How to Write Scary Stories / part 1: suspension of disbelief and suspense

Hey guys, now that it's October, everything is getting ready to be spooky once again, we have the Halloween costumes going in stock in stores, the decorations, and of course all of the horror movies that will be hitting theaters.

I love October, not so much because of Halloween because my family has never really celebrated that, but because of all the horror stuff that will be coming out in the forms of movies, books, and online stories (horror lover right here! :p).

So since it's October I decided to write some posts about spooky stories. Recently I've been really thinking about this genre, I've been reading my past failures at this genre and others' past fails and have been asking myself, what truly scares readers? So here are a few of my ponderings and conclusions/theories(?)

The first thing I think makes a good scary story is Suspension of Disbelief.

Now, what is Suspension of Disbelief? Well according to Wikipedia it is:

 The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe something surreal; the sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

This is where a lot of short horror stories fall flat.  

 I clean a church for one of my part-time jobs once a week, and while I clean I like to listen to a lot of creepypastas, which are scary short stories. 

If you have listened to or read a good amount of creepypastas, you'll know that the majority of them are complete trash, so what I do is I'll listen to one, (usually the stories are around five to fifteen minutes long each,) and then I'll take a few minutes to think about it before moving on to the next one.

Typical things I tend to ask myself after are:

Was the story good: If so, why? If not, why? 
Did it scare, disturb, or unsettle me in any way? If so, why? If not, why?

I also ask myself how the story could have scared me if it fell really flat.

Like I said, the majority of these stories aren't good, and the number one reason why (at least for me) is that they fail at the suspension of disbelief.
I tend to be a more critical person, so I don't get scared that often by horror movies or stories, but I often like to turn off that more critical part of my brain while listening to them and let myself be swept away into the story. But even without the more rational part of my brain side-eyeing these stories, I still find myself rolling my eyes.

So why do these stories fall flat when it comes to suspension of disbelief?

Here is the number one reason that these stories fell flat:

1. Too much shock value and no suspense. Gore and violence is a very scary and disturbing thing, but after a while if there's no suspense it just feels cheap.

For example, if you write a story with a serial killer in it, don't just write about the gore, write about the fear.

 Imagine how scary it would be if your friends were being found brutally murdered one by one. Often times in these stories I see the author focusing more on describing the gore and trying to shock me into being scared instead of focusing on the fear and the horror of situations like this.

Honestly what really gets me when it comes to horror is the more psychological level of it, and I wish more authors focused on that instead of just cheap scares.

You want your readers to relate to your story in some way, whether it is through your settings, characters, or monster.

 A story I think actually does this well is Princess by Anonymous, which you can read for free here or listen to here.  

This story is a creepypasta I thought was pulled off well, and it's about an evil dog. 

To summarize this story quickly:

There's a family that are dog lovers, a dog of theirs has puppies and one of those puppies is off from the very beginning. Animals start being found dead around their yard with no marks, and then one of their most beloved dogs die. 

They soon realize that Princess (the dog's name) is the murder, who is calculated enough to kill by strangling her prey. 

etc. etc.

This story was good, I enjoyed it, and I probably would have found it scary if I haven't desensitized myself so much over the years. 

Here's why I think this story was as good as it was:

-It was believable and wasn't over the top, a dog being evil is something that feels like a possibility. 

-It built up suspense, in this story you have the characters sensing something is wrong with their dog from the beginning and then events start piling up and getting worse and worse, so you end up on the edge of your seat thinking, "what's next?

Suspense is often that "off" feeling in your story. In horror movies, they often place a few jump scares, in the beginning, to foreshadow evil to come.

Character A hears a noise and goes to investigate, floors creak, shadows watch, suspenseful music builds as Character A carefully follows to where they hear the noise... 

Character A pauses and listens, silence. 

BAM! Character B jumps out at A shouting, "Boo!"

This is a common scene in tons of horror movies because it gets people's heart racing, it's also a way to give off that creepy vibe that one needs.

