UPDATE, mid-2020: Alas, I am no longer teaching this course through Writer’s Digest, but here’s the historical document anyway…


It’s no accident that Stephen King is one of the world’s best-selling authors. He knows what scares us—and it isn’t just kids and clowns—and he knows how to use words to invoke that fear in the same way a horror movie director uses lighting and editing. In my two-week course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King we look at each of those two vital elements: knowing what scares our readers, and knowing how to use words to bring that fear to life. We’ll look at examples from Stephen King and other great horror authors to take a deep dive into both the why and the how of writing horror.

In the first session we focus on ideas and outline—just enough to get you started writing. Believe it or not, getting an idea for a story is the easy part. It’s all the words that get you from I think this could be scary to “I loved your story—it scared the crap out of me!” that’s the hard part. So this first session is a little light on “Where do you get your ideas?” (Who knows!) and instead focuses in on how to develop that germ of an idea into just enough of an outline to get you started actually writing—and that’s your first assignment.

But there are shorter exercises along the way, like:

Sit for five minutes (set a timer!) and make a list of everything that scares you—write as fast as you can and don’t over-think it! At the end of that five minutes, put the list away then come back to it twenty-four hours later and rank them in order of most scary to least scary. The top five are where you should focus your efforts. If it scares you, your readers will pick up on that and be scared along with you.

Stephen King’s greatest talent, and the biggest reason he’s been so successful for so long, is that he writes stories about people—people who live right next door to you. I could be any of these characters, so we really understand these people, and that’s no accident. In this course we keep our focus on characters.

You can’t just tell your readers, “Okay, be scared now—this is scary,” you have to show a character being scared, confronting the horrible unknown—throw them into it all the way, and make sure 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:

  • Why do they care?
  • What do they have to lose?
  • What do they hope to gain?

Having identified what scares us, and having all the outline we need to get started, in session two we get into the nuts and bolts of how to “write scary.”

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.

And of course he’s right, but there are techniques we can learn to make it, if not easier, then more effective, easier to read if not to write. And remember, your reader is the most important person in any work of fiction. It’s your readers’ experience that you need to pay the strictest attention to. Especially for supernatural effects and monsters, we (your readers) need to experience how this strange thing works, this thing that isn’t a part of our normal understanding of the world. Otherwise there’s no suspense. We don’t know what to be afraid of unless you show us at least some of the potential damage it can cause—and damage to a person, not a thing. This is what shows your readers what’s at stake, physically and mentally, for your characters.

Over-writing is the horror author’s worst nemesis—and Stephen King is great at not doing it. In On Writing he advises:

“For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.”

Pulling a lot more advice together we get to our second and final writing assignment: a 2000-word short story. You can use, if you like, the outline you created for the first assignment, and you should try to incorporate as much as possible from discussions in both sessions.

And finally, we end with another Stephen King quote from On Writing:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The next session of Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King starts up this Thursday, April 4—but if you’re reading this later, still follow this link, a new session may well be coming up soon.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. mythwrights says:

    I’ve always found the scariest things to be the relatively mundane existing where they aren’t supposed to. That’s why clowns seem so effective. They don’t really belong anywhere, being somewhat pariahs even in a circus. So when you see one just around? More than a little creepy.

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