Nuts and Bolts of Horror Storytelling, i.e. Writer Rules

I have a list of writer rules I peruse every time I write a rough draft, which I learned in critique groups, and I’m going to share them with you presently. I know what some of you are thinking: I don’t give a fuck about writer rules. Well, unless you’re as talented as Gary A. Braunbeck, who can get away with endless run-on sentences–and you probably aren’t; I know I’m not–your choice to ignore the writer rules will probably cost you some publications. Therefore, here goes:


  1. As far as short stories, always read the sample copy, and write something just like they publish.
  2. Concerning agents and publishers, be reading the books they publish or get published. Do your homework.
  3. Research: find out everything you can about a subject before you write (and not on Wikipedia). College libraries are the best.
  4. Have a brilliant first sentence (think The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum: “You think you know about pain?”).
  5. Have a hook at the beginning–not cheesy.
  6. Stories should start 1/4th of the way through your rough draft: start with action.
  7. Story must have a beginning, middle and end.
  8. Characters must be good and bad, not wooden–or all good or all bad. Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing.
  9. The protagonist must grow as a person.
  10. You can have an anti-hero, but he or she must be interesting.
  11. Not too many similes and metaphors, and make them appropriate to horror.
  12. Don’t say “All of the sudden”; make it sudden.
  13. Make the reader see it; create pictures in minds.
  14. Show, don’t tell. Give some things away in dialogue and inner thoughts, not all description.
  15. Ask yourself “Is this scary”?
  16. Deftly use the unreliable narrator.
  17. Keep a dream diary and use it (nightmares).
  18. Keep the physical descriptions brief, unless emphasizing the antagonist, as a monster or demon.
  19. Read it out loud.
  20. Give protagonist flaws. No one want a perfect protag’.
  21. Copyright!
  22. Don’t kill the protagonist, as if the story’s told by a ghost. Have a main character who watches the minor character die.
  23. Don’t say “It was all a dream.” Action must be real.
  24. Protagonist cannot be the antagonist.
  25. Take your time. Let description flow.
  26. Not more than two adjectives before a noun.
  27. Not more than three commas per sentence.
  28. Delete all the adverbs you can; only keep good ones (like “unsexily”).
  29. Active verbs, not passive voice and adjectives and adverbs, for the most part.
  30. Use the five senses.
  31. Conflict resolution at end–though horror doesn’t have to have a happy ending.
  32. And with happy endings: your protagonist(s) must not be completely jovial; they’ve gone through hell in this horror tale, and they’re forever traumatized.
  33. Don’t use parentheses like me
  34. Don’t overuse exclamation points.
  35. Don’t use all-caps or bold on any story you want published–only self-published ones.
  36. Know the difference between the climax and the denouement.

Now get serious and get some publications!

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