It's also why tons of movies and books take place in creepy atmospheres such as woods, because it is easy to give that "off" feeling by creepy shadows, looming trees, the silence of birds, and isolation.
Another common scene is when character A will see something out of the corner of their eye, but when they turn everything is normal.

As cliche as those two are, it's a way to convey that something isn't right.

Now, if you don't have a good setting for this vibe or if you don't want to risk being cliche, there is another element that I feel is often forgotten in the horror genre:

Gut feeling. 

People aren't totally stupid, we can often sense when something is wrong. Feeling sick to the stomach, goosebumps, and hair rising on one's neck are common ways to show that your character is uneasy.

Remember: In horror stories setting the scene and the vibe is important as well as conveying your character's emotions.
There will be a part two for this post because it was so long.
What do you think about scary stories? 
How do you build uneasiness? 

Happy Writing, 

Since this post was so long, I split it up into two parts, so stay tuned!


  1. Okay so this was an A+ post and do I want to go write a spooky story now? Yes and yes ;D. Thanks for the epic post, Gray! (also have you every tried your hand at anything spooky?? IF SO I WANT TO READ IT! :D)

    1. Thank you for reading!

      I use to only write in the horror genre, sadly I wasn't that good, but I have been trying my hand in flash horror fiction recently. Maybe I'll post some on here sometime.

  2. Awesome post. I'm not into the spooky stories, but I love Halloween. I love scaring others, but I'm not one to enjoy being scared. That's pretty odd, I know. However, this is super helpful if I ever decide to write a thriller. :D

    1. Thanks! I hope you do find it helpful in the future. <3

  3. Awesome post, Gray! :) I love reading ghost stories.

  4. Love this post!

    My friend loves horror films/books, and tries to get me to watch/read them all the time. However, I am the jumpiest person alive, and I have the feeling I would be scared at *everything* if I listened to her suggestions. :P

    1. Thanks!

      Probably not the best idea then, unless you like adrenaline rushes from being scared. :P

  5. Great post! I’m not really a scary story/horror person at all, so I’m not very well-read/watched/listened. But now I kind of want to go and write one! Great tips!

    1. Thanks, you should go try your hand at it. ^_^

  6. This will be so useful for any horror stories in the future! Such a useful post :D

  7. This is epic!!! I actually don’t watch or read much in the horror genre, but I do enjoy a good scary story now and then. This is going to be really cool!!!

  8. Thanks for this post! Plenty of great tips here.
    I've been itching to write some spookiness ever since September started. :D


    1. Thank you for reading!
      And same, it's such a good time of the year to write some spooky stories.

  9. Woow. I'm not normally into horror, but Princess was pretty good. Definitely not the type of horror I'd expect (but that made it so much better).
    I'm not quite acquainted with writing horror, but if I ever become so I shall refer to this post. xD

    1. It's a story that relies more on suspense and tension than gore, which makes it so good!

      You should give it a go, it's a lot of fun.

  10. Great post Grey! I'm a fan of the more creepy stuff too!
    I've been reading Lockwood & Co, it's so good, the author knows how to create a spooky atmosphere.

    1. Thank you! I haven't heard of that book, but I hope you enjoy it.

  11. Thanks for this post! I like writing creepy stories, and I'm not super sure if I do it well, so I should try to improve my craft.

    1. Say, you want to exchange creepy stories for beta reading?

    2. If you've written any, that is. Wow, I'm turning into the person who replies to their same comment over and over. I just keep realizing how I could have said it better after I post it.

    3. Same here! I'm trying to improve my writing in that genre as well, it can be tough.

      Hahaha, I'm that person in the comments a lot as well, so no biggie. :P
      To be honest, while I've been trying to get back into writing in the short horror story genre, I haven't been able to really focus on it or finish anything yet because of school and life just being busy. However, I'm hoping to write a few this month and /actually/ finish some, so that would be awesome! I'll try to hit you up sometime. ^_^

    4. TBH I haven't written a lot of them recently myself, so this'll give me a reason to get back into writing them. But this'll be fun!


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