If you’re like me, then you love horror. You love it so much that you want to take it a few steps past consuming scary stories and enter into the realm of creating them. Maybe you want to retell some personal horror stories that have occurred to you or someone close to you. You may also just feel the need to put those frightening monsters that linger in your imagination down on paper for others to enjoy. Ultimately, you want to create the best scary stories to read online for your audience.
That’s where understanding the formula that makes up horror stories can help.
What is a Formula?
You may have heard this word tossed around before. A friend who watched a new scary story at the theater came back and said it was too formulaic. Or maybe an English teacher glossed over this during the writing section of your class.
Where you’ve definitely heard it is in math class.
A formula is a fact or rule that usually connects mathematical symbols in order to provide a result.
X plus Y = Z. This is a formula that will allow you to know what Z is by adding X and Y. It will also allow you to determine what X is by dividing Z by Y.
I know, this isn’t fucking math class. You didn’t come here to be taught how to do equations. You came here to learn about writing the best scary stories to read online.
What if I told you they overlapped?
When it comes to scary stories, all stories really, the concept is the same. If you analyze nearly any story you’ve read closely enough, you can piece apart the formula that brought it to life.
Don’t believe me? Take romantic comedies as an example. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Clearly, there’s more to it than that, and many authors tweak it to try and make it unique, but ultimately the formula is the same.
You can put Y in front of X or divide Z by Y but the result will lead you to the same outcome.
You want to make scary stories to read online for your future or current fans, so let’s make sure you understand scary stories first.
What are Scary Stories?
Scary stories likely began as tales to tell our young to help mold them to society’s standards and keep them away from harm. A group of men returning home after a hunt told the tale of one of their dead brothers. He went out alone at night and was bit by a monster who sucked out his soul. He was no longer himself until he eventually died. This keeps kids and other adults from putting themselves in harm’s way and explains the unexplainable.
Tell me to not do something and you’ll find me doing it before you blink. Tell me scary stories, and I might just think twice about it.
Emotions rule our lives. If you can cause someone to feel, you have power over them. Logically, this shouldn’t make sense, but it’s the case. It is easier to teach through scary stories than it is to try and use reason.
Scary stories are a platform to allow readers, listeners, and viewers, the means to explore their darkest and most misunderstood feelings at a safe distance. It’s not always easy to understand our feelings or events, but having someone else go through something similar in a frightening way can help.
When you trigger someone’s flight, fight, or freeze response, you are putting them in a state of hypersensitivity and acute awareness. The adrenaline spike you get when you are terrified not only feels great, but it allows you to experience things on another level. You become more perceptive and can therefore learn better from a character’s struggle.
Scary stories take the common fears we all struggle with and put them out for display in a brutal way. They provide us a way to confront our fears and help us overcome them.
As an arachnophobe, I sure as fuck don’t care to overcome my own by watching thousands crawl over a paralyzed man. Not everything has to be about learning, though. That’s what makes scary stories to read online so great.
They can also be fun.
Do All Scary Stories Follow the Same Formula?
The clear answer here is no.
Horror stories can be told in many different ways. There is the traditional way to tell scary stories that follow formulas really well. There are also experimental methods where you can veer from the usual in order to achieve something unique and interesting.
I guarantee you that if you were to pick apart experimental scary stories, you would find a formula that made it work as well. It may not be as obvious, but it will be there. Picking it out will allow you to replicate it and tweak it for your own purpose.
Formulas can be found anywhere, and the better you become at seeing them, the more refined your writing will become. You may want to be unique with your writing, but it will be an uphill battle if you don’t learn the formula that makes traditional horror stories work.
You Need to Know Formula to Make Unique Scary Stories to Read Online
There are positives and negatives to both approaches to writing horror stories.
Following closely to the formula will allow you to write something complete in your first go. You will be able to quickly plug in the components within your scary stories that familiarize your readers with the genre. It’s safe and will earn you the enjoyment of most enthusiasts of horror stories.
The negative side here is that if you follow too closely, you may bore some of your audience. Your work will also never be stylish or leave your readers impressed. It’ll be the same fat shit you took, but green instead of brown.
The best example of this is the American Pie series. The first was a classic. Funny, relatable, and enjoyable to watch. Fast forward to Band Camp, Naked Mile, or any of the later ones in the series and you’ve lost that initial token. You are no longer watching them for the characters or story. You watch it for a cheap laugh, nudity, and to waste time.
When attempting to experiment with horror stories, having an understanding will give you the means to do so effectively.
An experiment is an attempt to try out a new concept or way of doing things. If you don’t know or understand what the old way is, you can’t expect to tweak it into something new. Once you learn the tradition behind horror stories, you can try to make something special.
As your work stands out, you can gain a following that can truly appreciate your work. It will be one of a kind and your readers will feel that.
The downside here is that there is a much higher chance of failure. Experimental work can turn heads, but not always for the right reasons.
Both of these films show a true understanding of the formula and how they attempted to change them.
The Formula For Creating Scary Stories to Read Online
Before you ever get into the bulk of a scary story, there is always a short scene that sets the mood. This is like a prologue that allows whatever nightmare awaits to show a small part of itself. It acts as a sort of warning to the audience.
