One Simple Rule of Writing Horror

BookCover-RLStineI love scary stories! As a kid, I devoured every R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan on my small town library’s shelves. When the Scholastic Book Fair came to my school, I ordered more spine-tingling novels. I would read them under my covers with a flashlight, not for atmosphere but because I was supposed to be asleep and I’d be in trouble if my parents caught me reading past my bedtime. I would even stay up late writing scary stories and terrifying myself so much I couldn’t shut my eyes, though I knew in the end my protagonist would survive.

When I grew up I worked in kids television and wrote mainly action comedies. Nothing in the horror genre… until now. I didn’t set out to write a horror. I had this germ of an idea and just started developing it, spinning yarns that were creepy but nothing close to pants-wetting. I thought of the story more as a mystery, maybe a thriller, but horror… could I write that? It had been so long since I’d even tried. But the idea I was developing wasn’t clicking as a mystery, so I decided to see if it came together better as a scary movie.

Ghostface from the SCREAM movie franchise.
Ghostface from the SCREAM movie franchise.

Movie? Why that? Why not book? I’m not ruling out that this story may become a book, but I find when it comes to horror, thinking visually helps. After all, fear is what we can’t see (but suspect is there) and what we can see (and wish we couldn’t). 

But there’s a second reason to approach this as a film – it forces me to simplify things. My storylines tend to be complicated, full of big turning points, life-changing character revelations and interwoven subplots. But that doesn’t work when writing horror. I needed to follow the base rule of scary movies:

Keep it simple.

And here are 3 ways I applied that directive to my budding horror tale…

  1. Smaller Character Goals. Because I like proactive characters, I tend to give my heroines plans to do stuff. Big goals! Big dreams! But I found that when the Monster strikes and the bodies start dropping, those goals are quickly forgotten and replaced by one desire, “Don’t die!” This is why most horror movies start with the characters just wanting to have fun, or get settled into a new house, or go on a relaxing holiday. Simple, everyday plans because soon the only goal will be staying alive.
  2. Uncomplicated Plot. In the same way that comedy needs time for jokes, horror needs time for screams. If you bog down the script with multiple subplots or twists or revelations, there will be too much story to tell and not enough time left over for scaring the crap out of your audience.
  3. One-Step Character Change. Quest or a coming-of-age stories lead the heroine along various steps that slowly change her into the person she needs to become. But in horror the heroine changes for one reason – she gathered the strength to fight off the monster. Like Sydney in SCREAM: (minor spoiler alert) she wasn’t over her mom’s death and hadn’t come to terms with her mom’s reputation as the town tramp, but there are no heartfelt scenes where she talks to a friend/therapist/teacher, goes through the stages of grief and slowly comes to accept what happened. Nope, she just kills the monster. Now she’s strong and ready to move on.

Though “Keep It Simple” is the base rule of writing horror, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Far from it. I need to learn everything I can about this excellent but often abused genre, starting with devouring some scary writing craft books.

Next up from Heather… I’m reading “Writing the Horror Movie” and learning how to use the four basic tools of horror. What are they? I’ll tell you next Monday.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

7 thoughts on “One Simple Rule of Writing Horror”

  1. Oooh, I love these guidelines! It’s so true.

    I too stayed up ate at night shivering in pleasure at the age inappropriate books I chose to read. After devouring the babysitter’s club (in 5th grade) I went on to read every book by Dean Koontz and Robin Cook (in 5th grade). I don’t write horror but infuse much darkness into my novels for kids. Creep factor = high!

    Thanks for this Heather.

  2. My latest book is YA Horror…although I’ve had one agent consider it more YA Paranormal/Mystery. In my heart I’m a mystery writer…so when I tackled a YA book with supernatural elements in it, naturally the mystery writer in me still had a say. It was a blast writing and I hope someday it finds its way to the bookshelf.

    Good luck with your movie! 🙂

    1. I heard a rumour the YA industry shies away from the term “horror”, so maybe that’s the reason that agent re-classified your book. But I truly believe teen horror needs a comeback! It’s what we all read in high school. After outgrowing R.L.Stine we moved on to Stephen King. Here’s hoping your book finds its way to the bookshelf!

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