Note: This article will tell you how to write a short horror story, but not EVERY short horror story!
I spell-checked this but am not going to edit much; this is process documentation and experimenting, and I don’t want to make the story seem too polished.
Also, if you find yourself struggling or getting stuck, throw in some details about the setting–literally look up a similar setting on Google and describe it!
So you want to write a horror story (or you’re willing to give it a shot). You’re not looking to write a genius horror story, but you wouldn’t mind a fun writing prompt for a horror story for Halloween.
This method doesn’t cover how all horror stories get written. But it does combine some pretty common techniques I’ve done myself and have heard other writers describe as well. I’m including an example story that I made up following these steps, as I wrote down the steps, so you can see how it works.
Step 1: Pick something you’re scared of
This is pretty standard advice. Ironically, there aren’t a lot of horror novels written about dentistry! Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any, although I did think of Steve Martin in the 1986 movie version of Little Shop of Horrors.
Here’s my example:
I recently drove across the country to move to a new state, with my most valued possessions in the vehicle and my daughter beside me. I was terrified of the possibility of having an accident while being far, far away from anyone who could help.
Step 2: Pick a location
It can be fictional or real, but it has to both sound appealing and have at least one negative element.
You may not want to spend a lot of time describing your location, but if you pick something that appeals to you but you couldn’t live with full time, then your characters will have a reason to be there and a reason to leave.
That cozy cabin in the woods could be a great getaway…if only it were a little more civilized. Like with electricity, running water, flush toilets, and neighbors close enough to hear you scream.
At one point on my drive, Google Maps took me off the highway and onto multiple back roads in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere in Louisiana, I started to seriously consider the possibility that we were lost and never going to find our way out. There were a lot of deep woods surrounding us, houses with rows of busted cars out front, and sudden fields full of plants I didn’t recognize, along with a lot of signs for chemical plants. Don’t ask me exactly where it was—I just looked up the route on Google again, and it’s different now.
Step 3: Pick a person you know
It can even be yourself! But it has to be someone who does foolish things on a regular basis.
They shouldn’t be unintelligent, though, or people you hold in contempt. Just people who get into bad or awkward situations on a regular basis. What character trait makes them do those things?
Heck, why not me?
Step 4. Pick something that genuinely annoys you
I’ll tell you in a moment….wait for it.
Step 5. Come up with a title
Write down the name of the annoying thing and put it in title case. (Here’s a title case converter, if you don’t know how to do that.) Don’t use any brand names. Put it in quotes.
Voila! You have a title.
“Texting While Driving.”
Other good ways to name your story are after a place, object, or person, particularly a proper name. You can even string places, objects, and people together! Pick the most consistent element of the story, if you’re going to make the title a noun. If almost everything happens in one place, use the place name. If everything happens surrounding on person (like Dracula), use the person’s name. If everything revolves around an object (“The Monkey’s Paw”), pick that.
Step 6. Write your opening sentence(s)
Tell us about your character, setting, object or the thing that’s annoying—whatever you mentioned in the title. The character should be tense.
What do you call it when you’re lost and panicking and you feel like you can’t stop, not to ask for directions, not to get gas, not even to pull over on the side of the road and look at a map? What do you call it when you seriously catch yourself thinking, “Maybe I should just text someone” while driving?
Step 7. Write the rest of the opening
Tell us more about your character, setting, or the things that’s annoying, until you have covered all three things. Keep making the character tense!
I don’t know, but I did know I was on a road somewhere in Louisiana with New Orleans somewhere ahead of me. Or behind me. I had the GPS turned on but it hadn’t said anything for the last thirty miles on a stretch of road that seemed much longer, like it had been going on for hours. I kept checking the gas gauge in between quick glances around at the scenery around me.
The road was narrow, without a shoulder, and dropped rapidly off into a steep ditch full of water. It was patched, rough, full of potholes that made me swerve into the oncoming lane. God help me if I had to swerve at the same time a car was driving in the other direction. Most of the drive, I had been surrounded by thick woods that crowded up to the edge of the ditch, but there were small boxy houses, too, wrapped in rotting porches and cut out of the trees with their shaded front yards stuffed with rusty cars, no tires, window glass speckled with dirt.
