As regular readers probably know, I write these articles very far in advance. So, this is why I’ve only just got round to talking about the collection of very short horror stories that were posted here last Halloween.
Seriously, I’d written the first two of them the morning before I originally wrote this article. I finished the third one a couple of hours after writing this article. The first three short stories can be read here, here and here.
Different writers work best at different lengths and, with me at least, the shorter a piece of fiction is – the better. So, I thought that I’d provide a few tips about how to make the horror genre work in stories that are approximately 500-1000 words long.
1) It’s like telling a joke: The best ultra-short short horror stories often have a similar structure to a joke. After all, jokes are just very short stories that are designed to elicit a strong emotional reaction. They have a set-up and a punchline.
When writing a very short horror story – start with a slightly “ordinary” (or less-scary) series of events at the beginning, with only a dramatic opening sentence or two to hint at the horrors to come.
The first half to two-thirds of your story should almost be a different story altogether. Then, in the last part, introduce something new that either changes the meaning of the first part of the story, or which takes the story in a creepily different (but not too different) direction.
Or, just introduce something really shocking and horrific in the last few paragraphs (the horror writer Ryu Murakami is an expert at this, albeit within the last few pages of novel-length stories).
2) Descriptions: Because of the smaller amount of words that you have to work with, you can’t rely on an elaborate plot or complex characterisation.
As such, these kinds of stories work best when they are more descriptive than anything else – when the narrator or the main character is more of an observer than a participant in the events of the story.
So, write stories where the main character witnesses something unusual. Write stories that masquerade as newspaper articles. Write first-person stories where it feels like the main character is quite literally telling a short, and disturbing, anecdote. But, above all, focus more on descriptions than on anything else.
3) Writing style: Very short horror stories need to move fast. They need to grab the reader and keep them hooked for the few minutes it takes them to reach the shocking conclusion.
As such, your writing style should probably be very slightly more on the “basic” side of things most of the time. Kind of like it is in this article (as opposed to my usual verbose and rambling style).
This doesn’t mean that you have to dumb down your story – but it should sound a bit like an ordinary person telling a story, or a journalist writing a newspaper article.
The best way to learn how to write like this is probably to read at least a few modern thriller novels (which often make expert use of this style). If I had to recommend just one author whose novels will teach you all you need to know about this writing style, it’d have to be Lee Child.
Save the elaborate metaphors, scary similes and poetic descriptions for the really disturbing parts of your story. They’ll stand out more, when contrasted with the more basic prose that you’ve written.
4) Imagination: This is the oldest piece of horror fiction advice in the book, but it’s especially important in ultra-short horror stories. Things are scarier when they are left to the audience’s imaginations. Since you only have a few hundred words to work with, it’s often easier to only show a few details of something and leave the audience to imagine the rest themselves. It also makes your story seem larger than it actually is.
Even if your horror-writing sensibilities are fairly splatterpunk – you don’t have the time and the space to fill your ultra-short horror story with lots of elaborate grisly descriptions. So, choose the most shocking or most unsettling parts of what you want to describe and leave out the rest. Remember, your audience’s imaginations will fill in all of the other gory details.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