Tips For Writing & Maintaining A Horror Atmosphere

This article has been contributed by Alexis Feynman, also known as "J." Thanks, Alexis!

Horror stories are one of humanity's best-loved traditions, especially around the Halloween season. With so many people writing and sharing their stories, it's important to take a look at the tropes and practices that produce the best horror, and why they work. Here are five practices that will drastically improve the quality of your horror and ensure that maximum pants are crapped.

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Get your characters out of their comfort zones.

This doesn't mean that your characters need to be in danger, all the time. Far from it - depending on the story, they may be relatively safe anywhere from 40-100% of the time. But that doesn't mean they should feel safe.

You can shake the characters out of their comfort zones in a myriad of different ways. You can establish conflict between them and something in their surroundings - maybe they live in a neighborhood they hate, or are having a disagreement with their parents. You can write that things are going badly that week; maybe their car's broken down or their grades came out lower than they expected. Their experience need not be wholly negative - even moving to a new home, or trying to get a desired job can be stressful and discomforting.

Keep description to a necessary minimum.

Description is an important part of storytelling, but when you're trying to keep an unsettling atmosphere, it's imperative not to go overboard depicting things that are neither spooky nor directly related to the plot. It's typically not necessary to mention what your characters are wearing, or what kind of couch they're sitting on - unless that description contributes in some way to creating an ominous atmosphere.

When you do need to describe something, try to use neutral or factual terms rather than positive ones. "Attractive" is more appropriate than "beautiful," although in general you should avoid making your setting too pretty or appealing - simply giving a brief rundown of the character or object's appearance is the best option. And no matter what you're describing, try to avoid using "flowery" or overly obscure prose. A word like "squamous" might be fun to write, but for the average reader it's going to be confusing at best and evoke the wrong image at worst.

Don't let things get too slow or calm.

An important aspect of horror is maintaining a level of tension in the reader. While the exact level you need will vary from scene to scene (some being extremely tense, while others may allow the reader to relax for a bit) it's important to maintain at least some sense of risk at all times.

Again, how you do this is up to you. Some scenes call for a scare or two - someone popping out unexpectedly, or a strange noise coming from somewhere out of sight. Other times, a run-in with an antagonistic character or a sudden change in atmosphere will do the job.

Most importantly: don't let the status quo rest. Scares and tension can only carry a story for so long if nothing significant changes. You could have skeletons popping out of every closet, but if that's all that's been happening for pages on end you're going to lose your tension.

Try not to go overboard with your visual cues.

Visual cues are an integral part of the horror-writing process. Often a character's first clue that something is wrong comes from something they've seen - a flash of a figure that shouldn't be there, a twitch or physical deformity showing that something is wrong with the monster's disguise, or even a squat, shambling alien.

Done right, visual cues can ramp up the spook factor spectacularly. However, it's easy to go overboard, especially when it comes to adjectives. A dead body with its throat torn out can be a useful set piece; on the other hand, an "ashen, glassy-eyed corpse, nailed cross-style to the ceiling of its house with a look of perpetual horror on its face, an inverted pentagram burned into its hands, and oozing half-dried, crimson blood from a series of jagged gashes in its torso" is a bit much.

Don't get too stuck on the same tricks, either. A scare that is effective once is going to be only marginally effective the second time, obnoxious the third, and quite possibly hilarious the fourth. Keep doing the same thing over and over, and your audience will come to expect it - and after that, it's almost impossible to keep it scary.

Minorities are not atmospheric props.

Some of the most effective horror is based on the real world. Anything that scares us, from spiders to dark bathrooms to clowns, can be used to enhance your horror setting or even serve as the monster itself (if you have one). Some of the most effective authors have their best moments when preying on the reader's fear of things that actually exist. Even people can be scary - individuals who menace or hamper the protagonist, or even entire communities behaving in abnormal ways, can all be effective horror props.

However, when your idea of "scary people" is traveling entertainers, small ethnic communities, or members of obscure religions, it's time to take a reality check. Here's why:

First, it's inappropriately simplistic to paint all members of the same group with one brush. Even among a close-knit community of people with similar identities, they are going to have differences and disagreements that take up a large part of their attention. If their members are spread out over a wide area, or are made up of multiple sects? You're looking at a herd of cats, not a spooky monolith of unspecified danger.

Second, most of the "threat" comes not from anything that the real minorities are actually doing, but from stereotypes and paranoia perpetuated by the rest of society - and these perceived threats typically fall apart under scrutiny. So-called g**sy magic? Even if the people in question could do that, a group of nomads so poor they can't even afford decent medical care wouldn't waste precious magical energy punishing your white hero for being kind of an ass. Shop lady in Chinatown punishing some obnoxious teenager for being... well, an obnoxious teenager? She probably has more important things to worry about than yet another obnoxious customer. Some small-town pagan coven is going to sacrifice you to their gods? Sure, except the majority of actual covens kill no more people than your average health club. Some clandestine order or cult planning to throw the world into chaos and confusion with dark magics? Most orders and cults are too busy trying just to manage themselves and their own affairs to worry that much about the rest of the world.

Also check out:

More Tips For Horror
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Basic Tips To Make Scarier & Better Creepypasta & Horror Creeps
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
Things Writers Get Wrong About Bladed Weapons
Creepypasta & Horror Creep Generator
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Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades

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