How to write a Horror Scene
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Tips and Tricks when writing horror with an example from an un-edited piece.
When it comes to writing a horror scene, or even a tragic or gory scene, the main thing you need to focus on is the emotion you want to evoke with the scene. To do this, we want to focus on the character's point of view as specifically as possible. What are they feeling? What emotions or thoughts does this scene illicit from the character? What is it in the scene that they notice in particular because of who they are?
You want to delve into the mind and thoughts of the character in which this scene is happening, because that will give you a much better chance of making your readers feel the same way.
An example from a recent RP post
The reason I'm writing about this is due to a situation that happened recently in Dungeons and Dragons for one of my characters. As a brief summary of the character, he is a sweetheart who cares deeply for people and is a healer at heart. However, through bad luck and a moment of losing himself due to panic, he finds himself kidnapped and in the worst position imaginable. Captured by Gnolls, a hyena like humanoid whose only desire is to feed and murder.
Now, onto the unedited scene:
A cold, unending rain poured over Xiskiro’s skin as the frigid feel of metal pulled Xiskiro slowly out of unconsciousness. Pain wracked the boy’s body as the fetid smell of rot and decay hit his nose. Panic settled over his mind as he tried to shift, and found himself unable to move, metal wrapped tightly around him, almost choking. He could feel himself swaying, as if hung on something, but the metal around him clung to his skin like a miasma. His fingers twitched as he tried desperately to push away the pain, a healing warmth falling over him briefly. However, once over, the cold returned, the metal digging into skin and muscle.
For a split second, his mind snapped back to a moment of darkness, metal clinging to his arms and legs, clamped down on his tail and around his neck… and jeers and pain…
The memory was cut short as a scream pierced through his thoughts. He tried to jerk, only to wince as the band around his neck dug into the back of it. His eyes snapped open, water falling into them as he took in what was around him.
His mind blanked.
The ground ran red with blood, the very earth having streams of red curling over it. The white of bones and the gray of ripped flesh spattered the ground in piles. Some piles more distinguishable then others. The surrounding forest, if he could even call it that, was gnarled and dead. Gnoll’s of all shapes and sizes moved about, some just meandering and others eating…
He managed to pull his attention away from the macabre view in time to see a young woman in a human shaped cage be tugged out of it. She looked weak but was fighting desperately as the gnolls brought her over to a stone alter where a large portal stood in front of. Beyond the portal, almost mirroring the world around him, was cracked earth with not a scrape of life in sight.
The woman was shoved down onto the altar as a shaman like creature stepped forward and slowly dug a blade into the woman’s chest. She started screaming in agony. The creature ignored her, carving and carving. Xiskiro wanted to turn away, he didn’t want to see this, but bound as he was, hanging in a metal cage that barely fits even his thin frame, he finds he can’t. No matter where he looks, he can’t find reprieve. Finally, the cutting is finished as the woman twitched weakly. She is picked up once more and then, with a sickening sound, is shoved on top of a spike. Xiskiro manages to close his eyes at the last minute, but the squelch rang through his head along with the faint choked and breathy scream of pain that was promptly cut off.
The air swirled as he felt energy pulse out and a heavy thump caught his attention. He didn’t want to look but… he found his eyes opening once more to see a large demon claw its way through the portal, its very presence shaking the earth as it stepped. It let out a roar of triumph before moving through the camp.
Xiskiro felt sick, his body trembling as his mind raced. What happened? Why was he here? His ears pressed flat against his head, trying to keep away the rain and sounds, the one’s he was trying so desperately not to hear.
However… he heard them anyway. Screams…
He could hear crunching and squelching and ripping. Any time he opened his eyes, he found himself watching something worse. The dead? He… he could maybe handle if they were dead while they were being eaten, but many weren’t. A group of gnolls dragged a screaming haven guard into the clearing and then dove forward onto the man. They ripped and tore into skin and bone as the echoing cries reached Xiskiro’s ears. Even if he didn’t watch, he knew what was happening and it tugged at him desperately.
It seemed to last forever, and yet, he knew it was only a minute or so before the very air around him grew tough to breathe. The ground shook, causing his cage to swing as if in a wind. Bones clattered as he heard yips and running. Once more, he found his eyes opening and, stared in horror as a creature taller than most buildings he saw, prowled through the camp, coming within a few feet of Xiskiro’s swaying prison.
The giant gnoll reeked of death and his slow steps brought him up to the pile of bodies… with the whimpering soldier on top. The soldier was barely alive, flesh ripped from his bones, one eye gone and his leg somewhere else that Xiskiro didn’t want to know.
The soldier, his voice broken let out a piercing scream, his voice desperately calling for mercy. In a split second, their eyes met as a blood covered eye begged, desperately… just before the gnoll opened his maw… and crunched down.
Xiskiro’s mind, unable to cope with what was going on, his body drenched and in pain as he was, collapsed, unconscious once more. Yet... even his mind could not rest, as he found himself pulled into the past… the sacrificial runes on that woman, the crunch of the man’s bones… it resonated with a time he had hoped to forget.
Yet… it lingered in his mind.
