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Embodiment of Horror: How to Write a Monster Story


Have you felt something drawing you to the dark side of literature? Do you see stories in the shadows that keep you company when you wake in the dark at night? If so, then you might be ready to embark on the journey of writing your own monster story. Don't be frightened of the work that lies ahead of you; there are endless opportunities to stitch together your own unique, terrifying monster that will both delight and intrigue your readers.

One great example of classic horror is Bram Stoker's Dracula. This epistolary novel offers significant insight into the horror genre, but it is especially relevant to writers working on their own creature feature. The eponymous character has defined the vampire genre and is the antagonist against which other gothic monsters are measured. What is it that makes the aristocratic blood-drinker terrifying, and how can writers successfully create their own monsters using Stoker's work as a template? Here are some tips.

Expand on established fears

Many elements of Dracula build on common fears. Stoker incorporates the fear of spiders, fear of bats, fear of the dark, fear of chronic illness, fear of blood, and fear of predators like wolves. Using so many different but rather common fears was a clever way for Stoker to connect with as many readers as possible.

When creating your monster or when writing to horrify an audience, consider using this same tactic and drawing on common fears. According to ABC News Australia, the most common fears are:

You need not choose these specific common fears, but do your best to build the fear directly into the creature and their behavior. Perhaps the monster's fingers end in hypodermic needles; maybe the creature is preluded by a thunderstorm or hunts only in the rain; or perhaps the creature is able to take the shape of something strange, like Dracula takes the form of a bat or large wolf. There are endless combinations of fears, animals, insects, and locations that can be combined in unique ways to make a truly terrifying creature.

Make the mundane scary

Another option is to make the mundane terrifying. For example, Stephen King used cars as a horror device. Since nearly everyone relies on their vehicle to get to work each morning, defamiliarizing these objects is central to King's storytelling.

Stoker, on the other hand, removes normal, mundane elements to give his classic scary effect. For example, Stoker eliminated the vampire's shadow as well as their reflection in the mirror and depicts his antagonist with eyes that glint at the sight of blood. While other writers have turned shadows and reflections into autonomous and devious creatures, Stoker's method highlights what happens when something is simply missing from what we view as normal.

In both King's and Stoker's writing, the creepiness is sourced in a defamiliarization of a common occurrence – repairing a car or looking in the mirror. When the reader believes that one outcome is likely and then that outcome is slowly revealed to be false or inconsistent, the reader is prompted to question other elements of the narrative. For instance, Dracula tells the protagonist Jonathan Harker that the doors of his mansion are locked claiming the rooms are disused. It isn't until Jonathan explores the mansion that his imprisonment is revealed.

Don't show us the monster

Monsters tend to be much less scary once a reader understands them and can see them clearly. For that reason, keeping the reader in the dark is one tactic you should consider when writing your own monster story. No matter how talented the author, a monster revealed will always fail to impact certain readers—it's almost like giving away the ending too soon. Consider those shadows you see at night, or the creaks and bumps you hear when you're alone in the house. They can be unnerving until you realize the shadow is just the shirt you left sitting on top of the chair and the creaks are from the wind blowing outside. That wave of relief you feel upon discovering the true nature of the unknown washes away the fear drawing you in to learn more about what you're seeing and hearing. Your readers experience the same feelings as they read your story. Draw them in, keep them there, then just at the right moment reveal the truth.

Authors have tackled this issue in a number of ways, ranging from revealing nothing about the creature to keeping their purpose or origin a secret even if they reveal their appearance. In IT, King gave Pennywise the ability to change shapes so that the true form of the monster would be revealed only at the climax of the story. Stoker painted Dracula as a capable and charming host, wealthy and accommodating. Only later did he give us a glimpse inside the coffin and the scene where the count shambles down the sheer wall of his castle. In Who Goes There? we understand there is an alien parasite long before we see its final form. In other cases, seeing the monster is only part of the battle.

In summary, keep the visual descriptions and/or the monster's abilities close to your chest; don't tell the reader too much. A shadow outside the door, a ripping and tearing of flesh, or a knife slick with blood are more menacing than any detailed description you might give of dripping jowls or alien sinew. Once the monster is known, it's easier to see how to defeat it, thus removing the fear.

