Love scary stories or hate them, creepy tales are part of the human experience. In the United States, we celebrate Halloween this week, but every other country has version of their own spooky traditions. And part of the experience is the sharing of those bone-chilling stories.
So, what elements have made some stories last longer than others?
Here are five writing lessons from spooky stories have stayed with us—and ideas for how we, too, can create long-lasting tales.
1. Write with rich detail.
The villain is not just a horseman. It’s the Headless Horseman. He’s not just a Snowman, he’s the Abominable Snowman. The details and the emotion-inspiring words—harrowing, spine-tingling, dripping, thumping, screeching, blood-red, raven-black—make the story come to life for us.
What you can do: Writing content rich in details does not mean writing more but writing better. Use words carefully—like a poet—with each word meaning something. Think of the writing greats like Ernest Hemingway who said much with little.
2. Use a character who inspires strong emotion.
Whether you find Dr. Frankenstein intriguing or vain, the scientist doesn’t leave readers feeling indifferently towards him. Something draws us to him and his fiendish creation. So, whether readers are entranced by Count Dracula or cheering on vampire hunter Van Helsing, the important fact is that the reader is reacting.
What you can do: Make sure the reader can identify with the person you are writing about. Readers don’t have to love them, but they do need to have a foothold in the character so they can be carried along in the story.
3. Make your sentence do something.
The raven quoth, the telltale heart is thumping. Witches fly in the sky. Werewolves howl at the moon. Sentences in spooky stories are active. They don’t passively describe what is happening, but movement is described.
What you can do: Use active sentences in your content. Passive sentence have a place, but too many sentences with the passive sentence structure make your story dull or sound pedantic.
4. Employ wordplay to underline the story.
One of the most famous scenes from “Macbeth” features the three witches over a cauldron, murmuring, “Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” It’s the rhyme and rhythm that stays in our mind long after the play is done. The same with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” It’s the repetitive word “nevermore” that begins to drive the reader a little nutty just as the raven is doing the same to the narrator.
What you can do: Know your literary terms, such as personification, alliteration, metaphors, and analogies. By becoming familiar with these terms, your writing can employ these when necessary. Those writing tools add texture to your content.
5. Take the reader along with you.
A good writer carries you along a journey. You follow down the corridors in search for the cask of Amontillado in one Poe short story. In another, you can hear the narrator fall into madness as he hears the tell-tale heart beating ever louder.
What you can do: Take your reader on a journey. In a presentation by author and speaker Nancy Duarte, she discusses the importance of carrying your audience, as the hero, through a journey from what was to what can be. Your destination isn’t the same as one in a spooky story, but the important part is to have a destination for your visitor.