writing horror

On WritingI tend to write dark stuff. Most of my stories are either dark fantasy or horror, and many of them don’t end well for at least some of the cast. This once prompted Nimue to comment that all my stories seem sad.

In truth, I try to weave a fair amount of humor into my stuff, and the more I write, the less consistently tragic my stories have become. Still, if you write horror, you’re going to occasionally put some of your characters through some pretty tough shit, and more than a few won’t make it out alive.

When I meet someone, they invariably ask the obligatory question, “What do you do?” I generally just say, “I’m a writer”–a response that causes me to swell with healthy pride every time I speak it. Then they ask, “What do you write?” So I tell them–horror and dark fantasy. Some people move right on at that point, uninterested in becoming a guinea pig for my current projects. Others just aren’t interested in those subjects. But some give me a thoughtful look and then ask, “How do you write horror? I could never come up with such dark stuff…”

It’s a valid question. How does one write horror? Where do horror writers get the twisted ideas we splash across the page? Are we really just clandestine lunatics masquerading as sane people? Or is there something fundamentally unhinged in our brains that allows us to take frequent mental trips to dark, shadowy places?

Not really. It’s actually a simple process. In fact, anyone who wants to can write effective horror. I’d even go so far as to argue it’s more than a little therapeutic. How do you do it? Just close your eyes, think of something you’re truly afraid of, and then…don’t stop thinking about it.

In your mind, you likely have a quarantined corner full of primal fears. It’s a dank place–rusty, old cages filled with angry, embittered monsters. Some of them have been locked away since you were a kid. If you want to produce good, riveting horror, just open one of those doors and let the thing out. Then, sit back and see what it does.

I’m serious. When I write horror, that’s all I’m doing. I think of things that scare me, and then I start imagining what would happen if…

And I don’t stop my mind from considering the darkest possible outcomes. Instead, I go with it. I throw characters into the mix, at least one of whom I identify with in some way, and I see how they react to whatever beast I’ve unleashed on them. I watch, and then I tell the story.

It’s a cathartic experience for me. I generally leave those writing sessions less afraid, myself. The deepest of all human fears, in my limited experience, is fear of the unknown. When I write a really demented piece of horror, what I’m really doing is exploring a dark possibility. The unknown becomes known. My worst case scenarios are played out before my very eyes, and I walk away a little less afraid for it.

I’m sure there are other ways to write horror, but that’s how I do it, and I’d wager just about anyone could use the same formula to craft their very own spooky tales. If, that is, they are inclined, and if they have the stomach for it. It’s no small thing to face your own fears, which is a big part of what makes horror so powerful as a genre. Both for the reader, and for the writer.


About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

8 Responses to writing horror

  1. tristdagon says:

    Do you smile deviously while you watch your characters reactions? I really hope you do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. diannegray says:

    This is a great explanation of horror writing, Dex. I’ve heard Stephen King can’t watch his movies because it makes him too scared (I don’t know how much truth is in this, but it sounds good) 😉

    When I tell people I’m a writer they immediately say ‘Children’s books or love stories?” – I hate that! I must look like a I write that kind of thing and I just say, ‘No – it’s all about murder” 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • dex says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Dianne, and for the compliment. To me, it’s more fun to write about dark things. Perhaps I’m a little twisted. Just a little.


  3. I have sort of touched on this too…the twisted what ifs we tend to think of…the ones we hope no one will ever know we thought of…that is….until we write them down and post them for all to see. LOL! Only you don’t seem afraid for anyone to know this about you…which I admire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dex says:

      Well, that’s why I rarely explain what’s personally related to me and what just popped into my head–I don’t want people to know too much! 😉


  4. dumanae says:

    But is there a formula to your story? I guess what I am asking is do you use a cookie cutter writing formula for your stories as such given in writing classes? That secret not so secret formula where the setting has do with…. your writing horror so this part of the story is blah. Then here is the part where you bring it to a boil. Oh now we simmer and finally you serve I.e. The ending. Does this question make sense? I know what I am trying to get across, yet worried I am not getting it across. The other side is do you just start writing see where it goes and when done clean it up and put it into a formalized context after pulling from free form?

    Liked by 1 person

    • dex says:

      I credit Stephen King with what little bit of formula I use. (His book, On Writing, is a must read for all writers.) I start with one of three elements:

      1. An interesting set up. If a hook comes to me, an opening scene, I’ll often start with just that with no idea at all of where it’s going, if anywhere. My current fiction series (The Dark Calling) began this way. The first post in that series (which is actually the first draft of a novel) was a 100-word flash fiction piece with no planned plot beyond the set up. When it bloomed into more, I was as surprised as anyone else. I think of set-ups and hooks all the time. Daily, even.

      2. An interesting character. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I think this is different from the first. Same idea, though. I’ll also say, I write character driven fiction, as opposed to plot driven fiction. I bank on suspension of disbelief (SoD), not an air-tight plot that has absolutely no holes. I firmly believe the key to good SoD is solid character development. I’ll hang with a plot that’s razor thin if I’m invested in the characters.


      3. A dark what-if question. (I borrowed this directly from Mr. King.) Sometimes, I just ask myself, “What if…”, and then run with the possible outcomes. “Under the Bed” was written based on this very exercise. I asked myself, “What it there really was a monster under the bed? And what if it was just as real for adults as for kids? And what if an adult had an encounter with it?”

      With all three approaches, I rarely have more than a suspicion regarding the outcome of the story when I start. I don’t know where things are going or how everything will resolve. (See “The Perfect Plot” for more thoughts on that.) When I first started writing, I thought I needed to know the outcome before I wrote the first sentences. It was scary to break from that model, but so liberating and so much more fun. Part of the fun of writing for me these days is the element of discovery. I push to finish stories because I want to know how they end.

      Does that sort of answer your question?


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