3 Vital Keys to Every Great Horror Story

The gate swings open.

Beyond the rusted iron bars, you see only darkness. A note lies at your feet.

Fresh, red ink reads:

“Dear Writer,

I know what you want:

The secrets to writing a truly great horror story.

Enter my domain, and you will have what you seek – but beware –

Enter softly, and enter alone. There are things in this place that are best left undisturbed…


Key #1 – Enter the Strange Unknown

Chill air sighs from beyond the gate. As if the darkness itself is breathing.

You think about turning back.

You think:

Maybe I’ll find another way to hone my craft…

“You won’t,” a voice says from the darkness.

The voice – her voice – is just sweet enough for you to listen…

“Come in, and discover the first key to writing truly horrifying stories…”

…and just vile enough for you to worry.

What is the Strange Attractor?

As the darkness swallows you, you begin to realize…

this is the first key to all horror:

A dark, irresistible promise, shrouded in the unknown.

But it’s not just any promise. There is something curious – seductive, even – that must compel you forward. Even when you know it’s wrong.

Cold, and dripping, you shuffle down the steps, deeper into the gloom. Laughter haunts your footsteps.

The Unknown Must Endure… Forever

Every time you think you might see the owner of the voice…

…her laughter dances away from you. You curse yourself for not bringing a flashlight.

This, then, is the other half of the secret to great horror:

Never let your readers see the horror.

The moment you hold a light to it, it becomes certain, and “knowable.”

When you can know something, you can explain it with logic. But great horror must always defy logic.

Instead, it sinks into your emotions… like the cold sinking into your bones.


Key #2 – The Isolation

“Sweet thing,” her voice calls you down, deeper.

Now, you can’t help but follow. Thick, uneven stones, painted with a scarce – but slick – mossy growth. At least, you hope it’s moss.

A dark shape flits in front of you, always out of sight.

But as you go deeper, it seems to grow sharper. More there.

“Do you remember my note?” she says, “Did you come alone?”

It’s only then that you realize… it’s just you down here.

You, and the darkness, and her.

When We’re Alone, Our Worst Fears Flourish

“Do you understand now?” her voice is close now.

Too close. Is she behind you?

Isolation is the horror writer’s delight,” she says, “When my prey is alone… it can’t help but imagine. Without anyone there to dispel the imagination… your fears will flourish.

A flash of light sparks in front of you. What was that?

A hand? Or were those teeth?

That’s it, you think. This isn’t worth it.

It’s time to turn back.

It’s time to get out of here, before she – whatever she is – decides to –

Shadows fall. The light pouring down the stairwell flickers.

Goes out.


Key #3 – For Whom the Stakes are Raised

You are blind. The kind of blind that makes people forget what it’s like to see.

You put your hands in front of you, and touch something hard. Wet and cold.

It’s stone. You’re certain it’s stone.

A little to the left, and the stone is covered in something slimy. You hope it’s moss, or something like it.

Where are the stairs?

Something hot on the back of your neck. Breath.

“Are you ready?” she whispers, and only now do you hear – below the soft, sweet tones – the slavering, monstrous jaw. Drooling. Unhinging.

Make it Worse for the Most Empathetic Character

“Are you ready for the third key to horror?”

Something wet slides up your neck. It burns.

“The last thing you must always do is raise the stakes. But you can’t just raise the stakes on anyone… it must be a character that you care about. And in this case-”

A long, sharp claw slides up your back, and presses against your neck.

“-that means you.”

Writing Horror is Simpler than You Think…

Go read any horror story, and you’ll see these three keys every time:

  • The unknown
  • Isolation
  • Raised Stakes for an Empathetic Character

You can even see these horror elements in non-fiction, or comedy/horror podcasts like The Last Podcast on the Left.

Now that you have these keys, you can write the next great horror story…

…without having to delve into some dark, evil-infested lair.

Related: 19 Current Resources for Horror Writers

What do you think?

I’m experimenting with a different style of “teaching through storytelling.” Did you find this helpful? Entertaining? Let me know in the comments below!

16 thoughts on “3 Vital Keys to Every Great Horror Story”

  1. Pingback: The 3 Vital Keys to Every Great Horror Story — P. S. Hoffman – horrorwriter

  2. I love the way you wrote this; you illustrated points in the exact manner that people should be writing theirs. Very effective and made me want to continue on, just to see the conclusion.

    1. I’m really glad it worked for you. Was a little scared to experiment like this, but I thought – screw it, it’s a blog post, what is there to lose? Let’s see if it works.

  3. It’s an interesting way to approach it and much more effective than just saying ‘do this, and don’t do that’. For me as a reader and writer, horror has to be restrained. Intense, spine-chilling, but not full of bloody violence and gore. That just turns me off completely. Thanks for this. 🙂

    1. Restrained is an excellent word. I think that’s part of “you should never be allowed to see IT” – whatever it is – in full view. The moment it becomes a gore-fest is the moment it loses the horror…

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