Horror: How to terrify your readers


27 October 2023
Bestselling horror author Yrsa Sigurdardottir explains how to frighten the living daylights out of your readers

I have been a fan of horror since childhood. This may sound as an exaggeration, but I can assure you that it is not.  I grew up when Icelandic parents still used scare tactics to get kids to behave. It is a wonderful method that I wholeheartedly recommend, although it comes with a difficult transition period when the child realises that there is no Grýla – an ogre that boils children alive and eats them, preferring the taste of naughty children to the blah taste of the well-behaved ones.

Incidentally this lovely lady is the mother of the Icelandic Yule Lads or Santa Clauses – who in turn steal food, peep through windows and slam doors. Their cat eats children that do not get new clothes for Christmas – the oddest member of a household full of crazy. This in combination with children’s verses about dead babies crawling around looking for their mothers, tales of the hidden people and various kid-'friendly' ghost stories will tend to make you a tad morbid.

When I wrote my first horror novel, I Remember You, the original intention was not to write horror but a book about fear. I did some soul searching to pinpoint what I was afraid of while looking for topics. The result was rather lacklustre and non-inspirational. What caused me anxiety were things akin to accidentally dropping my laptop, tripping over an E scooter or my barbeque cover being blown to sea during a storm. Like most mundane, modern-day worries these share a common non-thrilling element, namely that one can take mitigative measures to decrease the likelihood of their occurrence.

Enter horror. Ghosts, invading aliens, sharks, zombies, off-the-rail AI and spree-killers wearing masks made from the face of a former victim, do not negotiate. In a risk assessment, the column for mitigative measures for such occurrences would be empty. Aside from 'run and hide'. 

So now we are talking. For fear to be interesting and goosebump evoking it needs to be visceral and of the no-escaping variety. It must at least seemingly lead to the demise of the characters involved. And in this lies the beauty of writing horror. 

Writing interesting characters 101: Provide your characters with conflict and hurdles that will lead to insights into what makes them tick and force them to face their inner self. The horror premise is an excellent avenue to test characters, providing them with obstacles and forcing them to show their true colours. Will Mary offer up her best friend Beth to the devil to save herself? For me, both as a writer and a reader, this is more interesting than: Will Mary muster up the courage to tell her best friend Beth that she suspects that Beth is sleeping with her husband?

Writing good horror is not without its challenges. There are tropes and traps that should be avoided at all costs to avoid readers’ eye rolling. If these are absolutely required for some plot-related reason, at least make sure to find a good motive to 'split up', 'enter the musty basement' or leave saying 'I’ll be right back'. 

Another thing that should be kept in mind is pacing. A thriller is only thrilling when the worst thing has yet to happen. Will the bomb go off or will the hero cut the red wire a second prior? In horror, there can be numerous red wires as no one will raise an eyebrow if no one makes it out alive at the end. In addition, realism can be suspended to some degree. Mary can kill Beth by serving her up to the devil and yet Beth can return reincarnated and kick Mary into an open grave when Mary believes she is finally safe. In said grave could lie the body of her cheating husband, his eyes in the palm of his hand.

That being said, horror does not require ticking off the characters one by one in slasher-inspired fashion. If it is done well, it is more affective to raise the atmospheric pressure as the story matures. A mounting feeling of impending doom is often more chilling than the appearance of a monster or repeated axe attacks.

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Following a character that becomes increasingly aware that the situation is… how to put it… FUBAR, will add tension and unease to the reading experience. One way of accomplishing this is to increase the vulnerability of the characters, strip them of their safety nets and remove all hope of outside help. And add in other dangers to up the ante. In addition to the monster, spree killer, ghost or other evil entity that is after the characters, include a threat of starvation or thirst, exposure, fire, storms or unrelated dangers within the setting’s environment. 

Creepiness can be achieved by making innocent objects ominous, in addition to the somewhat overused creaking floorboards and squeaking door hinges. And nothing trumps sinister, foreboding children.       

Finally, it should be kept in mind that ghosts are only interesting if they have a reason for being present. A ghost going around haunting 'just because' can only work as a short story. A proper novel-sized ghost 'must' be on a mission, most typically to right a previous injustice. Old wrongs will be called out and the perpetrators made to pay. If only this applied to the real world.

The Prey by Yrsa Sigurdardottir is published by Hodder & Stoughton £20)


Want more horror? It's all around, says author Jamieson Shea.