Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Whispered Fears: The Art of Writing Quiet Horror

Quiet horror is a subgenre that relies more on the unsettling, eerie, and subtly disturbing aspects of horror storytelling than on explicit or graphic depictions of terror. Rather than utilizing overt gore, shock tactics, or supernatural elements, quiet horror tends to use psychological insight, atmosphere, and the uncanny to unsettle the reader.

The term "quiet" doesn't imply the story is subdued in its horror elements or that it's not as scary as other forms of horror. Instead, it refers to the method of delivery. The horror in these stories often emerges from everyday situations, thoughts, and fears. The ordinary is rendered extraordinary, or rather, extraordinarily unsettling.

Quiet horror often works through slow-burn narratives, building tension gradually over time. It might be akin to the sense of unease you feel when something is not quite right but you can't put your finger on why. The settings are often ordinary, familiar places, which make the uncanny elements feel more intrusive and violating.

As a writer, mastering quiet horror is akin to becoming a virtuoso in the art of suspense, atmospheric tension, and unsettling revelations. Through careful attention to character development, setting, plot progression, and symbolic language, you can craft narratives that weave dread into the fabric of everyday life. In this blog post, we'll guide you through the nuanced process of writing a quiet horror story, helping you transform mundane reality into a subtly terrifying and eerily relatable world.

Aaaah! 8 Horror Writing Tips That Will Keep Your Readers up at Night

A brief history and notable authors of quiet horror

Quiet horror has a rich and intricate history that threads its way through the tapestry of horror literature. Though the exact origin of the term is debated, it's widely accepted that the concept has been around as long as the horror genre itself. From the ghost stories of M. R. James to the cosmic terror of H.P. Lovecraft, the elements of quiet horror have always been present, even if they were not explicitly labeled as such.

One of the earliest progenitors of quiet horror is Edgar Allan Poe, whose psychological horror tales eschewed the gothic tradition's more overt frights for a subtler, more disturbing approach. His stories often featured unreliable narrators descending into madness, highlighting the terror within the human mind.

In the mid-to-late 20th century, authors such as Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury further developed the genre. Jackson's The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House are considered masterpieces of quiet horror, using the everyday and the psychological to create an escalating sense of dread. Bradbury's work, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes, also falls into the quiet horror category with its focus on the eerie and uncanny in small-town life.

The term "quiet horror" began to gain popularity in the late 20th century, thanks largely to Charles L. Grant. Grant, a prolific writer and editor, preferred the slow-building dread and psychological horror found in quiet horror over the graphic violence and explicit horror becoming prevalent in horror literature and films of the time. His anthology series Shadows featured works from various authors in the quiet horror style, giving the genre more visibility.

In contemporary literature, authors like Thomas Ligotti and Caitlín R. Kiernan have kept the tradition of quiet horror alive. Ligotti's work often explores themes of cosmic horror and the insignificance of humanity, while Kiernan's stories weave together elements of gothic and supernatural fiction with the unsettling dread characteristic of quiet horror.

While the term "quiet horror" may not be as widely recognized as "supernatural horror" or "psychological horror," its influence on the genre is undeniable. The authors mentioned above, among others, have used its techniques to create some of the most enduring and chilling works in horror literature.

Key features of quiet horror

Creepy woman in the woods
Quiet horror is characterized by its subtle, psychological terror, slow-burning suspense, and atmospheric storytelling that leaves a lingering sense of unease. Image by Georgi Kalaydzhiev.

At its core, quiet horror is about the terror of the unknown and the unsettling. Its power lies in suggestion and implication, rather than explicit depiction.

Key features of quiet horror include:

  • Atmosphere: Quiet horror relies heavily on atmosphere. This is often achieved through detailed descriptions of setting and mood that instill a sense of unease.
  • Psychological depth: Character psychology plays a significant role in quiet horror. The fears, anxieties, and flaws of characters often drive the narrative.
  • Subtlety: The horror in these stories is typically understated and suggestive. It creeps up on the reader, rather than startling them with overt scares.
  • The uncanny: Quiet horror often makes the familiar seem strange and disturbing, creating a sense of the uncanny.
  • Slow-burning suspense: These stories typically build tension slowly, letting the horror gradually seep in.

Differences between quiet horror and other horror subgenres

While all horror aims to scare or unsettle, the approach taken by quiet horror sets it apart from other subgenres. For instance, supernatural horror relies heavily on elements outside the realm of the natural, like ghosts or demons, to create fear. Extreme horror, on the other hand, uses graphic violence and gore to shock and horrify.

