best thriller novels to read

How to Write a Horror Novel


Here’s the ironic thing about horror novels: They are actually fun to read and even more so to write. Thinking up ideas for hair-raising scares and grotesque plot points may be easy but the tricky part is cooking up the formula that can blend all your scare tactics into one cohesive, terrifyingly terrific novel. Like most other genres, good horror novels require the right mix and match of ingredients- in this case, one that can create the sensations of shock and paranoia in readers. Here’s a quick guide on how to write a horror novel.

Make it personal- very personal

Everyone is aware of that classic trick horror movies use to increase the tension and fear in the audience- “Based on true events”. You’ll be surprised to know that when it comes to writing a horror novel, most authors base the plot on a real life experience. The experience is not an encounter with a ghost or creepy monster; it is rather a moment in the author’s life that may have induced a lifelong fear. Horror works best when you are honest in your writing; your readers will get that much-needed sense of immersion and connect with your storytelling on a personal level.

To create a good plot for a horror novel, you must be able to tap into your inner fears and etch them down in a rough manuscript. Once you’ve got the setting and backstory is laid out, stitching your story together will be easy.

Give flesh and blood to your characters

Characters are a crucial element in horror novels. The way you construct your character can make the difference between a scary novel and a boring one. Unlike most other genres, characters in a horror novel are harder to develop because you need to make them more believable. Yes, the antagonist in your novel can be a little over-the-top, be it a crazy ghost, terrifying zombie or supernatural entity, but the leading character must be as fleshed out and human as possible.

Give your characters a reason to exist in the horrific situation they are thrown in. Even the antagonist must have a fleshed out purpose for the terror that is being caused. Readers won’t care much for the scares you put in unless they feel what your characters feel; once an empathic connection is established, the scares will start setting in.

Toy with your readers’ emotions

Even though you’re writing a horror novel, don’t make it entirely about horror. Keep your readers engrossed by mixing elements of humour, romance and action. Doing so helps your toy with the readers’ emotions; one minute they could be laughing at a joke cracked by your character and the next minute, totally freaked out due to an unsuspecting and horrific event.

Shock, dread and paranoia are the three emotions you have to master in creating while structuring your novel. You can choose to develop the emotion as part of your character’s personality or entwine it in the setting itself.  

A slow and steady plot creates the best scare

For any genre to truly work its magic, the pacing of the plot must be just right. If you’ve read thriller novels, you will notice just how fast paced the plot is. But for horror novels, the plot must move at a slower pace; achieve this by intentionally elongating your chapters and elaborating on a scene by explaining little details. You will create a sense of tension and dread among your readers if you are able to slow down the pace.

You can set the right pacing for your horror novel by focussing on two elements:

  • Dialogue: a Confrontational dialogue between characters helps slow the pace as well as keep the readers engrossed in the story.
  • Setting: Establishing a scene by giving a play by play description of the various elements within it can give your readers a more terrifying and picturesque representation while also reducing the pacing.

Stay away from horror clichés

Horror thrives on its unpredictable nature, but over the years, the rinse and repeat formula seen in books and movies alike has made horror lose its ghastly charm. Here are some horror clichés:

  • “It’s behind you.”
  • Body snatching aliens
  • Mad scientist doing terrible experiments on humans
  • The cabin in the woods
  • Running in the dark
  • Religious propaganda gone wrong
  • The living dead

We’re not saying that you have to avoid using any of the clichés mentioned above completely; it’s better to try and work on those elements and cook up your own horrifying scenario. Read a lot of horror novels before you start yours, as it will help understand what is being commonly used in each novel. As mentioned earlier, take inspiration from your life experience and “gore-ify” it by adding classic horror elements for the most original outcome.

Misdirect and confuse your readers

A plot in a horror novel comprises of two predominant writing styles: Misdirection and confusion. While structuring your plot, think carefully about which style would suit your story and how best to incorporate both.

Misdirection and confusion can be induced by manipulating your readers into believing a character’s intentions, only to be left in a shock when the truth is revealed. Employing climactic plot twists also works in creating confusion and dread. Alternating between moments of terror and moments of calm will also keep your readers snuck between their quilts as they read.

Are you looking for a little inspiration before starting out with your own terrifying tale? Here are three of the scariest books of 2016 we dare you to read.

Lovecraft Country

Author: Matt Ruff

Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy horror novel that recreates the extreme racial tension that surrounded 19th Century America, after the passing of the Jim Crow laws. Matt Ruff elaborates on the most unsettling aspects of that time including violence, harassment and slavery against the African-American minorities. The fact that the novel blends rape and horror makes for a terrifying read that will feel real in every sense.

The Suicide Motor Club

Author: Christopher Buehlman

Vampires may be a horror cliché, but nomadic vampires in muscle cars make for a whole new kind of horror. Buehlman’s novel, which was also converted into an e-book and an audiobook, tells the tale of a lone survivor of the vampire attacks who seeks out revenge against the bloodsuckers by joining a group of vampire hunters. There are also minor references to a character in Buehlman’s previous novel.

The Fireman

Author: Joe Hill

Here’s another clichéd story that uses a post-apocalyptic zombie breakout in the background, but Joe Hill manages to keep things fresh and exciting by adding elements of science fiction and romance. The story follows Harper Grayson, a compassionate nurse who willingly takes care of infected patients after the breakout of a supposedly incurable plague. After discovering that she too is infected, Harper decides to brave it all and fight for her life till her child is born. When her husband abandons her, Harper’s last hope rests on a mysterious man who wears a firefighter jacket and seems to be able to control the infection.

Remember; before you even start writing, always do a good amount of research for your novel’s subject matter. Great authors are versatile in the genres of their books, so if you’ve mastered writing horror, learn how to write an adventure novel.

Once your final manuscript is complete, sending it to a reputed self-publishing agency is the best way to let your readers know something horrifying is coming their way.    

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Aishwarya Mukundarajan

Aishwarya is an MBA graduate from Symbiosis International University, Pune. When asked what her hobbies are she points to an overflowing bookcase.

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