Some time last week, I read and Tweeted about a blog post called 10 Tips for Generating Killer Science Fiction Story Ideas. It’s a pretty good list of helpful tips, and I myself am guilty of using a few (or all) of those techniques myself when I’m looking for a good idea to base a new story around. The list is pretty comprehensive for spec-fiction in general, but if you’re the type of writer who (like me) dabbles in the dark art of horror, it isn’t very suited to generating ideas that will make people reluctant to sleep without a light on. So, here’s my attempt to do much the same thing, but with an emphasis on writing good horror. This is a list of five effective ways of generating ideas for horror stories. I use pretty much all of them myself, and most of the best horror stories are in some way based around these basic principles. Fancy becoming the next Stephen King (or, if you’re more into gaming, the next Shinji Mikami)? A good, scary story idea will be the secret to your success.
Well, nothing’s more scary than an intro that takes up most of the wordcount of a blog post, so let’s get right into it:
- Take something familiar and make it sinister – People fear the unknown, but what they fear even more is the uncanny, something that is familiar but also unsettling at the same time. Often, the very notion of something familiar suddenly turning into something very wrong is enough to disturb somebody. As a writer, find something mundane or harmless and corrupt it in some way, and you’ll be playing on this subconscious fear. My favourite survival horror games, the Silent Hill series, use this to great effect, with the most frightening parts of the games being when the player enters the “otherworld”, a location based on the real world, but warped into something much darker. Literary minded writers should be able to think of many other examples: the one that immediately springs to mind for me is John Wyndham’s classic The Midwich Cuckoos, because nothing’s scarier than children (who are usually cute and harmless) turning into homicidal aliens that can read your mind, right?
- Get inspiration from an urban legend or unsolved mystery – Making somebody confused and uncertain of what’s happening is an effective way to scare them. This is why urban legends such as the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs continue to intrigue thousands of people, no matter how improbable or unproven they are. Googling your favourite unsolved mystery or looking up websites that archive information on the paranormal (for example, this phenomenon is pretty much the basis for the antagonists in my One Night games, and a novel I’m writing at the moment) can be a great way of finding a basis for your story. If you can duplicate the intrigue of these urban legends, you’ll draw people into your story in no time – this is why the Creepypasta meme does so well, and it’s basically what H.P Lovecraft built an entire mythos around. For my gamer friends, let’s not forget the classic horror game Fatal Frame, which was based on an urban legend about a haunted mansion in Tokyo.
- Base it on one of your personal phobias – Everyone’s afraid of something, be it ghosts, the dark, heights, enclosed places, spiders or something more sinister. While horror is subjective, and what scares you may not necessarily scare someone else, you can draw from these fears and try to incorporate them into your story. The ultimate goal of a work of horror is to scare people, right? Think about what scares you, and then think about how you can make it worse – to the point where you can evoke that same fear in other people, as well. Stephen King has mentioned several times that he’s terribly afraid of spiders, and you can often find gigantic spiders or creatures similar to spiders in his works (who remembers the cafe scene in The Mist?). In a similar vein, Mary Shelley used her disgust at the practice of galvanism (using electric currents to “re-animate” dead bodies) that was popular at the time as the basis for Frankenstein.
- Find something that people dislike and exaggerate it – People tend to stay away from things they dislike. Situations where they’re forced to be around things they dislike (for example, waiting in line behind a sick man who keeps coughing mucous everywhere) make them feel uncomfortable. There’s a term for these things that people desperately try to not think about – it’s called the abject, and writers often use it to unsettle or shock their readers by forcing them to confront it. This is why Lovecraft’s eldritch abominations (which often have lots of tentacles and icky body parts) are so damn scary. On a smaller scale, you can use this logic and adapt it to something more mundane – take a situation that people generally try to avoid in their everyday life, and turn it into something scary. Stephen King got the idea for The Mist while he was waiting in line at a supermarket, and The Mist‘s scariest parts involve a bunch of humans trapped in close proximity conflicting with each other (basically what happens while waiting in a line, but writ large).
- Put a new spin on a concept that’s already been done – Originality be damned. When it comes down to it, horror is a specific genre, and writing in a genre means you’re probably using tropes that others have already used countless times before. Sometimes the scariest idea is one that’s already been explored before, but realised in a different way. Literary people call this challenging genre norms – take your favourite horror trope, the one that scares you the most, and figure out how you can do it differently. We’ve all been through about twenty million zombie apocalypses by now, but what if the undead were actually intelligent beings with fears and emotions of their own? Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is based around this; at the end, the protagonist realises that he’s the one who’s the monster, because he’s been killing Matheson’s version of vampires (who were just trying to survive) indiscriminately the whole time. Alternatively, take something that people used to be scared of, and find a way to make it scary again – just don’t go and do a Twilight with it.
For more, check out my blog post on How to Write Horror Well and if you have any tips of your own, be sure to share them in the comments!