His unconsciousness didn’t last long as he found himself being tugged. He tried to pull back, almost instinctively, but he couldn’t. The cage was pulled off as shear panic ran through him… yet he was not pulled out of his bonds... instead, he felt the clamp of fangs on his shoulder and barely stopped himself from letting out a scream as he felt something familiar… a draining sensation. His eyes snapped open and he tried desperately not to move, knowing it would just make it worse as blood curled down his arm… much less than such a deep wound would have produced. White fur met his gaze as a blood coated maw pressed against his neck. His tails snapped up, trying desperately to snap at the creature, but the creature just dug in deeper, making him dizzy.
Right before he felt that darkness take over once more, the creature let go. One of the others gnolls crawled forward toward Xiskiro’s cage as he slumped onto his side. He heard a growl and yip from above before he was suddenly tugged upright, metal wrapping around the wooden post once more as the vampire gnoll spun and slashed at the gnoll that approached.
The other gnoll scampered off.
Xiskiro must have been unconscious for a decent amount of time, contrary to what he thought, for the giant gnoll was now gone. The ground was now littered with both more and less corpses than before. He felt his tails droop, pulling down at his body as the fur clung with both water and was matted down with bits of blood. The vampire gnoll stumbled away, tail thrashing in a way that Xiskiro recognized in his own as a drunken sway.
The little healing he gave himself was now drained. He barely noticed the goliath woman hanging beside him, struggling against the bonds of the cage, red curling down her neck from a vicious bite wound. She was familiar to Xiskiro, one of the other adventurers he was with.
He felt the metal bite into him as he slumped against it, unable to handle what was going on. A familiar feeling of numbness settled over his mind, one he was almost afraid of. He tried to push it away, but the return of more screaming weakened the already fragile fight as he was pulled back once more, to even tighter chains, to the knife digging into his skin.
“Lolth will be pleased.” A woman’s voice spoke above his head, the drow accent heavy in his mind. “A perfect little sacrifice and a curse against any who disobey her.” He felt his chin wrenched upward by a single finger, nail digging against his throat as he came face to face with the blood-stained corpse of a tall full drow woman who grinned widely. “A half drow half fey… A lesser being on all fronts and yet… Lolth seems interested in you. We’ll make sure to give our lady what she wants.” She leaned forward and chuckled. “We’ll make sure that tail of yours doesn’t go to waste… of course. Fox fur is… so hard to come by sometimes.”
Pain, blood, a side of him he didn’t recognize…
He dug his palm against the metal, trying desperately to pull himself from the memories, only to find himself once more in the present. A small part of his mind wondered if he did the humans in that village a favor by killing them before they could be eaten alive. This thought was proven somewhat correct as he recognized a head roll to one side, radiant burns coating the side of their face right before another gnoll pounced on it.
The crunching and ripping, the screams and squelches, the trembling of earth and pain of metal… the burning of unhealed wounds… it all crashed down over him, the numbness returning. This time, he didn’t push it away. He knew he was still there, still swinging in that cage… but he felt absolutely nothing. He saw something approach and a growl ripped from his throat as his tails bristled. A small part of him recognized this, recognized the feeling of his fey side taking over and he found himself unable to stop it. Once more, unconsciousness took over, leaving him in a void of nothing but sounds, smells… and the persistent and unending feel of rain.
Using the characters history to help define the horror of the scene
As you can see, this is a scene that isn't just evoking a feeling of trauma in the current time, but tying the scene together with the character itself and what he's had to deal with in the past, giving it a deeper impact.
This is something you want to do as much as you can when writing horror scenes. Horror doesn't rely on just the descriptors, though they are important, it also rely's on how it influences and affects the character. An event doesn't just happen in seclusion. So, if you know the scene will have some influence on the character, either by memory or how they would react differently due to the circumstances of their life, don't forget to delve into it during the scene.
In my example, Xiskiro has dealt with being kidnapped before and the ptsd of the incident made it so he almost immediately fell into that same protective stance that he took to protect himself the last time... which gives the story a traumatic feeling of both gore and tragedy.
Don't forget the descriptors... but don't go overboard
As you can see, I held almost nothing back when describing the scene, from the feel of the rain to the bite of the metal to the sights and smells. I used all of it to evoke a feeling of disgust and anxiety and, yet, I didn't go over the top. I gave what description I needed to, and then left the rest up to the readers imagination.
A perfect example of this was when Xiskiro went unconscious just when the giant being bit down on the poor soldier. I didn't have to explain the act of chewing, how it looked for body parts to be thrown everywhere. I left it at Crunch. That was more than enough in my opinion and it does the trick. The readers mind will easily fill in the rest.
Same with the bite into Xiskiro's neck. I described how he felt, what he saw... but I didn't go into detail of how he felt with the blood draining out of him, the sounds of slurping, anything like that, because it would have bogged down the scene with too much information.
So, make sure, when writing a horror scene, not to be to descriptive, give what you need and leave it at that. The readers mind will fill in the rest and, sometimes, that actually makes it worse than any description you, the writer, can give.
So here are my brief tips and tricks on writing horror scenes
Let me know if there are any other things you think are important to writing a horror scene. After all, there are so many different ways to write and create. I just wanted to write this to give you all ideas on creating your own things. How would you have written this scene? I'm curious.
And, keep in mind, this is regarding simply a scene, not a book. Writing a horror book versus writing a horror scene are very different from each other. Never forget that.
If you like my writing, don't forget to follow me on twitter and instagram and also make sure to subscribe! I post new blogs every three or so days and I look forward to seeing you again!
Follow at @jboglisch