Top Tips For Writing a Horror Story by CJ Skuse
The film director Alfred Hitchcock once said There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it and I fully agree. Think of all the horror movies you’ve seen; all the scary stories you’ve read. Think about your body language as the actor goes to open the front door, knowing there might be a terrible monster outside. Think about how fast your heart is beating, how quickly your fingers turn the page as the young girl scurries to hide in her cupboard from the awful ‘thing’ that’s got into her house. Once the ‘thing’ itself is revealed, the element of fear is all but gone – it just remains for the character we’re rooting for to get away from it and/or kill it.
Building tension in storytelling is vital. It’s not enough to just start eating or killing people at random – we first have to invest the audience in the story. For his movie Jaws, director Stephen Spielberg deliberately kept the audience’s suspense by not showing the big monster of the film – the Great White shark - until very late into the movie. Until that point, all we get is the blood in the water, the odd fin slicing through the blue, and that sinister theme music heralding its presence. The effect, once we finally see the shark, makes the movie all the more compelling.
In suspense writing, we aim to have the same effect on our audience. Keeping them waiting is just part of it. In my novel Monster I deliberately kept my ‘monster’ at bay until the last third of the story – we see signs of it throughout; the odd bloody trail in the woods, rumours of missing tourists and sightings of black shadows in the trees. Hopefully, by the time the audience sees it, they are full of suspense. Another key element is to build empathy for your characters. If we care about them, we will really care about the approaching threat to them; the late night knock on the door, the strange sound in the attic, the shadows in the trees outside.
The more we know about the enemy, the less frightening that enemy becomes, so keep that reader waiting for as long as you can – you can drop the odd gingerbread crumb along the way, but don’t give them the witch until they’re deep into the woods. My advice to writers beginning Halloween-inspired scary stories is three-fold:
1) Start with what really scares you and work from there. If it scares you, it’s bound to scare someone else too.
2) Use a main character who we can really care about. They’re the ones we really don’t want to see come to a sticky end so we will be rooting for them all the way.
3) And lastly – make your audience wait until the last possible moment for their monster. And if you do all that, you’ve got a recipe for spooky success right there.
THE DEVIANTS by CJ Skuse is out now in paperback (£7.99, MIRA Ink)
Find out more at @CeejaytheAuthor @HQYoungAdult