Now and then an open field would pop out of nowhere, big and green, full of plants I didn’t recognize and bright in the sunlight—sunlight that vanished as soon as the woods closed around us again.
My daughter, nineteen, was asleep in the seat next to me. In the back were two air mattresses, a box full of tools, two suitcases stuffed full of tightly-rolled clothes, a ukulele, a few stuffed animals, and more, as much as I could pack inside, with just enough room at the top to see out the back window.
Step 8. Force the character to have to deal with the annoying thing in the setting
Have them try to deal with that thing three times but fail to do so, in three different ways. Each way should increase in the negative consequences of failing to deal with the thing and having to deal with the consequences of whatever the character just did.
The first time the character tries, their attempt should be pretty reasonable. The second time, it should be a little over the top. And the third time should be a bit crazed. With each failure, the annoyance should grow in scope or otherwise hint that it’s really about the thing you’re deeply afraid of.
The stranger or more twisted you get, the better!
My example, first attempt to get rid of the annoyance:
The radio had gone dead shortly after my daughter had fallen asleep. All that I could on the FM band was static and half-and I wasn’t about to listen to any AM stations. Trying to find music had given me a headache. I had turned it off.
My phone, sitting in the tray under the radio, buzzed.
I grabbed the phone, cursing myself for not getting a dashboard clip or something, and saw that someone had just texted me. I put the phone back in the tray. At least whoever it was hadn’t called. Was it my ex? I hoped not. What I was doing wasn’t illegal, but it felt that way, like any second I’d get pulled over and arrested for leaving, dragged back and made to stay. Whoever had just texted me, I didn’t want to know.It was quiet out there. I felt abandoned and alone. And bored. I would have pulled over somewhere but there were only the driveways leading straight to the houses, and small gravel roads leading deep into the woods or the sudden fields. It was dumb but I couldn’t do pull off onto those small stubby roads. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d get stuck, trapped.
Five miles later, bored and paranoid, I powered up the phone screen to look.
I propped up the phone on my steering wheel and thumbed in the password, looking up at the road in between characters.I unlocked the phone and brought up my text messages.
Second attempt to get rid of the annoyance:
I shouldn’t have looked.
EcoDynamics: Stop Pests, Cure Infections, And Grow Your Crop Like Nobody’s Business! Visit us for free treatment: https://ecodynamics.com/pestcontrol. Reply STOP to unsubscribe.
The screen was already open and the phone was already balanced on the steering wheel. I hit reply and started typing:S T O O
I snorted, rolling my eyes. Of course I’d hit the wrong letter. And of course this would be the one time that autocorrect hadn’t autocorrected me. Autocorrect was the worst—
A horn blared and I swerved back toward my lane.
It happened fast. I was already turning the steering wheel back toward the center of the road when the front right tire went over the edge of the road and into the ditch.
Everything after that was a jangle. The seatbelt jammed into my chest. I remember trying to put my hand in front of my daughter’s chest so she wouldn’t hit the dashboard. Then remembered that she was wearing her seatbelt, too.
Something hit me and I passed out.
When I woke up, my phone was buzzing again. Another text message. I felt sick to my stomach. Fuck EcoDynamics. And fuck me for trying to look at my phone screen. I knew better.
The air smelled like metal, not blood or rust but more like the pot metal that cheap earrings get made out of. A chemical smell. The air smelled of burnt wiring, too, and some kind of rancid green swampy smell. My daughter’s window had broken out, the safety glass falling out in chunks—fortunately outside the car.
The engine was dead and I was looking out the crackling front windshield into a field full of greenery. Luckily we hadn’t crashed into someone’s house.
My daughter was awake now, her dark eyes wide. “Mom?”
“Are you okay?”She nodded her head slowly.
I exhaled, then reached around to the back of my head. It hurt. I checked my hand; there was no blood on it.
The back window was full of tumbled boxes, stuff that had come loose. The back window was blocked. The side mirrors showed nothing, just some dark greenery behind us, plus a little dark gray strip of asphalt.
Whoever had honked at me hadn’t stuck around.
“Here goes,” I said, and put my hand on the key in the ignition.
“Mom,” my daughter said. “What if the car explodes?”
I ignored her and tried the key.
The engine started. It sounded hinky. But it was running.
I swallowed and put the car in reverse. Stepped on the gas.The wheels spun. We weren’t going anywhere.