Quiet horror, however, finds its terror in the mundane, the subtle, and the psychological. Instead of relying on the supernatural or the explicit, it uses implication and atmosphere to create a slow-building sense of unease. While a supernatural horror story might feature a ghost haunting a house, a quiet horror story is more likely to feature the eerie feelings and uncanny events experienced by a person in a seemingly ordinary house.

The importance of mood, subtlety, and psychological depth

Scary woods
Mood, subtlety, and psychological depth are fundamental in quiet horror, creating an eerie atmosphere and a lingering dread that taps into the readers' deepest fears. Image by Jamie Hagan.

In quiet horror, psychological depth, subtlety, and mood are crucial elements. The mood sets the tone for the story and helps create the unsettling atmosphere that quiet horror is known for. It's often achieved through detailed descriptions of the setting and the characters' emotions.

Subtlety is vital because quiet horror is all about what's implied, not what's shown. It's the shadow in the corner of your eye, the feeling of being watched, the inexplicable chill in an otherwise warm room.

Psychological depth adds layers to the story. It allows readers to connect with the characters on a deeper level, making their fears more relatable. Additionally, it often provides the impetus for the horror in the story, as characters grapple with their inner demons or hidden fears.

Building the atmosphere

Man standing in a foggy field
In quiet horror, the careful use of setting and sensory details cultivates an unsettling atmosphere, immersing readers in an environment of creeping dread. Image by James Kovin.

Creating a suspenseful and eerie atmosphere is key in quiet horror, and achieving this without relying on gore or shock value requires careful attention to detail and strong descriptive writing.

How to create a suspenseful and eerie atmosphere

Quiet horror thrives on subtlety and implication. Rather than shocking your readers with graphic scenes, focus on building a lingering sense of unease and dread. This can be accomplished through:

  • Uncertainty and ambiguity: Keep your readers guessing. The fear of the unknown is a powerful tool in quiet horror. Avoid explaining every detail and allow your readers' imagination to fill in the gaps.
  • Pacing: A slow, gradual build-up of tension can be incredibly effective. Take your time to let the suspense grow.
  • Foreshadowing: Use subtle hints and suggestions to indicate that something isn't quite right. This can help create a sense of impending doom.

Use of setting and sensory details in building a quiet horror atmosphere

The setting is often a character in its own right in quiet horror stories. It can greatly contribute to the eerie atmosphere. Consider these points:

  • Detailed descriptions: Describe your setting in detail to make it feel real and alive. The more real it feels, the more unsettling it becomes when things start to go wrong.
  • Sensory details: Don't just focus on the visual. Include descriptions of sounds, smells, tactile sensations, and even tastes to fully immerse your readers in the setting.
  • The uncanny: Make the familiar seem strange and disturbing. A familiar setting that's slightly off can be far more unsettling than an obviously scary one.

Examples of atmospheric quiet horror

There are numerous examples of atmospheric quiet horror in literature. Here are a few:

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: Jackson masterfully creates an eerie and oppressive atmosphere through her detailed descriptions of Hill House. The house is as much a character as the people in the story, and its presence looms over every page.
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: This novella relies heavily on its isolated and eerie setting to create a sense of dread. The old mansion, with its mysterious rooms and corridors, becomes a haunting presence throughout the story.
  • The Willows by Algernon Blackwood: In this classic quiet horror story, the setting – a desolate, windswept island in the Danube River – plays a crucial role. Blackwood uses detailed sensory descriptions to instill a sense of unease and otherworldliness.

Character development

Man looking into the woods
Character development is integral to quiet horror, as well-developed, complex characters drive the narrative, their fears and flaws often forming the basis of the horror itself. Image by James Kovin.

Characters are the heart of any story, and in quiet horror, they are particularly vital. As the horrors are often psychological and subtle, character development plays a significant role in the narrative and the creation of suspense.

The importance of complex, well-developed characters in quiet horror

Quiet horror often relies on character-driven narratives. The fears, anxieties, and internal struggles of characters often form the basis of the horror, so it's essential to have well-developed, three-dimensional characters. Complex characters allow readers to engage on a deeper level, and if readers care about what happens to the characters, the suspense and tension in your story will be more potent. Moreover, complex characters, with their unique fears and perspectives, can lend a sense of unpredictability to the story, thereby enhancing the tension.

How character flaws and fears can drive the horror

In quiet horror, the terror often stems from within the characters themselves. Character flaws and fears can be a fertile ground for creating horror. A character's guilt or shame can manifest as haunting memories or paranoias, or their fear of abandonment can result in them perceiving ordinary situations as threatening. This way, the horror becomes a reflection of the characters' inner demons, which makes it more relatable and psychologically disturbing.