This is only the beginning. If you continue, it is at your own risk.
The setup can follow the main character as they experienced something unsettling in their youth, or they encountered a monster they could never explain. It is not limited to the main character, though. Expendable characters that encountered the horror your protagonist will are usually more common, and their fate is anything but pretty.
The setup allows the reader to prepare themselves for a messy ride.
The first part of traditional horror stories will allow the audience to relate to the main character.
It’ll show them happily in their current state with things going right. They may be moving into a new home with their family or watching a happy ball game with the whole town together. Your audience will learn to care for your protagonist because they yearn for that happiness as well.
This is where you also where you set up what some of their emotional or physical struggles are. Stories are all about learning, so giving your character a means to learn engages your audience. This is also where you get them emotionally invested in your protagonist’s journey. Remember what I said about emotions?
It makes what follows that much more terrifying.
Now that you have your audience nice and hooked, it’s time for the monster to rear its head.
This is the moment in your scary story where your character realizes there is a problem but they may not be capable or willing to admit it to themselves. The problem could be a physical monster that attacks, or it could be a mental struggle that disrupts the status quo.
The point here is to tear the happiness away from your protagonist and your audience. Force them to look at their fears enough to recognize they are there.
One By One They Will Fall
This will be the biggest part of your scary stories. In slashers, it is where each secondary character is killed off in increasingly horrifying deaths.
This is typically when your character’s fear is explained and we are provided their Fate Worse than Death. Imagine a pacifist whose fear of violence grips them because of the accidental death of a friend they are responsible for. They are tortured by what they did and death would only end that torture. What could be worse than death for them?
Your protagonist will be allowed to face their fears but will continue to make the wrong choices that will lead them closer and closer to the clutches of the monster. These wrong choices are usually punished by the deaths of those around them.
If it is an internal struggle that has no outside forces, it could be a loss of identity. The more the protagonist refuses to confront his fears, the more he loses his grip on reality and self.
Their fear begins to overwhelm them to the point that they are nearly rendered useless. This leads to a critical moment within horror stories.
No Hope of Winning
In nearly all scary stories your read, there will be a scene where your protagonist finally realizes that the only way to escape their nightmare is by confronting it head-on. This is not always blatantly obvious but it is there.
It is the moment where the character is given one final chance to cast off the crippling fear and face it. They are expected to learn from their past mistakes and show that they are capable of change.
Whether your character learns or not is completely up to you.
The Devil’s Mercy
Ultimately, you are the devil here. There is a moment in scary stories where the protagonist has confronted their fear and given it their all.
But their all is not good enough.
If your character chose to learn from their mistakes, you are headed towards a positive ending. You can let them live and return their safety to them. Things may not be as they were at the beginning of the story, but they are as close to the status quo as they will get.
If they declined to learn, then they deserve damnation. Whatever punishment you deem suitable is not enough for those that refuse.
Of course, horror stories are known for exploiting the idea that bad things happen to good people so feel free to play around here. It’s your story after all.
Not Everything Is As It Seems
The final scene that scary stories are known for is the illusion. They allow the audience to take a breather after the terror has been put to rest. You may be presented with a happy ending where things seem to return to a close resemblance of the status quo. The nightmares have ended and the evil has been defeated.
Everything seems to be normal, but not everything is as it seems. Just as your audience begins to be convinced of their safety, the terror returns for one final scare.
Because, of course, we can never truly defeat our fears.
Additional Thoughts on Scary Stories to Read Online
Horror is about keeping your audience on edge. Our fears are not rational and therefore your character’s monsters don’t need to be either. They can be evil for the fuck of being evil. We don’t need to understand them, only fear them.
The primary concern for anyone in scary stories is safety. The more you can take away from your audience, the better the story will feel.
Gore can be great, but not everyone likes it. Sometimes, less is more in this department. Consider providing just enough so that your audience can imagine the rest. If it’s just your thing, then have at it.
Also, understand that foreshadowing is huge in horror stories. It is arguably the genre that uses it the most and for good reason. If you are able to set up a terrifying death early on, the anticipation of it will create a feeling of dread until it does.
Get to Writing Your Horror Stories
You have the means to write your scary stories to read online now.
If you’d like someone to read over something you’re working on, hit me up! I love horror stories and can appreciate all ideas. You can also check out the first draft of my two scary stories to read online for free. You can tear it apart to find where the formula is hidden.
There are formulas everywhere. Just as they apply to mathematical equations, they also apply to horror stories. With an understanding of what scary stories are and what their formula is, you can create strong and unique content.
Not all horror follows the same formula, but every great writer has a full grasp of the core formula.
There are 7 easy-to-remember parts. The setup, where you lay the mood for your audience. Establishing the status quo will allow your readers to empathize with your characters. Once the disturbance comes along, your audience will feel the shock of the evil being unleashed even more. The protagonist will be given opportunities to face their fears and his refusal to do so will lead characters to fall one by one. Once they choose or are forced to face their fear, they will realize that there is nothing they can do to defeat the evil. You as the devil will choose to show them mercy or give them a punishment far worse than death.
Finally, a resemblance of the status quo will return. Your audience will feel at ease, only to be sucked right back in because not everything is at it seems.