I stepped on the brake, then put the car in drive, to rock us a little forward.
“Mom!” My daughter’s voice was strangled. “What’s that?”
I didn’t look.
The car inched forward. I turned the wheel hard to the left, shifted to reverse, and stepped on the gas again.
The car lurched, caught on something, and bumped backward out of the ditch. I slammed on the brakes as soon as we were out.
My daughter was pointing out the front window.
I put the car in drive and slammed on the gas. It felt like one of those dreams where you’re being chased by a monster and you can’t run fast enough to get away and you catch yourself thinking—and this is the worst—that maybe it would be better to just let yourself get caught.
But we were moving.
“Mom!” It was a scream now. “Mom!”
I pressed harder on the gas. I couldn’t see whatever was freaking my daughter out. At least we were moving.
The phone buzzed again.My daughter was twisted around in her seat, trying to look behind us. “I don’t see it, Mom, I don’t see it back there.”
“What? What don’t you see?”
“The thing that was in the water. I should be able to see it by now.”
“Was it an alligator?” Earlier, we had joked about wanting to see alligators in the ditch.
“No, Mom. It wasn’t.”
The way she said it meant she was done talking about it.
As long as she was safe, I didn’t care whether we talked about what had just happened or not.
I kept driving. “Check the phone. Tell me how long it is until the next turn. The next gas station. The next anything.”
She reached for the phone in the tray but it wasn’t there. It buzzed again. She reached around under her seat. The phone buzzed again.“It’s under your seat, Mom.”
I bent forward, reaching one hand downward to pat around my feet. My fingers found it, grabbed it. I straightened up, seeing that the screen was shattered.
But still unlocked.
The messages were a wall of text that I couldn’t read, all from the same sender, EcoDynamics.
Fuck EcoDynamics. I put the phone up on my steering wheel again.
Third attempt to get rid of the annoyance:
I hit the backspace and got rid of the second O. Then typed a P.
“Mom, what are you doing? You know it’s not safe to text while you drive.”
“Just watch the road,” I said, pressing the send button, then tossing the phone in her lap, which was what I should have done in the first place, or at least the second.
She stared at the screen.“What is this? Some kind of spam? Who’s EcoDynamics?”
I growled but didn’t answer. I didn’t want to tell her that I had almost killed her because I couldn’t stop from checking my texts, that I had been paranoid that it was my ex, her father, somehow reclaiming us from halfway across the country. I didn’t know what to tell her.
“Why are they texting you that you have to stop?” she asked.
I must have typed S T O O again somehow. It didn’t matter.
“It’s just spam,” I said. “Text them S T O P and they’ll stop.”
A light flashed in my side mirror. My heart almost stopped. I needed help but the thought of getting pulled over made me panic: they were going to catch us and make us go back.
But the light was yellow, not the red cherries of a police car.
The phone buzzed again.
She read, “‘Stop immediately or you will get hurt.’ It’s in all caps.”
“Oh, well, that’s—”
A scraping noise came from above and behind us and I went silent. The car shifted, making us both sway in our seats.
My daughter whispered, “Something’s on top of the car.”
Step 9. Write the climax!
Either help the character escape by dealing with the fear (and thus also the annoyance), or doom the character by not dealing with the fear (and still being unable to deal with the annoyance).
Write down four different options for the ending. Don’t think about it too hard; just quickly write down whatever comes to mind.
Then, briefly mention or have the character try the first three options, but go with the fourth.
- stop car, get saved
- don’t stop car, get hurt by thing on car
- thing on car takes daughter into ditch
- pest control spray
Something banged onto the roof, hard. I glanced behind me. The inside of the roof was dented in now. It banged again and a long, dark shape burst through the roof, clawing down into a cardboard box, tearing the top open as it dragged backward.
Daylight poured in.
“They texted again, Mom. They said it’s on top of the car now. They said to stop.”
I looked at her. Her face was dead white. Like she was about to pass out.
The yellow lights flashed behind me. I stepped on the brake. Too hard—we both slammed into our seat belts again.
Whatever was on the roof of the car made a grinding noise. A dark shape swung outside my daughter’s window. I tried to pull her close to me. The same seatbelts that had kept us safe just a second before now kept me from being able to protect her.
