This coming Thursday (January 25, 2018), my online course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King, via Writers Digest, starts up again and so I thought I’d give y’all a little sample of what that looks like. If you’re reading this after the 25th, never fear, the course rolls around again every six weeks or so—just hit that link for the next go-around.

The Horror Intensive is a shorter, two-week course split into “The Idea” and “The Writing,” with short writing assignments for each. We use Stephen King’s books On Writing and Skeleton Crew as well as my own Writing Monsters as texts and there are PowerPoint videos, written course material to add to those and give further examples, and I also post additional material every weekday for those two weeks. I’ll just throw out some more or less random tidbits to give you a sense of the sort of things you’ll see:


Here are some examples based on the Stephen King quote from On Writing in the recorded sessions: “All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will—a conscious decision to do evil—and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.”

Personal evil—essentially a villain, as in “Cain Rose Up”:

“Good drink, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Garrish exclaimed, and shot at Quinn. He pulled instead of squeezing and the shot went wide. Quinn was running. No problem. The second shot took Quinn in the neck and he flew maybe twenty feet.

Exterior evil—monsters, aliens, or the malevolent oil slick from “The Raft”:

Randy shook his head. Maybe it was an oil slick, after all… or had been, until something had happened to it. Maybe cosmic rays had hit it in a certain way. Or maybe Arthur Godfrey had pissed atomic Bisquik all over it, who knew? Who could know?


More from Stephen King on the nature, source, and wellspring of ideas, from an interview with Rolling Stone:

I can remember as a college student writing stories and novels, some of which ended up getting published and some that didn’t. It was like my head was going to burst—there were so many things I wanted to write all at once. I had so many ideas, jammed up. It was like they just needed permission to come out. I had this huge aquifer underneath of stories that I wanted to tell and I stuck a pipe down in there and everything just gushed out. There’s still a lot of it, but there’s not as much now.


Don’t let your characters just be assigned to the mystery—throw them into it all the way, and make sure that there’s always something personally at stake for them. Keep these three questions close at hand, and think about them for all of your major characters, and keep them for everything you write, not just horror but any fiction in any genre:

  • Why does s/he care?
  • What does s/he have to lose?
  • What does s/he hope to gain?

For all of your characters, start with you and with other people you know, but build out from there. Don’t just give them your day job and a house in your neighborhood. Give your characters everything you are, everything you hope to be, and/or everything you hope you’ll never be. Your hero should be your best self and your villain your worst self, but neither should be, literally, you.


Every writing teacher and editor says “show, don’t tell,” but what does that mean exactly, especially for the horror author?

In On Writing Stephen King wrote: “Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy.”

Boy, is he right! But there are techniques we can learn to make it, if not easier, then more effective, easier to read if not to write.

In the recording I described the concept of “emotional distance’ In the way that it separates fiction from journalism. Don’t allow your characters, or worse yourself, to report on what’s happening or what has happened in your story. All this “show vs. tell” stuff comes down to bringing your reader and your character together to share in the experience of a moment. String enough of those moments together in the right way, in the right order, and you have a story.


If the end of a sentence gives your reader a chance for a short breath and the end of a paragraph allows a deeper breath, the end of a chapter is essentially permission to walk away from the story for a time, to take a long break. When asked by The Paris Review why Cujo is all in one huge chapter, King said:

“…Cujo was a standard novel in chapters when it was created. But I can remember thinking that I wanted the book to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific!


“The Mist” relies heavily on isolating the senses, especially our dominant sense of sight. We know there are things in the mist—we can hear them and even feel them moving around—but the mist prevents us from seeing them. In this example, the first person narrator comes to grips with this and in different ways, and it affects his theories on what they’re actually dealing with out there:

All the things in the mist operated primarily by sense of smell. It stood to reason. Sight would have been almost completely useless to them. Hearing a little better, but as I’ve said, the mist had a way of screwing up the acoustics, making things that were close sound distant and—sometimes—things that were far away sound close. The things in the mist followed their truest sense. They followed their noses.

And also think about that in terms of suspense. We’re now left with the idea that the monsters have a decided advantage. We rely on sight but can’t see, they rely on smell and the mist does nothing to prevent that. That imbalance between human and monster raises the stakes.

Get into the depths of your POV character’s primal experience of that terrifying moment.


I hope this made you curious enough to sign up, if not this week, then next time the course rolls around.


—Philip Athans


Here’s the link: Horror Intensive


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, freelance editing, freelance writing, horror movies, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, monsters, Publishing Business, SF and Fantasy Authors, Story Structure, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Jason J McCuiston says:

    I have to recommend this course to anyone seriously considering becoming a professional writer. It helped me tremendously in crafting stronger stories in every genre. Since I took the course in the fall of ’16, I have had two short stories published (one of which was a semi-finalist in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest), and found an agent for my novel. I can’t say it loudly or frequently enough: “Thank you, Phil Athans!”

  2. Pingback: Writing Links…1/29/18 – Where Genres Collide

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