Halloween has come and gone, but readers of all ages love to cozy up with a good horror book throughout the fall and winter. So why not try your hand at writing a creepy book
People have been fascinated by creepy subject matter since… well, forever. Ghost stories have been around since people have, and it’s not hard to see why. Horror is a way for us to explore one of our most primal emotions—fear—and it’s a way for us to talk about subjects that are often taboo in regular conversation, like death.
If you’re in the mood to write something scary this season, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll talk about what makes a book creepy, then we’ll walk you through the process of how to write creepy books.
What makes a book creepy? (Things to consider)
First and foremost, let’s clear something up: you don’t have to write a horror story to write a creepy story.
Horror is a genre that intends to disgust or frighten the reader. The entire goal is to make the reader feel unpleasant. If you’re writing a horror novel, you want that at the forefront of your mind.
However, not every book with scary elements is horror. Paranormal romance, for example, often includes frightening creatures or spooky settings, but the objective isn’t to scare the reader—it’s to tell a love story. The reader is meant to feel all the feelings they might get from a romance, just with a side of creepiness. For more on romance tropes, read this article.
This is all to say that you can use these tips even if you’re not writing a straightforward horror novel. Got a fantasy adventure with a scene in which your characters have to crawl through a haunted dungeon? You’ll want to know how to write that haunted dungeon to its full creepy potential. Got an action thriller with a torture sequence? If you want it to land, you’ll need to know how to use suspense and how to write violent scenes.
So, what makes a book creepy?
Dark atmosphere and tone
The atmosphere in your book is the mood you’re creating for the reader. You could say it’s the book’s ‘vibe.’ Atmosphere varies from chapter to chapter or scene to scene (this comes with emotional variance—some scenes will be happy, some will be sad, etc), but there’s still an overarching sense of atmosphere throughout a given novel.
In order to manipulate your novel’s atmosphere, you have to manipulate your tone. Grammarly defines tone as “the attitude your words employ.” To explain this, let’s take a look at two examples.
Example A: “Mike’s totally crazy. He totaled Dad’s car doing donuts in the Hobby Lobby parking lot last weekend, and honestly, it’ll be a surprise if Dad lets him off the hook this time.”
This feels like someone telling you a story. The words here aren’t very formal, the sentences aren’t super complicated, and overall it reads casually. This is a conversational tone.
Example B: “Mike’s madness settled. In the dim light of the Hobby Lobby parking lot, his tires squealed, circling like the crows dumpster-diving behind the adjacent Olive Garden. He should go home. He knows he should go home. But his father will be there, and this time, Mike’s not getting off the hook.”
Okay, so the Hobby Lobby thing aside, this is a different vibe. Words like ‘madness’ and phrases like ‘dim light’ give this telling a more serious, creepy flavor. This is a sinister tone.
To create a creepy atmosphere by using tone in your story, focus on sensory details and use figurative language to create associations with spooky stuff. Vary your sentence structure to add tension or drama. ‘Leaves crunched under their feet’ is okay, but ‘leaves crunched under their feet like broken teeth’ makes me think of chewing leaves or chewing broken teeth, and both are gross! Which is what we want.
There are all kinds of literary devices that will help you develop your creative writing.
Another way to make your book creepy is to put your characters in an uncomfortable setting. You can do this the obvious way by putting your characters in a cold, damp, dark, generally claustrophobic environment, but they don’t have to be in a creepy cave or scary dungeon to have a terrible time.
The setting should pose a problem for the characters. Maybe this is a beautiful home, but the people in it are kind of evil and scary. Maybe it’s a decent hotel room, but there’s no smoking allowed, and our protagonist is starting to yearn for a cigarette.
Use the setting and the characters’ circumstances to layer discomfort until they’re swaddled in a thick, itchy blanket of misery.
Paranormal activity includes monsters, ghosts, the undead, spirits, demons, fairies, that kind of thing. The paranormal doesn’t have to be scary, but it definitely can be. If you’re including paranormal activity in your book, decide on the creature’s limitations and abilities and stick to them while you’re writing. This will keep your reader from getting confused and pulled out of the story by seemingly random, unexplained events or new powers coming out of nowhere.
Suspense is necessary for any storytelling—you’ll find a little suspense in most children’s books as well as books for adults. Suspense is what makes readers anticipate what’s coming up next, and if they don’t care, then they’re probably going to put the book down.
