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Horror World Building Tips by Joanna Nelius


I tend to look at world building in horror as half technical, half psychological. We’re writing about fear at its core, trying to tap into what makes us the most afraid. But we can’t do that without knowing how to capitalize on all that adrenaline just waiting to be released.

  1. One of the main things to remember when world building, especially for horror, is to strike a balance between the suspension of disbelief and logic. If you’re creating a serial killer or monster with supernatural powers, for instance, there should be some limitations on what they can and can’t do so their victims have somewhat of a fighting chance, even if the odds are never in their favor. Your monster can be over-powered as all hell, but make sure to follow your own rules, even if you stray away from convention. A good example of this is the video game Left for Dead 2. They have several different kinds of zombies, each with their own characteristics and abilities, but the rules surrounding how they act and how you kill them remain the same. If their parameters changed halfway through the game with no explanation, it would make a lot of players angry. So, pretend you are writing a video game. Keep your rules consistent.
  2. Since we are on the topic of rules—sometimes something is scary to us because we don’t understand it. We don’t understand where it comes from or why it’s doing what it’s doing, but sometimes our characters want to understand it so they can survive it, kill it, or avoid it. It’s part of the reason why so many urban legends have lasted through the decades, or in some cases centuries. It all comes down to our basic fight or flight survival instincts. Whatever parameters or rules we set for our story, our characters are going to have one of those reactions, maybe sometimes both multiple times throughout the story. Slashers are based around these two basic instincts. If you have ever played Friday the 13th: The Gameyou can either choose to escape or fight Jason. I choose to fight Jason once. ONCE.
  3. Set a mood/tone conducive to a horror story. One way to easily do that is to isolate your main character(s). It’s is one of your most powerful tools as a horror writer, whether that means physically, mentally, and/or emotionally isolating your characters. If we use Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” as an example, we can see some examples of isolation at work. Trisha, a nine-year-old girl, gets separated from her mother and brother during a family hiking trip and must find a way to survive alone in the forest with nothing but a backpack filled with a bottle of water, a days’ worth of food, a Game Boy, and a Walkman. Isolating a character in any of these three ways removes their safety next, ups the tension, and allows for all sorts of scary possibilities. For better or for worse, it’s why the cabin in the woods trope has endured for so long.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the details. The feeling of a flesh-eating bug as it probes its fangs in between your character’s subcutaneous tissue and muscle would be a great sensation to go into detail about if you are writing body horror. Or maybe you want to describe a creepy house or character whose smile makes him seem a little… off. Or maybe you want to describe the smell of something. Your five senses can be immensely helpful in creating imagery. Basing a character off notorious serial killer Ed Gein? Tell the reader what that cauldron smells like, what it sounds like with a fire going underneath it. That’ll gross ‘em out. For sure.
  5. Establish some normality for your character(s) at first. Tell the reader where they work or talk about their hobbies. Are they in the middle of a divorce, or are they about to embark on an exciting road trip? Setting the scene is crucial to getting the most emotional impact out of all the creepy, crazy events that will happen later. If we look at “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” again, the novel starts off with Trisha listening to her mother and brother bicker about her divorce from their father. Emotions run high. Feelings get hurt. Trisha already feels alone before she gets isolated in the woods. Imagine saying something mean to someone you really care about and then they go missing. That’s the beginnings of psychological horror right there.

If you are new to the horror genre, or even if you are not, I hope you find these tips helpful. At the very least, maybe you’ll give Friday the 13th: The Gamea try.

TODAY’S GIVEAWAY:  An HWA Final Frame t-shirt!

BIO:  Joanna Nelius is a writer, games journalist, and teacher based out of Southern California. She’s written numerous features and reviews on horror games and currently teaches two courses at the Orange County School of the Arts, Mystery Writing and Urban Myths and Legends. Her poem “Safety Labels on Hospice Beds” was published in the recently released HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. 5. She also reads a bunch of slush for Abyss & Apex.

2 comments on “Horror World Building Tips by Joanna Nelius

  1. Very helpful reminders!

    I think that the key is definitely verisimilitude: If you can make the details the reader knows to be true feel real (the biting insect, the fear of isolation, how everyday life goes), they will be much more willing to suspend their disbelief when you get to the invented parts.

    Good stuff!

  2. A huge YES on the balance between suspension of disbelief and logic. It’s so important to have, if not necessarily logic, then at least a sense of authenticity. Even the most out-there world needs to feel authentic. If there is no authenticity, no one will suspend their disbelief.

    In terms of getting into details, I’ve lately been thinking about the value of pure sensory description vs. original/meaningful word choice. You might spend a paragraph describing in visceral detail that flesh-eating bug, but if it is described in mundane language or, worse, cliche, then that paragraph isn’t doing much good; I’ve been contemplating this, I think, because I’m trying to get my students to be more specific and detailed in their writing, but I’m trying to figure out how to communicate to them that being more detailed doesn’t necessarily mean writing more words, but rather using different words that are more meaningful, specific, and unique.

    Anyway, sorry for the tangent, and great list of tips!

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