hides monsters and makes them all the more unknown and, therefore, fearful. However, when daytime is used in horror, it's often even more frightening than night because we expect a certain safety in daytime hours. We don't assume that a monster will just come creeping down the street at noon when it could wait until midnight. So, when it DOES, it's all the more shocking and unsettling, because it's out of what we conventionally think of as its domain—that is, the night.
The same logic applies to weather. Thunderstorms, heavy rain, heavy snow, and fog are all harbingers of the spooky and terrifying. These forms of weather conceal. They hide potential horrors from our view or, at least, make those horrors harder to see, which amplifies the feeling of anxiety or tension a scary story might be trying to convey. We even call weather “bad” and “good” based on these factors, as though there is a an ethical factor involved—that we have “proper,” “normal” weather and “terrible,” “abnormal” weather. So, of course the monstrous is going to be aligned with “bad” weather. But, just as a monster in full day is often more unsettling than a monster at night, so, too, is a monster in clear, bright weather conditions often more unsettling than a monster wrapped in storms and mist. It has stepped out of its supposed habitat and into the peaceful rays of sunshine, which, by conventional thinking, simply aren't supposed to allow a monster in their midst.
Now, although what I've mentioned so far stands as general rules when it comes to atmosphere and setting, ANY atmosphere or setting CAN be effective for a scary story depending on what your story involves. For example, a story about a viral infection that mutates its victims into hideous monsters would probably be more effective at scaring readers if it's set in a densely populated city, because the danger posed by the virus will be greater and more extreme. Likewise, a story about a carnivorous alien flower that arrived from seeds in the tail of a comet could be set in a beautiful botanical garden for its greatest impact. What I'm saying is this: a horror story doesn't have to be set in a dark and stormy place. Rather, let your particular disruptive element guide you to figure out what would create the most tension, the highest anxiety, and the deepest fear.
We've now covered most of the basics of scary stories, but there's one aspect left untouched: characters.
Characters in scary stories who aren't monsters are often forgotten. Think about famous movie monsters. Name for me any of the teenagers who have beaten Freddy Kreuger. Or how about the two people that have temporarily killed Jason Voorhees? What about the sheriff that blew up the shark in Jaws? Or the guys who killed Dracula (who aren't Abraham Van Helsing)? Can you even tell me the first name of the main non-monster character in the last scary movie you saw?
Unless you're a horror aficionado or have a good memory, you probably don't recall these details because we focus most of our attention in horror on the disruptive element, which is monster or destructive force. In general, it's that thing we remember, not the people who fight it. Maybe we just like destruction and violence—at least in our art—and so it's the author of that destruction and violence, the monster, that imprints most vividly on our memories. Maybe non-monster characters in scary stories are simply not that important. Or maybe non-monsters are usually not very well written. Whatever the case, characters in horror are quite frequently overlooked and forgotten. The question is: should this be the case? Do scary stories need us to forget about the non-monster characters? And, if so, what should characters in horror be like?
There are two schools of thought on this issue: one is that characters should always be well-developed and three-dimensional. They should sound like real people in the world around you. They should act like real people would act. And they should have thoughts and aspirations and motivations just like all the people you know. Think about your friends, your family. Think about people you've met and people you know through the news (like celebrities and politicians). Model your characters after them. Ask yourself what that person would do and say in a situation within your story and then have your character do and say that thing. Much contemporary horror fiction—both literature and movies—has been moving in this direction of more fleshed-out characters. The non-monster characters in scary stories are as complex as they've ever been, as much like you or your friends or your family as they possibly can be. This is good, because it makes the horrors that befall them more realistic and more meaningful. It also allows readers to connect with the characters more fully and, thereby, become more invested in the story. It draws people in, mentally and emotionally.
But here's the thing about scary stories: bad stuff is going to happen to those wonderful characters and, if you're the writer, you've got to make that happen. It can be difficult to torture or even kill your beloved characters. And, sometimes, readers will be angry that you did. But, as I said, we're talking about horror here. We're talking scary stories. And a story won't scare you if nothing bad happens to someone in that story. So your nice, well-rounded creations have to be harmed. Sorry, but that's the price you pay for writing horror.
Now, if taking the time to create a three-dimensional character only to tear them apart later doesn't appeal to you, there is a second school of thought on characters in scary stories: that they're functionaries. What I mean here is that the non-monster characters exist within horror only to serve as victims. You might give them some personality, maybe a quirky name or a few notable characteristics, but, as a whole, they're not as well-developed as characters in non-horror stories. You might ask, “Why would I ever want to do that? Why would I intentionally make my story weaker with regard to character?” Well, there are several potential reasons.
First, you might want to focus your reader on the monstrous thing, the disruptive element. Maybe you're trying to make a point about some great evil in our society, so you decided to turn it into a metaphorical monster and have it rampage through hundreds or thousands of victims. This is often the case for stories about kaiju and other monsters of enormous size or incomprehensible power. Maybe you're trying to represent society as a whole through your victims, your non-monster characters. In this case it might make more sense for your characters to be relative everypeople without well-defined characteristics—they could be anyone or everyone. Maybe you're trying to bring the readers into the story as themselves. Then you'd narrate the story not with an eye toward any one particular individual, but with the hope of lacing enough general traits and qualities into your character to allow the reader to see themselves, broadly, in the character. There are lots of reasons why, for a particular story, you might want to represent your non-monster characters as less than well-defined.
This doesn't mean you should always write stock, hollow, or generalized characters, though. Only on the rare occasion that you realize that a scary story calls for victims to just be victims and little more should you tread that path. And even then, do it carefully. When you don't have solid characters, something else in your story needs to reach out and capture the reader's attention, so either your monster needs to be more interesting and more developed or your plot needs to be more engaging and thought-provoking or perhaps your setting is so dynamic that it's almost like a character itself. One way or the other, something needs to make up for the absence of substantial characters.
Bottom line: characters are important, but characters can be developed in many ways.
So here you have it, the foundational pieces for a scary story: a disruptive element (like a monster), a plot that involves the progressive solving of mystery, a setting and atmosphere conducive to fear, and characters that are either well-developed or left one-dimensional for a particular effect. When you put all these pieces together, you'll have something approaching a complete scary story.
Not every scary story will grip every reader, because everyone holds different fears and anxieties and traumas, but if you keep writing and keep inventing new monsters, new characters, new plots and new settings, in time you're bound to find something that makes everyone shiver. And that is, of course, the ultimate goal of every teller of scary stories.