Horror Stories: A Simple Formula


Stormy Castle

Still no chart; don’t hate. I’m working on it. I’ll have a nice little chart for you all to download here soon. It will help you reference the tenses of different verbs so you can stay on track with your writing. Just be sure to thank me later after I’ve actually finished it. We are going to cover my favorite genre, horror, and how to convey it appropriately today. I’m working on a horror series for a start-up right now and would like to give a little instruction on how to do justice to this oft maligned genre. I use a simple formula for writing horror and since I’m feeling especially generous right now, I am going to share it with you.

It’s about the tragedy.

What keeps us up at night? Tragedy.

Why do we believe in the fallacious Just World Theory? To make a feeble attempt at staving off tragedy.

What is regret? Tragic, and something everyone over the age of six months experiences.

What is the human condition? A tragedy.

Have a tragedy befall your character, and don’t let it go to waste. Never let a good tragedy go to waste, especially your own. Use the horror in your own life to weave a tale of terror for your readers. Make lemonade out of lemons.

Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most prolific writers of this genre, watched his mother, his adoptive mother, and his young wife die of consumption, an ugly way to go. They called it the White Plague. You can hear the despair in his words, like they are set to their own ghoulish tune.

Steven King struggled with alcoholism for years. He used it as the basis for Misery.

That’s what scares people. A tragedy, because we all experience them.

Dread and Disgust

Dread and disgust are the quintessential elements of horror. You can achieve this with the tone and mood of the story.

Setting isn’t as important as mood, or your word choices. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of  a foreboding mood in a happy place, like an amusement park or a wedding, can set a dreadful tone.

In the film El Orphanato, the MC Laura throws a party for the orphanage’s opening. Behind the crowd of happy, smiling, laughing children, Laura spies this image:

Creepy Mask

Egads. The contrast between the cheerful and the macabre can disgust and repulse the reader.


The rain had stopped and the sun shone bright through the dispersing clouds. Samuel and Elyse walked through the crowded streets of the town, enjoying the festivities of the annual spring festival. Elyse looked up at him and smiled, and he saw a commotion on the sidewalk behind her. A turkey vulture, his lifeless eyes staring into Samuel’s, devoured the corpse of a raccoon. Samuel shivered despite the heat.

Sometimes, setting your horror story in an otherwise cheerful place can help you avoid cliches and surprise and disgust your reader.

Horror writing is very much character driven.

All good stories have a plot, and while most genres are heavily plot driven, horror stories tend towards the psychological, and are therefore, more or less character driven.

Your character’s psychological make-up is extremely important in a horror story. Getting this formula right will give the story a creepy, disquieting tone (I covered tone and mood in this post on short story writing). Your character’s perception is what really matters here. A character’s back story will inform their perceptions. Flesh out the character, and get into their head.

Now, for the formula:


Underlying message+tragedy to show it+character’s perceptions+revulsion and dread= horror story.

For example, the underlying message in Nefarious is the loss of empathy. I’m going to use Talcott’s story arc here.

So, Talcott’s tragedy is the horrors of war. As far his backstory goes, he lost his mother and brother at a very young age to TB. He finds no glory in war, instead, seeing it as an unwelcome intruder. He longs for his fiance, but thinks they are doomed because of what he has seen and that he is now a twisted version of his former self. Talcott believes he would be doing her a disservice by going back to her.

Revulsion here is easy; it’s a battlefield. So is dread; Talcott finds himself hunkering down in a dug out with three other men while the British bombard their front line for a week.

My word choice throughout the story sets the mood here for a macabre, depressing read. Abyss, cuts, brutal, corpse, miasma, fetid, and rats. Lots of rats.

So, when you are writing horror, remember the formula:

Underlying message+tragedy to show it+character’s perceptions+revulsion and dread= horror story.

Good Luck.