The shape swung inside my daughter’s window, grabbed her, pulled her. She slid out smoothly.
I grabbed for her. She had taken her shoes off. Her bare feet flashed past me, kicking. I grabbed for her foot, touched it. It was ripped away from me. I couldn’t move fast enough. I was still locked into place.
My daughter’s seatbelt fell over my hands. It had been slit.I tried to get out of my belt. It was jammed into place. I threw open the armrest, dug out the emergency cutter I had in there, thank God thank God, and tried to cut my belt off. My thumb jammed the button.
The belt came free.
I flung open the door, stumbled out.
On top of the car was a monster. Green, sludgy, plantlike—a thing. It had my daughter, struggling in its arms, or what were mostly its arms, her heels sliding against the car roof as she tried to kick.
It was slimy. A trail of slime covered the top of the car, slippery and wet. It shuddered, and one of its legs came free, leaving a dull thorny spike embedded in the top of the car, then began to climb down, dragging my daughter with it.
It skidded down the front of the car.
Heading for the ditch.
I had failed my daughter. I screamed and ran toward the monster, my arms stretched out. I was going to kill it. I was going to hurt it for taking her.
“Ma’am,” a voice said.
I ignored it. I had been ignoring the voice of common sense for a long time. I could ignore it a little longer.
I leapt onto the monster, knocking it down. The three of us landed on the asphalt, my daughter grunting as the wind got knocked out of her. The monster was pinned between us. It raised a limb and I knew I was going to get clawed just like the top of my car.
A spray of chemicals filled my eyes and mouth. I choked, rolling away and trying to clear my eyes with my hands.
Someone grabbed my wrists. I screamed. My eyes burned. So did my lungs. My head throbbed, the back of my skull feeling like it was on fire.
I was dragged away, my throat swelling shut.
10. End the story
Before you decide whether the character escapes or is doomed, scan back through the climax and see whether they dealt with their fear. If they didn’t really deal with their fear, they’re doomed! You can have them seem to escape in the climax, but if you do, you should doom them in the last few moments of the scene.
If they did deal with their fear, suggest that their fear could come back later, even if they’re safe for now.
I woke up in a hospital bed in a room with pale yellow walls, a small white wardrobe in the corner, and a whiteboard with Your Nurse Today Is: Lori B. A heart was drawn over the i.
My throat hurt and my hands were strapped down in fleece cuffs. I panicked. I jerked at them. One of them slid off my wrist easily. The other I tore away. They were only held down with Velcro.
I was free.
The call button was nowhere within reach and I couldn’t figure out how to lower the side rails on the bed.
“Hello? Hello! I need some help!”
A few seconds later there was a tap on the door and a woman came inside. She smiled at me.
“Where’s my daughter?” I demanded.
“Welcome back to the world,” the woman said in a Southern accent. “Do you need to use the toilet?”
A buzzing sound came from somewhere across the room.
“Oh, I didn’t know you had a daughter! What’s her name?”
I howled. She should know that I had a daughter. If my daughter had been waiting for me to wake up, she would know. What had happened? Where was she?
The nurse lowered the rail on my bed, saying, “Let’s just be gentle as you stand up, hon.”
The phone buzzed again. I hopped out of bed and ran for the small wardrobe. I threw the door open. A plastic bag held my clothes, my purse. I tore it open and tossed everything on the floor as I searched for my phone.
When I found it, the case was sticky and the screen shattered. I hit the power button—it powered on.
I unlocked it.
I must have had a hundred messages from EcoDynamics. I ignored them and read the one from my daughter, from three days earlier.
I got infected by that plant thing. They rescued me but the treatment isn’t working, it read. I don’t want to end up like the others. Goodbye, Mom.
The phone buzzed again.
I lowered it. Whatever message was there to be read, it could wait.
If you creeped yourself out with your story, that’s a success! Don’t worry about whether it’s perfect or not. Ideally, give yourself a little time between writing your first draft and editing it. Don’t worry about it not being perfect! Share it with a couple of horror-loving fellow readers.
Ideally, they finish it and say something like, “You are messed up! I love it!”
I told my daughter about the story. Her eyes got big and she went, “MOM.” I admit it. I giggled 🙂
So there it is: now you know how to write a short horror story!
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