Adding a ton of suspense, though, takes the reader past anticipation and into discomfort. It puts them on the edge of their seat and, ideally, they’re afraid of what’s going to happen next, but too invested to quit.
How do you create this experience in the reader? It might seem difficult, but it’s a trick as old as time: setup and payoff.
You want to establish the threat early on—in a horror story, this might be the opening scene where some unnamed character is murdered so we can see and fear the monster. Once you’ve set up the threat, you’ve done most of the work. The audience will be waiting for that threat to show up, and when it does, they’ll be both horrified and satisfied to see the setup paid off.
You can play with suspense (and with setup and payoff) in other ways to unsettle the reader. Having things go not quite the way the reader expects them to will, in general, make them uncomfortable and eager to see the problem resolved. You just want to make sure that problem is resolved.
Say your main character, Sarah, checks into a hotel. The staff all greet her warmly as “Paige.” When Sarah corrects them, the staff seem confused, and they don’t actually listen to her—they just keep calling her Paige.
That’s kind of creepy—it’s definitely intriguing. Who’s Paige? Why are the staff so vehement about all this? We’re unsettled, and we want to know what’s going on. If we keep reading and the novelist never gives us any kind of a reason for why this is going on—in other words, it’s dropped—this immediately becomes frustrating because it’s a waste of time. There was no need for it—it didn’t matter to the story.
How to write a creepy book
Now that you know how writing creepy books works, you’re ready to get started on your own. We’re going to talk about the process from brainstorming all the way to revisions, so buckle up!
First, you’ll want to brainstorm—I suggest a mindmap. Mind Maps are word-association tools used to generate new ideas quickly, and they’re great for visual learners.
To make one, find a mind-mapping software. Or, do it the old-fashioned way and write a word down in the center of a page. Write a line coming out from that word, and write something you might associate with it. We’re writing a creepy book, so we want things to stay on theme. If your first word is ‘nighttime,’ your associated words might be ‘haunting,’ ‘nightmare,’ ‘sleep paralysis demon,’ or ‘storm.’
Do the same thing with those associated words until you’re all out of ideas. You should end up with what looks like a big web of ideas, images, characters, and plot points.
Take all the ideas, images, characters, and plot points you generated using your mind map and turn them into an outline.
There are a few ways to go about this, none of them wrong: you might make a bullet-point list of the beats in your story, and you might include images or bits of dialogue as notes off to the side. An outline could be index cards taped to a piece of posterboard or to your wall, with each index card containing a nugget from your mind map.
This is basically a guide for you to use while you’re drafting so that if you get stuck, lost, or scared, you’ve got a way to keep going instead of giving up. Do whatever works for you. Some people (myself included) like to do a combination brainstorm, outline, and rough draft—others find that separating these into different processes saves them time.
With your outline handy to serve as your guide, you’re ready to start the drafting process. When you’re writing the rough draft of your novel, your objective is to complete the story as quickly as possible.
Pause as little as you can—if you hit a plot hole or unforeseen snag that threatens to stall the draft for days, if not weeks, make a note, accept that you’ll have to fix it later, and just move on to the next thing (that’s what your outline is for, remember?). If you think of a new idea, make a note (try a separate document or notebook if that helps to keep things sorted) and keep moving.
Rough drafts do not need to be good—in fact, they’re not going to be. Any given rough draft is going to be almost entirely rewritten during revisions anyway. (I’m talking to myself a little bit, here, as someone who tends to let perfectionism hinder the actual completion of a draft.) Jane Smiley said that “every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist,” and she’s perfectly right.
Almost all of the writing process takes place in revisions. You’re going to rewrite almost everything you wrote in your rough draft several times. I don’t say this to overwhelm you, but rather to help you set reasonable expectations—this is going to take a while, and that’s normal.
But how do you avoid endlessly rewriting, creating new problems, and working in circles?
Keep your story top of mind. Your first few passes at revision should be about things like character’s motives, pacing, fixing plot holes—structural stuff. Are you setting up a good satisfying scare for your audience, and if so, are you paying it off later? Once you’ve got the structure down, you’ll start looking at word choice. Are you using tone to set a creepy atmosphere when you want to?
While much of the drafting process is up to you, it is really recommended that you do structural edits before line edits. Otherwise, you could labor over sentences, paragraphs, pages, or even chapters that end up just getting deleted.
Now that you know what makes a book creepy, and have an overview of how to write one, it’s time to get started. Check out this resource to help you take the next step.