August 12, 2018

How to Write a Horror Novel in 10 Easy Steps

by Ken Preston in Writing0 Comments

All right, I’ll admit it, that’s a kind of click bait title. I just wanted to entice you onto my blog in the hope that you might like what you see and stick around for a while, maybe even fill in one of those pop-up forms and subscribe to my email list.

That way I will have you in my power and I can SELL stuff to you!!

Or maybe not.

Maybe I do actually have the ten-step formula needed to write horror.

Well, the only way you can find out, my friend, is to read on.

Here goes then –

How to Write a Horror Novel in 10 Easy Steps


1. Forget about finding a ten step formula.

Honestly, all those 10 step, 3 step, 1,582 step plans for getting shit done, they’re useless. Click bait. You have a problem, the title of the blog/book/magazine article promises a simple solution.

We all love instructions, don’t we? Except Ikea instructions. I hate those.

Instructions give us a step by step method to achieving something. You put this here and insert this there and you get that result.

A bit like sex.

Wait, what?

Anyway, moving on.

Instructions are great for putting a cabinet together, or cooking a chocolate cake, but when it comes to something as complicated as writing a full length novel?

Hmm, not so good.

Writing a novel is like herding cats.

The cats in this case being the characters in your book. You’d think, given the fact that I invented them, conjured them from the depths of my own dark imagination, that they would do what I told them, right? Just like those cats who I feed and water and give shelter to every day. But no. The characters in your books will do what they damn well please, and bugger the consequences.

Also, writing a book takes a helluva long time, much more than just an afternoon spent surrounded by screws and bolts and shiny sheets of MDF, or handcuffs, KY Jelly and a bucket of vanilla flavoured body paint.

It can take months, or even years. And that’s a lot of time to spend thinking about how you’re not making any progress, and where the hell has that cat gone now, and wouldn’t it be easier to just give up now and go and rewatch another episode of The Punisher on Netflix?

Yeah, those 10 step plans for writing a novel, they may have their place, but at the end of the day you only need two things to write a book.

The ability to herd cats, and a take no shit, head down stubbornness to get that job done.

2. Writing a horror novel is like writing any kind of novel.

See above.

Wait, you want more?

Okay, so you need the ability to sit down at your desk every day, even if the thought of doing so fills you with horror. Like, you’d rather pluck your eyeballs out with dry spaghetti or wrestle a ravenous tiger in a lake packed with hungry piranha whilst Celine Dion belts out her greatest hits on the shore.

What else do you need?

I suppose you might need a story, or something approaching a story to begin with. At the very least you need a person in a situation and that person needs to get out of that situation.

Look, here is one of the best pieces of writing advice you will ever read:

“Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five. He knew a few things about writing books.

And really, some days that’s all you need.

Look at Stephen King’s Misery, for example. Paul Sheldon, author of the Misery Chastain books, is being held captive by his greatest fan, Annie Wilkes. The thing is, in his latest novel he has killed off his lead character Misery, but Annie wants him to bring her back. Or else bad things will happen to Paul.

By all accounts, Stephen King began writing his novel with nothing more than this idea in place. He wrote the book to find out for himself what actually happened at the end. And it didn’t finish the way he thought it would.

Herding cats again.

But what about creating a plan, an outline, a structure to write to?

Yes, you can go that way too, if you like. As there are roughly 2,629 ways of writing a novel it’s up to you to choose which one works best for you.

But while you’re doing that you really need to be thinking about something else, which leads us neatly on to —

3. You’ve got to care about the characters to care about what happens to them.

That doesn’t mean you have to make all your characters perfectly nice and lovely. In fact, that would make them boring. But we need to care about them, or identify with them, in some way. We need to have some kind of emotional response, otherwise what’s the point? We could be reading a manual on how to put together an Ikea cabinet whilst listening to Celine Dion.

Take Tom Mills for example, a character from my vampire/gangster thriller/horror book Joe Coffin Season One.

Now, he really is a piece of shit. Readers absolutely loathe Tom. And I mean, seriously hate him.

Why is that? Because, although he is a waste of space and does some terrible things, readers still kind of identify with him. There are reasons why he does what he does. They’re not good reasons, they don’t make his actions forgivable, but they make him a rounded person. They bring him alive.

And Joe Coffin, he is the hero of the novels but he’s not exactly a good guy either. But my readers love him. Especially the women.

We care about what happens to him and many of the other characters and that’s the rocket fuel that gets the reader from the beginning of the book to the end.