Clarify the rules

Often the difference between cosmic horror and gothic horror is in terms of comprehensibility. Though all monsters should follow rules (they should have goals and their actions should serve a purpose), these attributes may not be readily obvious to the reader. In the case of gothic horror, a creature's abilities and weaknesses should eventually or gradually be revealed to the reader. For example, the protagonist should learn that the werewolf can be killed with silver bullets or that the vampire must be staked through the heart in a coffin filled with grave dirt. These rules should give the appearance that the protagonist has an advantage over the monster. But though the protagonist may eventually defeat the monster, during the first few times the rules seem to favor the hero, the hero should actually be overcome (but not broken) by the creature. The rules are there to make it appear as though the hero has the upper hand before pulling the rug out from beneath them. Only at the end should the character have a chance of defeating the monster – and only by following the rules. This also gives the protagonist a reason to continue exploring and learning about the creature. They aren't going to have all the answers right from the start. It's more realistic to the reader that the hero needs to earn and be worthy of their victory.

In cosmic horror, on the other hand, the "why" of the rules is never explained, but the "what" of the rules is often made clear. The reader may learn that the slug monsters only latch on to children, but when the protagonist discovers a trove of lost books detailing the last appearance of the slugs, that book should provide no answers as to why the children are the chosen victims.

In short, gothic horror is based in enlightenment ideologies: once we understand something, it becomes less fearsome, and we can fight it. Generally, gothic horror is focused on individuals and is more personal. Cosmic horror is based on the unknown and evil in the universe. Cosmic horror is also called Lovecraftian horror because it took root in the neuroses and prejudices of H. P. Lovecraft: there are some creatures we can never understand, and trying to understand them is dangerous rather than it being a solution to the problem or a tool in the fight. That said, even if the reader doesn't know the rules of your monster, you should jot down some guidelines and ensure your characters don't break their own rules. You are designing the world in your story, which means the rules can be anything you want them to be. Just make sure you are consistent in maintaining those rules throughout the story.

Let the monster stand for something deeper

Finally, all good monsters symbolize something. This symbolic nature may inform the rules of the creature, and in this way the monster and its behavior both work to reinforce the theme of your text.

For example, Dracula is an aristocrat. When our protagonist first slashes at the vampire, his great cloak is torn, and coins and banknotes bleed from the wound. It is no surprise that much of the discussion in Dracula is of how money is earned and wielded by upstanding men and by monsters. Further, we can see this theme of the aristocratic monster reiterated throughout the monster's other attributes. The vampire, like a noble, cannot enter a house unless invited; the vampire treats its guests to food and drink, and to cigars—they are a good host. Finally, the vampire's lair is an ancient mansion, and Dracula's plan is concerned with the acquisition of land in London. He purchases property as a method of spreading his influence and moving closer to his prey: Lucy Westenra and later Mina Harker.

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the monster is a representation of when scientists go to far, according to some scholars. Others have said that the monster is the example of what happens when we create life and then ignore life's needs. There are disastrous consequences for many decisions surrounding the creation and pursuit of the monster. This is an example of how different readers can connect with different topics through the use of allegory.

When you are creating a monster, think about the symbolic nature of that creature, and use this as your starting point. If your monster embodies greed, then think of the rules that might apply to it. Perhaps it always finishes its food, devouring one corpse before hunting new prey. Consider where it lives, such as in a lonely mountain atop a hoard of gold or within the vault of a bank. Consider related fears, like the loss of a job or bankruptcy, then consider making the mundane scary by tying the creature to money or other symbol of wealth. If the fear is a fear of drowning, use water coming out of the faucet as a tool for the creature—or make it the creature itself.

Lastly, if you are creating a monster from whole cloth, you don't need to worry about it too much. But if you are using a classic monster, beware that most readers won't take kindly to your monster if it breaks the rules established throughout the story or goes against the theme. If you write a book about vampires and you make their skin sparkle in the sunlight, make sure that has a purpose and meaning throughout the book, because taking an existing trope and changing it requires a lot of work to get the reader to believe it enough to be scared of it.

Whatever you choose to create, remember the tips above, and you'll come out the other side with an engaging and frightening horror story that readers will think about long after they finish the book.

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