Truly terrifying your readers takes skill. Not only do you have to focus on getting the pacing absolutely right, you also need to understand what makes something scary. When you’re writing, you can’t rely on cheap thrills like in most horror films.
Here are a few tips on adding horror to your story:
Let us know the stakes
We need to know what’s at risk for your character if you want to scare us. We need to know the immediate consequences for your character. We don’t want to be guessing what your character is afraid of happening. Let us know what will happen if they fail.
Develop your characters
No one will care about your horror novel OR any of your novels if you don’t develop your characters. This is often a mistake with beginning horror writers (and well-established ones)—they don’t make us care about their characters. We need to know who they are first before we care about what they might lose.
Write with emotion
Horror truly requires writing with emotion. As a writer, you need to be able to put yourself in the place of your character. You need to be able to describe their fear because that will make your writing more terrifying for your readers. They need to feel what your character is feeling emotionally.
Use all your senses
Focus on using all your senses when writing horror. Smells, sounds, and tastes will all add to the creepiness of your novel. Saying something smells like rotting flesh really adds to your story. Explaining that footsteps sound like heartbeats will build tension. Always consider everything that’s happening in the room and use it to improve your novel.
Have your character make mistakes
Sometimes fear in horror novels comes from characters doing something we know they shouldn’t. What if they accidently killed someone and tried to hide it? What if they got up in the middle of the night to investigate a noise? Build the tension by letting your characters make poor choices.
Give your readers hope
If your readers have no faith in your character from the beginning, your novel won’t be very exciting. Simply putting a character through awful situations does not make a good horror story. We need to believe they can survive. That’s what keeps us reading.
Create new monsters
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas. Turn a vampire into something else by reconstructing our ideas of what a vampire should be. Create a new monster entirely. If there’s something from a nightmare that frightened you, develop it.
Don’t tell us when to be scared
This is when show, don’t tell really comes in handy. You can’t tell your readers, “Amy was really scared.” You need to show us why she’s scared. Simply stating that a character is frightened does nothing to scare your readers. Show us what’s happening and we will know why your character is terrified.