How Do You Define Horror?

Human skull
Photo courtesy Pixabay.

Is it any wonder Halloween comes at this time of year? Falling leaves, wind, sudden chills, early darkness. It’s obviously the season for such things as witches and ghosts.

I write all the time, but as All Hallows Eve approaches again, I find myself pondering a new book to follow my award-winning horror novel BLOOD LAKE. Gotta be something in the air.

If you’ve ever wanted to write a horror story, too, remember the word comes from the Latin horrere, meaning to tremble or shudder. According to the Oxford English Dictionary horror means an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust.

The best horror stories share several elements in common:

    1. They explore ‘malevolent’ or ‘wicked’ characters or deeds.
    2. They arouse feelings of fear, shock or disgust, as well as the sense of the uncanny. Things are not what they seem. There is a heightened sense of the unknown and/or mysterious.
    3. Horror stories convey intense emotion, mood, tone and environments. Together, these elements produce the sense that everything is charged with ominous possibility.
    4. They contain scary and/or shocking plot twists and story-reveals. In horror stories, ghosts and werewolves are always very, very real.
    5. They immerse readers in the macabre. Horror tends to deal with morbid situations, from repetitive cycles of violence to death-related uncanny scenarios.

So, how do you write a horror story like Stephen King?

Good question. Start with these tips:

Use a Strong, Pervasive Tone
How you describe settings, character movement and actions creates an overarching tone in all fiction. If you do it right your writing can have readers’ spines tingling before a single character has spoken, or made a terrible decision.

You can also create an ominous tone through indirect means. For instance, when objects that should be stationary move. Or when the viewpoint character is disoriented, or a peculiar character seems to materialize out of nowhere.

You should work at creating consistent mood and tone no matter what kind of fiction you want to write, but if you want to write a scary novel, your focus should be on ways you can make actions and descriptions work together to establish an uneasy atmosphere.

Give Wicked Characters Credible Motivations
When you write a horror novel, it shouldn’t read as though a malevolent force is sitting at a bus stop, waiting to infiltrate your unsuspecting characters’ world.

You need to give every malevolent character a strong, clear motivation. Revealing exactly what the motivation is can be part of the mystery that sustains your story and keeps readers guessing why unsettling things keep happening.

If there’s a malevolent force in your horror novel, make their motivation similar in magnitude to the character’s actions. Readers will scoff if the creepy doll in your novel goes on a murderous rampage simply because somebody took out its batteries.

Use the Core Elements of Tragedy
Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its most theatrical form. Tragedy is born through character flaws, bad choices, or grave missteps. In horror stories we get scared because, as readers, we see the signs foolhardy characters don’t.

In other words, to write a credible horror novel, you must show that the horror-filled situation is dependent on a network of character choices, past or present. At its heart, horror fiction reminds us that cause-and-effect is real, even in the fantastical realm of storytelling.

Tap Into Common Human Fears
Making readers scared creates tension and increases the pace of your story. Even so, there should be a reason for making them fearful. A terrifying situation should be central to the plot, and should be driven by some cause (even if the reader can only guess what the precise cause is).

If the point of horror writing is to arouse fear, shock or disgust, think of the things of which people are most commonly afraid.

For instance, here are some of the most common fears people have. Most relate to physical and/or mortal danger, but you can also draw on other common fears, such as humiliation, inadequacy or failure.

    Fear of animals (rabid dogs, snakes, sharks)
    Fear of flying
    Fear of the dark – one of the most fundamental fears
    Fear of heights
    Fear of other people, and their often unknown intentions
    Fear of ugly or disorienting environments

Think of how common fears can be evoked in your horror fiction. A less precise fear (such as the fear of certain spaces) will let you tell the horror story you want with fewer specified must-haves.

Terror vs Horror: Learn the Difference
To learn how to write horror novels, it’s useful to understand the difference between the two. Both have their place in horror writing.

Terror describes a state of feeling. Oxford Dictionaries simply define it as ‘extreme fear’. Horror, however, also suggests elements of disgust and surprise, or shock. Thus, the word ‘horror’ describes not only extreme fear but also revulsion and a sense of surprise.

Horror writers understand the difference between terror and horror. For Stephen King, terror is a feeling the author tries to evoke in the reader, before resorting to shock tactics such as surprising them with the extreme or unpleasant.

“I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud.”

King’s quote suggests that if you can create terror in the reader before there’s even a gross-out moment or sickly reveal in your horror novel, you’re winning.

I succeeded once with BLOOD LAKE. I’m going to try to do it again.

Are you game to try?


My books have all garnered some terrific reviews, and you can see the ones I have available by using the Amazon link below. Look for them. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

On Saturday, October 21, 2017, I attended the Tenth Annual Rochester Writers’ Fall Conference at Oakland University. Once again, it was a spectacular day. I strongly encourage you to attend the next one, if you can.

On Sunday, October 22, 2017, I was invited to participate in the Books & Authors Event at the eclectic lifestyle store, Leon & Lulu, in Clawson, Michigan. There should be another one in the spring, and I hope to see you there.

As a four-year student of Monteith College, the former honors college at Wayne State University, I was invited to attend a special celebration and recognition ceremony on Tuesday, October 24, 2017, honoring Monteith’s contributions to the WSU scholarly legacy. It was an interesting night. I’m glad I went.


You’re invited to visit my website, BROKEN GLASS, or
like my Book of Face page. You can find me on Goodreads, or follow some of my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


Visit my web site to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” by The Authors Show.


Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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7 Responses to “How Do You Define Horror?”


    How do I define horror?

    Easy – – – – –

    $14 beers at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don Massenzio Says:

    Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio.


  3. hellojenbug Says:

    Great read Ron. I’m enjoying all the horror movies this time of year. Somehow Stephen King gets more interesting around this month. As I get deeper into my book I realize I’m basically writing a horror story that has a pleasant ending. I think we all carry a scary story inside of us. It’s hard to set it free. Keep your stories coming.

    Liked by 1 person

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