The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …
— Stephen King
Although my longer fiction is usually science fiction or fantasy with a hint of romance, my flash fiction often dips into the darker side of life. It’s not something I plan, it just happens that way. Maybe one of these days I’ll try something longer in horror, but until then I'm happy to stay short and scary. For the letter H, I'd like to share a some of the helpful advice I've been given over the years.
While many horror writers like to start with bang, making their readers sweat immediately, I like to be a little more subtle. Personally, I like to lull my readers into a false sense of security. I start with something every day - a couple on vacation, some kids having a party on the beach, a reporter in search of a story - and then, before they realize what's happening, things take a dark turn.
Like all fiction, you need to start with a strong character, more than one if you're writing a novel. But make your character(s) likeable, flesh them out. Give them a goal and then start throwing obstacles at them. The more you can get your readers to care about these characters, the more shocking it will be when bad things start happening to them.
Limit your point of view. Write your story from the viewpoint of the main characters and remain faithful to those points of view. Let readers experience everything through those characters’ eyes, memories and feelings.
Atmosphere is equally important. Use all the senses to make the reader picture everything. Make your world come alive. If your character is fleeing from some flesh eating zombie, you must imagine the terrified thoughts racing through his or her mind – the sounds, muted by terror, even the way the air smells and tastes.
Once, at a prompt from a writing forum I'm on, I wrote a flash piece where my character only had one sense. In a nutshell, there had to be a preternatural evil involved and your character could only have one sense – sound, touch, taste, or smell. They were not allowed to have sight. It was a great exercise.
Let your characters do the doubting. Their disbelief, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence, makes us accept the whole premise you’ve come up with. Letting your characters disbelieve, question, doubt, every incredible thing that happens puts readers on the side of the supernatural – just where you want them.
If you're having trouble coming up with an idea, try to pick a subject that scares you personally. The more emotional power you pack into your story, the more readers will become terrified with you. They will feel your horror as they read each terrifying word, and become scared with you.
Sometimes writing horror can be a great escape from everyday life. If you're thinking about it, here are some sites to check out that have far more comprehensive advice than I have to offer:
25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror
Five tips from H.P. Lovecraft
17 Ways to Write a Terrifyingly Good Horror Story
And if you are thinking about giving horror a try, then all I can say is, welcome to the dark side. ;-)