IMPORTANT UPDATE: Dove Keeper is now available here!
Dove Keeper is my horror novel inspired by my recent ancestors who cut people's heads off. If you're a fan of slice-of-life fiction, check it out once it's published! While writing it, I learned much about writing effective horror. Though your mileage may vary, here are my tips for great horror:
Let Your Characters Draw Blood As Early As Possible
I don't mean literally drawing blood, though that works too. Ultimately, let your characters have at it with one another. In my first draft, I feared making my characters too feisty and argumentative because I didn't want them to be unlikable, didn't want them to push too far.
Screw that. Choose to push instead of hold back. Even if you decide to temper the fire in later drafts, this is a great start to making the conflict and characters as active and dynamic as possible.
Let Characters Make Mistakes, But Keep Them Smart Too
It's easy to have the characters trip over a branch or drop their cell phones in the lake. It's easy to write, but also, dare I say, lazy. Or at least cliche. The fun comes when you make your characters smart and determine how to make the conflict brew to a point that even their wits might not save them. I had to consider: OK, so my characters won't run out of the house when they hear a strange noise, and they call the police immediately. But what then?
How can we, as writers, up the ante in creative ways?
What Show, Don't Tell Actually Means, and How This Improves Tension
"Show, don't tell" is an expression we hear all the time, but I learned through the revision process where I was telling too much. For example, I'd mention a phone call I saw as insignificant, but it could carry vital information, hints of the threat, and new character information connected to the main conflict. I could also keep the creep factor going, rather than have one or two sentences of missed potential. Ultimately, having someone to tell me where to expand on certain characters and plot points proved to be invaluable.
Look at cursory, passive mentions of character interactions and find ways to make a conflict-driven scene.
Horror is Best When It's About Humans, Real Humans*
This is true rather horror is pulpy or "upmarket." Readers connect to real humans they can hurt with and root for. Essentially, make your characters three-dimensional; they strive for goals, disagree, and go about life in their flawed ways, well-intentioned or not.
What do your characters want? Where are they willing to go? How can you find places where you say "Yes" to your characters and change it to a "No" to make the struggle as engaging and impactful as possible?
*If your character is a flesh-eating, shapeshifting alien, disregard this.
Keep the Fire Going in Every Single Scene, Even if It's a Flicker
This can be applied for all genres, really. Each scene should lead to something and be part of a character arc; it all should be tied to what the characters want and the tug-of-war to achieve what they need. No scene should be stranded on its own, limp and leading to nothing, even if it's cool. If the scene's cool but doesn't increase tension or advance the characters in an effective way, it's time to take that darling to the chopping block.
Sure, Don't Give It All Away Immediately--But Once the Shit Hits the Fan, Make Sure It Keeps Hitting
Horror is effective when it draws fear in the reader rather than attempts to force it out by throwing black cats and chainsaws at your head. It helps to not try to be Scary™ too soon. Suggestion and low-key creepiness works wonders, as does ambiguity. Where did that stain come from? Those footsteps? Those shouts? It's good to not give this away too soon.
Still, when it comes to finally unload on your characters, take full advantage of your authorial sadism license. The climax is where you test your characters' mettle and all their insecurities and splintered loyalties. This is where you bend them to see if they break, and you keep on twisting to see if the cracks make them snap.