Horror 101: Susan Vaught's Tips for Writing a Great Horror Story

Susan Vaught knows a thing or two about making readers shiver in fear and sleep with the lights on — and her latest release, Insanity, pulls out all the stops! With such a knack for writing an eerie and surprising horror story, Susan is the perfect author to share tips with us on how to write a creeptastic tale. So grab your pens and take notes! Take it away, Susan!

Writing horror is more than creating wicked villains and hiding them in dreary, dangerous locations. It’s more than sculpting heroes and heroines everyone can relate to, and plunging them into soul-threatening danger. To me, the two keys to bringing terror to life are sensory detail and uncertainty.

Horror becomes real when writers maximize the five senses. Readers need to find themselves trapped in the fear, unable to escape and unable to disengage. They have to be there, scrambling up the slippery hill in absolute darkness, tasting their own blood on their lips. They should smell the moss and wet rocks, shiver in the chilled wind and hear the slice of those gore-encrusted talons raking the dank air just below their bare feet.

It’s the sensory detail that makes or breaks a scary story.

Real fear has tastes and smells and sensations associated with it, imprinted forever on those who experience it. We all remember our clammy skin as we huddled in our beds, covers pulled tight around our head, hearing the noises. The creak of the floor. The soft, sly shuffles of movement behind us. The whiff of something just this side of rotten or dead or not completely human. We remember straining for any hint of what might be slithering out from the depths under our beds. It was dark. So dark. Night lights couldn’t chase away the inky black that threatened to swallow us, sure as any monster’s maw. We remember the helpless hammer of our hearts, and the rough sheet clenched in our shaking fists.

When I write horror, that’s what I want to capture. More than that, I want to drag readers back to those breathless, awful moments when we knew — knew — that whatever was sliding out from under that bed was coming for us, that we’d die screaming and alone, and our parents would find us in the morning and never ever know what happened.

That’s the second element of great horror: uncertainty. Readers are never sure in scary stories who will live and who will die, and whether or not the good guys will make it out of that broken-down house alive. The rules are different in horror. In fact, there aren’t rules, right? Except for those little fears we all share, whether we admit it or not.

Uncertainty. Yes. That’s it. Uncertainty, and sensory detail. These are the elements that create real terror and bring readers back again and again to go to war with their own worst fears. So pick up a good scary book. Go on. What can it hurt? It’s not like there’s a secret curse waiting for you just for opening it, or a monster hiding in your closet hoping you’ll get just distracted enough, or — wait a second.

Did you hear that noise?

- Susan Vaught

Eager to try your hand at writing horror now that you're armed with Susan's advice? Then get to it! And be sure to grab your copy of Insanity to help inspire you! For more YA books and authors, visit our Everything Young Adult Page.