13 Tortured Tips for Writing a Short Horror Story

Are you looking to give your readers the heebie-jeebies with a great short horror story? Writing horror is exciting and enjoyable, so look no further my sick little puppies. Listed below you’ll find 13 tried-and-tested tips for creating ferocious fiction and tales that traumatize. Good luck and, most of all, have fun doing it!

Horror fiction has traditionally dealt in taboo. It speaks of death, madness and transgression of moral and physical boundaries. It raises the dead to life and slaughters infants in their cribs; it makes monsters of household pets and begs our affection for psychos. It shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” – Clive Barker

1. The truth is out there. Stories based in reality have a compelling credibility. Pick something that could happen at a location that’s familiar to your reader. How about the staff at your local McD’s turning into zombies and serving brain burgers? What? It’s happened already? Bummer, back to the notepad…

2. Writing horror is an awesome opportunity to let your creativity shine, so avoid those vexing clichés. You know the ones – the old woman alone in the even older dark house; the dead teenage loner who returns from the grave to wreak havoc on the asshats who wronged him; strange footsteps in the basement or attic; anyone remotely famous becoming a vampire hunter, zombie killer or werewolf hunter – leave them well alone. They’ve been done to death.

3. Choose a horror that scares the holy hell out of you. Reach down into the darkest corners of your sick-and-twisted imagination. If it doesn’t scare you, how will it scare the bejesus out of your readers? Eat, drink, sleep, maybe even take a pooh (just remember to flush and spray afterwards) with the horror you’ve created before getting down to writing about it.

4. Take a trip to your chosen location or one similar and quietly sit for a while. Take a notepad to write down what you see and feel. If your story is set on a quiet street in the early hours of the morning, find one, get up in the early hours and soak it in. When the cops show up that means you’ve soaked it in too much and freaked out the residents. Write notes on what it feels like to be in the back of a cop car with a horde of angry people haranguing you through the window for being a weirdo.

5. Take your time. Build up the pressure, slowly but surely (this also applies when writing erotica…). It may be a short horror story, but you’ve got more time than you think to set out your story; just don’t get bogged down in back story.

6. Anticipation and apprehension are nine-tenths of a horror story. Let your readers know something bad is going to happen. Take their hand and lead them there, then chop it off when they’re not looking. Toss a few red herrings into the mix as well. Screw with your readers and twist them on their heads.

7. Are you scared of heights? Stand on the edge of a tall building and lean over and vomit on the people below. Are you scared of snakes? Touch one. Remind yourself what fear really feels like and to buy more laundry detergent for after you soil your pants. I’m scared of drinking Jim Beam, but it’s a cross I’m willing to bear.

8. Go easy on the guts and gore. They soon become boring and your readers quickly attain sensitization. Like the old Brylcreem ad used to say, “a little dab’ll do ya.”

9. Read the best (and worst) of horror. Reread the paragraphs that put your heartbeat into overdrive. Try to work out how the author achieved that effect on you. As Stephen King so eloquently said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

10. Experiment with different styles of writing. Write different versions of your horror story to see how they come out. Try to see your story from three or four different points of view, even if they don’t make it to the final draft. Choose someone timid, someone thick skinned, someone religious. The choice is yours; just don’t choose me or I’ll slap you. Got it?

11. After writing the first draft (which will invariably be crap, unless your name is Lee Child and that’s not always a guarantee), leave it for a decent amount of time so that you come back to it all bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Always read the draft through once with your eyes on the manuscript and fingers nowhere near the red pen or keyboard before you begin the editing process. It’s up to you where you put your fingers, but I don’t want to know.

12. Are you using the right scary words? When describing your fear, choose your words carefully. Make sure they fit and sound right. Don’t use unusual words that will leave your reader reaching for a dictionary. It will break the flow and you come across like a supercilious dick. It’s about building fear, not winning a spelling bee. I have a spreadsheet set up where I list “horror” words. I continually use and add to it. Ask me nicely and I’ll send you a copy. Ask me nicely and offer money and I’ll send it twice.

13. Your short horror story isn’t written in stone. For a start, all that carving would take forever and the noise would be distracting (said the guy who writes while listening to Motorhead)… And don’t get me started on the work needed at the editing stage. Your story can change. It can be completely different from the original premise. It can evolve. It can run wild and free through the rubble of the apocalypse. Remember, be brave and don’t be afraid to delete the stuff that doesn’t work.

The Haunted Pen - 13 Tortured Tips for Writing a Short Horror Story

4 thoughts on “13 Tortured Tips for Writing a Short Horror Story

  1. Rob Gibson says:

    Some really great tips here. Thanks for sharing them. Love the way you described them with your great sense of humor!


  2. jmh says:

    Great advice, Dave. I love that you suggested going easy on the gore. I’ve never been a fan of extreme horror, and I don’t find it the slightest bit scary–just difficult to stomach.


    • Dave Burnham says:

      Thank you so much. I completely agree with your point about extreme horror. I have always believed the suggestion, intimation or anticipation of the act is way scarier than actually seeing it. Glad you enjoyed the post.


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