Professional book editor in the UK gives horror writers the top 5 creepy ways to make a horror novel truly spine-chilling!
Sometimes, it can be difficult to write a novel that’s truly horrifying. Even in a lot of horror movies that have the added benefit of being able to visibly show their chilling tales, some of them suffer from cheap jump scares in order to actually scare the audience, which can fall flat or become predictable to an avid horror fan.
So as a horror writer, what are you to do? How can you write a horror novel that actually scares your readers and leaves them on edge, forcing them to look over their shoulder?
In this article, I’ll discuss the basis of fear and what elements you can incorporate into your horror story, not only to make it better in general, but to also make it more spine-chilling and memorable.
1. Creative Characters
Too often in horror, we are given endless detail, description and backstory about the monster, killer, or threat, and the story is functionally written around the villain, not the protagonist. As a result, the heroes of the story end up being bland and hollow, leaving many readers wishing they would just meet their end as soon as possible.
This way of writing is not only a detriment to the main character and the story, but also to the villain. If we, as the reader, are going to follow a character through their journey, filled with trials and tribulations, then we must connect with them. We need to hope that they make it through whatever situation they find themselves in, not just watch them go through it.
So, now you need to decide what makes a good character, and how to get people to care. Your horror novel isn’t a teen drama with boring self-insert characters, so it’s best to create a protagonist who has interests of their own, someone who has flaws and their own personal morals.
Also remember to create a character who also isn't just a stereotype or a troupe. If the reader is able to pinpoint a character's interests and political persuasion just based on what they’re wearing, or after they speak for the first time, it could be that enough thought hasn’t gone into their development, and they’re simply there as just another casualty.
While readers may not always agree with the characters in the story, fully developing them and actually getting to know them as people will help to humanise them, making their possible gruesome end far more morbid.
2. Being Alone
Humans are social creatures, and many people fear isolation and being alone - I definitely do! Many have even gone insane from types of solitary confinement, so forcing your characters to be alone with the added horror of the story creates another layer of fear and dread for the reader.
Having your characters alone throughout the novel will also prevent you from incorporating throw-away characters who are only there to show how scary the threat can be. But if you wish to emphasise your dangerous villain, it could be more effective to do so by having them actually harm your character, or by providing internal dialogue to express the protagonist’s terror.
This trope also works well for unique and strange settings. If your threat is the world or location itself, having your character tepidly explore the ominous environment alone will put the reader on edge throughout their entire journey, which is also amazing for fluid world and character building.
Famous horror fiction is built off the back of solitude, and a character's survival or downfall as a result of it.
Often times, side characters are added to make it easier for the main character to display their own personality through a two-sided conversation, or more prominently, to add to the body count.
In many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, his characters recite their inner thoughts or note them in a personal diary, which implies that side characters aren’t always necessary in horror. Plus, revealing your protagonist’s inner thoughts could also communicate their increasing insanity and its slow progression throughout the narrative.
3. Fate Worse than Death
Perhaps it’s the dark Millennial/Gen Z humour that’s made death less bleak or scary, or perhaps the emergence of horror as a genre of its own makes a character's death seem like just another Tuesday. Whatever the cause, death in horror is a given, so it’s harder to make a character's mortality seem as dark as it is within other genres.
So, what can you do instead?
Sometimes in horror fiction, the writer will pose twisted questions of a given fate, such as: if you were to turn into one of the mindless walking dead, featured constantly within the genre, does your character truly die? Are their minds trapped behind their now blistering grotesque form? Do humans truly have souls, and if so, could they be made to suffer even worse than our living existence?
The possibility that something could happen to the main character that’s worse than death helps to keep the genre fresh and interesting. By having your protagonist try to escape damnation or corruption means that the threat is no longer a sweet release but infinite pain, altering them physically and mentally, creating an empty version of the person they were before.
Related Post: 6 Crucial Elements You Must Have in Your Gothic Novel
If you do choose to conclude your horror novel with death, consider describing the gruesome injuries and wounds in detail to invoke a squeamish image in your reader’s mind. The actual death itself can also be tear-jerking and terrifying if you write death as it truly is, something prolonged, painful, and haunting.
However, going back to the topic of this section, also consider what could be worse than death for your character and think about whether that option could be better for your story.
4. Style and Ambiance
Your verbiage as a writer, as well as your descriptions, are some of the fundamentals when it comes to creative writing. Many will struggle to use a voice that isn’t their usual one, but if you’re using a type of narration from your protagonist’s perspective, it’d be beneficial to learn how to alter your written words to compliment the mood.
Whichever style of narration you end up choosing, try to remember that your horror novel is about something, so consider matching the colourful imagery with the era or location you’re writing about.
For example, if your novel is about Jack the Ripper, you could write in a more fanciful English tone with descriptions of the damp streets and a hazy fog that covers the cobblestone buildings.
Or if you were to aim for a fast-paced slasher, you wouldn’t want to use melancholic language, because you want to keep the reader in suspense!
Furthermore, creating and sticking to a specific writing style in your manuscript will also help to develop the ambiance and overall tone, so if you write in a dialect that’s obviously not era-appropriate, it may take the reader out of the immersion.
Ghosts, slashers, and zombies litter the horror genre, and while some popular subgenres may be successful, there are a hundred more that are just cookie-cutter copies of something someone else has already done.
Even creating a new, much more interesting monster isn't enough because it simply gets clumped into the creature feature category.
Many writers will simply put a new spin on one of these constant themes, which may work for some, but it’s truly the skill of the writer that makes the story successful, not the small new detail or twist.
In order to make something with a recognisable name actually scare someone, it’s important that you look at the bigger picture and ask yourself whether your horror novel could be in danger of becoming just another trope.
For example, Stephen King's “It” was extremely popular; one reason was that his creature would be out in broad daylight, leaving the reader realising that the characters are never truly safe. Also, at the time the novel was released, audiences had never really experienced a killer clown in media before, so it offered something new.
So, does the horror in your writing do something the readers wouldn’t expect? Does its desire confound the mind? The reader shouldn’t be able to finish writing your story for you, you should always strive to progress the genre, not just copy it.
Like other genres, consider thinking about the world and characters, and what helps to shape what and who they are. For instance, creating some monster that lives in Wales is far less interesting than inventing a killer who has to take lives to keep themselves sane, the latter helping to set the scene and making the story more believable.
Understanding these concepts and being able to implement them are some of the foundations of writing horror, and also proficient writing in general. While some may be vague concepts, it’s up to the writer’s creative mind to flesh them out.
These ways to make your story spine-chilling often flow together, setting the tone for your narrative, and helping to set the scene and the characters, which pushes to develop the plot and the ideas of the story moving forward.
Horror seems to be the least developed major genre, yet it’s the one with the most flexibility, alongside fantasy, because you can do so much with it. You can bend it into almost any other genre and still make it a success.
However, it can also be one of the hardest to get right, and not everyone will always be scared of the same thing.
Consequently, to actually leave a mark on your reader and send a shiver down their spine, you have to look deeper into humanity than its romance or comedy, have a greater understanding of human desire and empathise with a person’s animalistic fear when faced with death, or something much worse.
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!