Fear is one of the most powerful emotions to feel. It’s visceral and primal, a kind of bone deep feeling that spreads throughout the entire body and instilling fear on the page is what horror authors strive for.
If you’re a writer who wants to break into the horror genre, then short stories are an excellent medium for cutting your teeth. They are fertile ground for tapping into feelings of dread and unease, hooking readers into a spine-chilling narrative from the first sentence.
With that in mind, here are five tips for writing a short story that falls into the horror genre.
1. Choosing the right perspective
A useful starting point to begin with for your short story is to decide on the perspective that it’s going to be written in. Do you plan on third person perspective? Is it going to be in the first or second person? Different Points Of View (POV) illicit different reactions and we’ll explore what they are like below:
First person: Writing in the first person, i.e., using ‘I’ to describe a situation, provides a good opportunity to bring readers into the head of your protagonist and what they are feeling. The first person allows you to focus on internal feelings that warp the environment to create a deep sense of unease.
There’s also the option of using an unreliable narrator, as in a protagonist who either withholds information from the reader or what they are experiencing isn’t actually real. This approach can contribute towards a feeling of horror as the reader tries to make sense of what’s going on.
Second person: When writing in the second person you’re addressing the reader directly and placing them directly into the story. Not only does this ramp up tension, it creates the image of a horrific situation that the reader may feel as if they are experiencing themselves.
Third person: A third person POV comes in handy for describing sensory details and helps to dig down into scenery that is meant to make characters feel uncomfortable.
For example, the protagonist could be walking through a forest and you choose to give the trees a monstrous appearance by describing them as having human qualities e.g. ‘branches that curled like the gnarled fingers of a witch.’
2. Using the senses to create an uneasy atmosphere
Once you’ve chosen the POV, it’s time to tap into the human senses to give the reader an idea of a character’s location and their mental state. What does your character see? What are they smelling or hearing?
For horror writing, combining sensory detail with a first-person perspective can be extremely effective and provide readers with visceral images.
3. Use pacing to heighten tension
Another great technique for bringing tension into your horror story is to think about pacing. Pacing is how fast or slow a story is moving and it’s done to great effect in films, through techniques such as using music to describe how a character is feeling or relying on a specific camera angle to jar the viewer.
In a short story, you can use sentence structure and dialogue for pacing. If your characters are feeling scared, use short sentences to speed up the rhythm. To build up a sense of dread, try longer, descriptive sentences.
4. Foreshadowing ramps up the fear factor
Foreshadowing is another technique to include in your horror narrative and sets up a certain outcome in the reader’s mind.
Foreshadowing could be a physical reaction e.g., a character starts to sweat or feel their heartbeat quickening. Or it might be that a character mentioned a place that has a history of being haunted and your protagonist finds themselves in the same location.
On an instinctive level, the reader knows something bad is coming and it will encourage them to keep going until the end.
5. Write what terrifies you
There’s the old adage of ‘write what you know’ and that definitely applies to the horror genre too. If you need inspiration, then think about your own fears and worries and put them into your characters.
As an example, one of my biggest fears has always been trying to find a way to deal with the fear of the unknown. What’s around the corner? What will happen if I try this?
That feeling served as the inspiration for my short story ‘Eleventh Hour,’ which was published in AEL Press’ Moonlit Dreams & Moonlit Nightmares anthology. In the story, a young man is thrown into a situation that he doesn’t know how to handle, and it forces him to question his own reality.
When you write something that you’ve experienced, this will make your characters feel real and readers will be naturally drawn to the story.