Sad as it may be to admit it, summer is definitely over, and we’re now up to our welly-booted ankles in autumn. For some, this is a time to mourn the long days and balmy nights of the months just passed; for others, however, there is a distinct air of intrigue and excitement fizzing around the darkening days. After all, the month of October can surely only mean one thing… Halloweeeen!
Those of us of a spookier disposition will likely already have plans in mind for what is many people’s favourite time of year. For some it’s late-night movie marathons over mulled cider; for others it’s pumpkin carving, apple bobbing and trick-or-treating.
Whatever your plans, it’s unquestionable that this time of year is a huge source of creative inspiration. There’s something about the month of October that really seems to get imaginations going, and for those with a penchant for the peculiar or petrifying, it’s the perfect opportunity to put pen to paper, and try your hand at writing a horror story of your own.
Sounds like you, but you’re not sure where to begin? Never fear (or do!) – here’s our top tips for spinning the spookiest of yarns…
It’s one thing to hear of horrifying events happening to others; it’s another entirely if you feel they could be happening to you. To really get under the skin of your reader, it’s vital that they are able to fill the boots of your protagonist – to place themselves into your world, and to really feel what your characters are feeling.
To assist this it’s crucial that your characters are relatable; they don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be genuine and understandable.
“The beating undead heart of horror is the knowledge that bad things happen to good people.” - Karen Woodward, writer
Use this universal fear to your advantage – terror will grow as much from the “horror” element of your writing as from the normal, everyday protagonist who has to experience it.
Legendary writer of the Goosebumps series R L Stine has a theory about the four emotions horror writers need to play on to elicit the strongest reaction:
FEAR – think threats, think danger, and think about what really makes someone feel afraid
REVULSION – how do you feel about a bathtub full of writhing maggots? Not great? Neither does your reader – revulsion is hard-wired into every one of us
SURPRISE – if you can keep your reader guessing, or confuse and disorient them in any way, it’ll be all the easier to shock them. Think the unthinkable – they won’t expect the unexpected!
TERROR – ever been so full of dread that you can barely turn the next page? And yet you do anyway? Terror is a compelling emotion that grips your reader and prevents them putting your writing down, so use it to your advantage.
What are you afraid of? There are inevitably a million answers to this question, but many are universal. What global truths can you tap into? Many fears – heights, spiders, the dark – are part of our genetic makeup that can be traced back to early humans making their way in a world full of dangerous predators, so can easily elicit profound feelings in your reader.
Other common horror archetypes are a little more mysterious. Most of us have never met a ghost, a vampire or a werewolf, for example. And while the majority would likely accept that they don’t exist… there can still be a niggling doubt. This, once again, is linked to the fear of the unknown; cryptic creatures whose behaviours and abilities cannot be predicted leave much more room to shock and surprise.
Think carefully about what essence of fear you want to use, but be mindful not to give it away too early – let your reader’s own imagination do the work for you, and leave plenty of room for them to fill in the blanks with their own favourite phobias. What’s more, make sure you keep one foot firmly planted in reality, or you’ll lose the relatability we mentioned before.
As in, write about sense and sensation! If you want to really ratchet up the fear, you have to make it as easy as possible for the reader to transport themselves into the world you’ve created, and the quickest route is through the senses.
Make use of all five for the fullest effect – writers often reach for sights and sounds, but the most evocative sensory experiences are often through our nose and mouth, or the strange slimy texture of an unknown object stumbled upon in the dark… you get the idea! Don’t feel like you have to use all five senses in every scene, but do try to make use of the full range for maximum impact.
We’ve all had that same thought watching old slasher movies – our humble protagonist runs screaming from the kitchen into the hallway, yet given the choice between the staircase and the front door, inexplicably they opt for the former, trapping themselves in a closed off area where they can more easily be picked off.
This kind of thing will take your reader out of the story in two ways – not only does it seem like a wildly unrealistic way to behave, it’s also something everyone has seen a million times before! Avoid any and every cliché you can to keep your writing fresh and to keep your reader engaged – nothing predictable has ever scared anyone. What’s more, the more believable your characters’ behaviour, the more easily your reader will be able to relate to them.
Think you’re ready? Perfect. Lock the windows and doors, light a candle, and pick up your trusty pen and notebook – it’s fright time. To really set the mood, we’ve picked out a few of our favourite items from the store which ought to help with the haunt. Browse below, if you dare...