A Flash of Fear: Why Write Short-form Horror
For many (if not most), the first introduction to horror doesn’t come from a book or movie, but from a brief scary story told to them, perhaps around a smoky campfire in lonely–or are you alone after all?–woods. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories collections include many of the selfsame creepy jewels of storytelling’s oral tradition, and have inducted many a child into the ranks of the horror lovers.
Sometimes, what readers really need is unfiltered, filler-free horror delivered directly to the brain.
Short horror is also popular in amateur circles, via various user-driven websites and podcasts. So, even though word counts for young adult and middle grade novels are pushed higher by the season and it sometimes feels like every story’s pressured to be a multi-part franchise, the short story is still a deserving horror form.
Besides simply capturing an audience that prefers their horror in small bites, short stories offer advantages over full-length novels in that they require a different toolkit to pull off. The process allows a novel-writer to stretch themselves, and gives freedom to take chances on a concept to which the writer may not want (or feel ready) to commit 300+ pages.
Opening new creative doors
Experimentation is, of course, the most obvious carrot for writers eyeing the short form. Be it a free-for-all one off for a magazine-style publication, a story for a themed multi-author anthology, or a full single-author collection of horror shorts, short-form can easily open new creative doors.
The single-author collection, in particular, allows writers to dabble in all manner of tones and subgenres (a folklorist can tackle a realistic serial killer story; a psychological dramatist can go full-blown supernatural creatures; or a Victorian-specialist can write all of the above). It’s like a wine tasting, liquor flight, or appetizer sampler (dependent on personal style) for authors. Take a look at Jeremy de Quidt’s The Wrong Train for an example of a versatile (in all metrics) collection for preteen and teen readers.
Moving out of your comfort zone
As a bonus, the readers who pick up an anthology for one type of story—say, the vampire one—will likely read the others since they’re there, and may fall in love with a horror type they never would have spent the money and reading-hours on based on concept alone. Just as well, a reader who picks up Slasher Girls & Monster Boys or similar anthologies for a favorite author may discover new writers to obsess over.
Additionally, short stories are a space that allow writers to go far out of their comfort-zone, allowing layman’s research to take them into territories that in a novel would require much more specialized knowledge.
Take zombies—difficult to explain in a rational, plausible way—and diseases—which frequently in fiction will need to behave in ways implausible to experts while also needing to achieve verisimilitude in order to land. While these are the clearest horror subgenre examples of concepts prone to suspension of disbelief difficulties (difficulties lessened in shorter forms), they are by no means the only subgenres in which plausibility issues can torpedo reader-immersion.
Keeping a tight focus
In a novel, there’s a lot more downtime between the big, tense moments, which means more time for characters to stop reacting to immediate dangers and start questioning what’s happening, and exploring the worldbuilding. A short story’s focus can steer the characters (and readers) eyes away from questions that the author doesn’t have a good answer to—questions that don’t interfere in a short story’s tighter structure—questions that readers will be thinking, and that readers will notice a novel author dodging providing answers.
Additionally, in a novel’s larger cast it gets harder to believe there are no experts who can explain things; and, in the event there is an expert, what they say gets risky if the author doesn’t share the character’s expertise. Short stories allow you to minimize expertise risks.
Short story techniques allow writers to make the most out of the research they have done while avoiding getting bogged down in complicated mechanisms, especially in fields new to them.
This isn’t to say that it’s fine and dandy to skip out on research for a short story (that would definitely backfire). Instead, short story techniques allow writers to make the most out of the research they have done while avoiding getting bogged down in complicated mechanisms, especially in fields new to them. The short story allows the writer to tell a satisfying story that ends not only before the plot holes are born, but can prevent the touchy issues from ever becoming relevant.
Avoiding pitfalls of short-form writing
Continuing the theme of experimentation, even one of the primary drawbacks of the short-form is best turned into an advantage through experimentation. The weakness is that, in less story space, there’s nowhere to hide your tropes and story formulas. Even avoiding predictability through a twist can be risky, since that twist is expected (and so readers will be looking for it).
The easiest way to add depth to a familiar formula or trope is to treat it as a grounding element, an anchor that your readers can depend on and follow through.
The two obvious options for an author unwilling to play a trope straight are subverting the trope/formula, or actively and purposefully using it. Look to Holly Black’s The Poison Eaters collection for haunting use of fantasy tropes. Subverting tropes is always fun, but to do this successfully make sure you’re very well read in horror and in short horror, lest you stumble upon a subversion so overdone and pat that it’s become a formula unto itself.
The easiest way to add depth to a familiar formula or trope is to treat it as a grounding element, an anchor that your readers can depend on and follow through. Once it is in place with that purposeful function, you can fling lots of weird things at a reader and have them stick with you through the story. While not a short story, an example of this at play is all of the tropes in Ilsa Bick’s The Dickens Mirror, like evil doctors and insane asylums, which serve as mental rests for readers in an otherwise unstable reality.
This technique works just as well in short stories—perhaps even better, since the tropes as shorthand can free up more text space for your more ambitious, out-there ideas.
And finally, sometimes good stories simply need to be short. Sometimes, what readers really need is unfiltered, filler-free horror delivered directly to the brain.
Mac Childs is a book reviewer, academic critic, sometimes-bookseller, and sometimes-librarian who has published (and buried) horror short stories under a different name. Mac first came to horror through the ancient art of “Making up stories for the sole purpose of tormenting younger siblings and giving them nightmares.” Mac’s favorite children’s horror tale is Goosebumps #43: Beast from the East by R. L. Stine.