4. The only way to write a novel is to write a novel.

You can’t write a novel by watching episodes of Love Island.
You can’t write a novel by reading lots of novels (although that is an essential part of the process).
You can’t write a novel by reading lots of books on how to write a novel.
You can’t write a novel by thinking about writing a novel.
You can’t write a novel by telling everyone you are writing a novel.
You can’t write a novel by stalking people on FaceBook.
You can’t write a novel by researching all the crap you need to know about the shit that happens in your novel.
There’s only one way of writing a novel.
Guess what it is.
You have to sit down and write a novel.

5. You can’t make readers jump with sudden noises or movement, so how are you going to scare them?

You’re not making a film, all right? You don’t have the luxury of jump cuts and big bangs and all the other tricks that film makers have up their sleeves.

You have words. Those funny little squiggles printed in lines on sheets of paper.

This makes your job more difficult and yet the rewards for when you succeed are potentially greater. A good book that sucks you into its world, makes the world around you disappear, is like no other experience ever.

Look, I love films. Horror, comedy, fantasy, drama, action and adventure, superhero movies, musicals, I love them all. Hell, I even travelled to New York once just to watch a film.

But a wonderful book that pulls you into its narrative, its world, and is populated with characters who become your friends?And while you can’t make a reader jump out of their seat in the same way that a film can, like that scene from Jaws, you can still surprise them and send them cold with dread or horror.

The very last line of Pet Semetary by Stephen King is a good example of this.

The Gypsy’s Curse by Harry Crews is another one.

Grab your reader by the scruff of their neck and drag them under.

They’ll thank you for it.

6. Don’t try to be original, you just end up being a smartass.

Look, do I really need to say anything more?

You want to be original?

Go to art school.

Teach yourself everything you can about the history of art, literature, music, the world.

Then rip the rulebook up and do something completely different.

The thing is, it takes a special kind of dedication to to something like that.

And it probably won’t get read by very many people.

And most of them will dismiss you as a smartass.

Most of us, we don’t like originality. We like the same old story, over and over again. Can you guess what it is?

“Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

That’s right, we love that story. Your job is to find new ways of telling it, of involving your reader in that story so that no matter how much they dread knowing what comes next they just can’t stop reading. You want them sitting in bed long past the time they should have turned the lights out and gone to sleep, a sleep no doubt filled with nightmares. You want them thinking to themselves, just one more chapter, one more chapter.

You don’t get that by being original.

7. What do you want to do? Make them puke or stay awake all night clutching the bedspread, wide-eyed with fear?

Making them puke is easy.

Actually, it’s not as easy as it used to be.

But then neither is scaring them silly.

Although you definitely want to avoid falling into the trap of trying to be original, you still need to find new ways of scaring your reader. Of unsettling them.

I wish I could tell you how that works, but I am still trying to figure it out myself.

Again, it comes down to credible, emotionally resonant characters and a believable story.

Now look, when I say believable that doesn’t mean to say your story can’t be outlandish and utterly ridiculous. But whilst your reader is in your world, no matter how unbelievable that world is, your reader has to accept it. Be enthralled by it.

Be living in it.

That way you can get under their skin and start doing your magic.

Unsettle them. Creep them out.

When it works it’s the best feeling in the world.

8. Ensure that your reader is reading your book in a remote castle, preferably haunted, with creepy music playing and a ghoulish butler serving canapes of blood and flesh.

Of course this isn’t possible. That’s what cinemas are for. Turn the lights down so you forget where you are. Crank the volume up. Start rolling that projector.

The cinema controls the environment to maximise the effect.

You don’t have that luxury.

Your book might take place in a haunted castle on a dark and stormy night, but your reader may well be sat on a beach in the midday sun, eating ice cream and thinking about going for a dip in the sea.

Get those words down on the page, the right words in the right order, and you may well make them forget their surroundings, the sand and the sea, forget that ice cream and that idea about going for a swim. The temperature will plummet, the sunshine will dim, the laughter and chatter of kids playing in the sand will fade away, and all will be replaced by darkness and screams and the wet snap of bones crunching beneath the bloodied axe of that maniac wearing a Celine Dion mask.

It’s not easy, but it’s damn satisfying when it works.

9. Write the damn thing in your own blood.

Anyway, if all else fails write your damn horror book using your own blood on pages fashioned from the flesh of your victims.

Guaranteed bestseller.

10. Take no notice of blog posts titled How to Write a Horror Novel in 10 Easy Steps.

Sit down and do the work.

Ignore the rules, follow the rules, bend the rules, write your own rules.


Just write.


Ken Preston

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