The role of the "everyman" or relatable character in quiet horror

The "everyman" character – an ordinary person in an extraordinary or terrifying situation – is a common trope in quiet horror. This character is often relatable, with fears and anxieties that readers can empathize with. They are thrust into situations where these common fears are amplified. Their normalcy also enhances the uncanniness of the horror – the stark contrast between their ordinary world and the subtle, creeping terror they encounter enhances the eerie and unsettling atmosphere. The journey of the everyman character in a quiet horror story serves to bring the horror closer to the reader's own experiences, making the story all the more terrifying.

Plot construction

Gas station at night
In quiet horror, plots often rely on the mundane, using everyday situations and environments as a breeding ground for subtle, psychological horror. Image by Hans Eiskonen.

Plot construction in quiet horror differs from many other genres in its pacing and approach to tension and climax. This is largely due to the subgenre's emphasis on psychological terror and subtle horror.

Slow-burning versus immediate horror

Quiet horror typically leans towards slow-burning narratives rather than immediate horror. Immediate horror often relies on shock value and visceral scares to engage the reader, while slow-burning horror is more about a gradual escalation of tension and dread.

In a slow-burning plot, the horror elements are introduced subtly, often masked by mundane details or everyday situations. As the story unfolds, these elements become more pronounced and disturbing, slowly immersing the reader in an atmosphere of unease and dread. This approach aligns well with quiet horror's emphasis on psychological terror and subtlety.

The use of suspense and tension in the plot

Suspense and tension are crucial components in a quiet horror plot. Suspense is often created by providing the readers with information that the characters may not have, or by creating situations where the outcome is uncertain. Tension can arise from conflicts, whether they are external (between characters) or internal (within a character's mind).

To maintain suspense and tension throughout the story, it's important to balance moments of calm with moments of unease. These shifts can create an emotional rhythm that keeps readers engaged and on edge.

Building towards a climax without relying on overt scares

Unlike other horror subgenres, quiet horror does not typically build towards a shocking or violent climax. Instead, the climax of a quiet horror story might be a chilling revelation, a disturbing transformation, or an unsettling confirmation of the readers' worst fears.

This doesn't mean the climax should lack impact; rather, it should be the natural and inevitable result of the suspense and tension that has been built up throughout the story. The climax should deliver on the promises made in the narrative, answering questions and resolving conflicts in a way that stays true to the story's eerie and psychologically unsettling tone.

Using subtext and symbolism

Doll with a cracked face
Subtext and symbolism are powerful tools in quiet horror, subtly hinting at deeper meanings and complexities beneath the surface of what is presented. Image by Aimee Vogelsang.

In quiet horror, where the scares often lie beneath the surface, subtext and symbolism are powerful tools that can add depth and complexity to your narrative.

The importance of subtext and symbolism in quiet horror

Subtext, the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, is a key element of quiet horror. It's what lies beneath the surface, creating layers of meaning and enhancing the psychological depth of the narrative. Similarly, symbolism allows you to convey complex ideas and emotions without explicitly stating them, adding a level of sophistication and intrigue to your story.

In quiet horror, where the aim is to unsettle rather than shock, subtext and symbolism can create a pervasive sense of unease. They can hint at the darker realities beneath the mundane surface or suggest the sinister implications of seemingly innocent actions or objects.

How to incorporate these elements without being overly obvious or confusing

Incorporating subtext and symbolism effectively requires a delicate balance. If they're too obvious, they can feel heavy-handed; if they're too obscure, they can confuse readers and muddle your narrative. Here are a few tips:

  • Make it relevant Ensure that your symbols and subtext are relevant to your characters, setting, and plot. They should feel like natural elements of your story, not forced insertions.
  • Don't overuse: Like any literary device, subtext and symbolism lose their impact when overused. It's better to have a few well-placed, well-thought-out instances than to overload your narrative.
  • Provide clues: To avoid confusion, provide clues to guide your readers towards the subtext or symbolic meaning. This doesn't mean explaining everything outright, but providing enough context for readers to draw their own conclusions.

Examples of subtext and symbolism in quiet horror

Many works of quiet horror effectively use subtext and symbolism. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: This classic short story is rich in symbolism. The wallpaper itself represents the protagonist's mental state and her oppression. As she descends into madness, the wallpaper becomes more grotesque and disturbing in her eyes.
  • The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: This story uses the lottery, a normally positive and hopeful event, as a symbol for a horrifying ritual. The contrast between the symbol and its actual meaning in the story creates a powerful commentary on conformity and blind adherence to tradition. The subtext here presents a stark critique of societal norms and customs that perpetuate violence.

Language and style

The language and style used in a quiet horror story play a pivotal role in creating and maintaining the eerie, unsettling atmosphere typical of the subgenre. Every word, every sentence can contribute to the overall sense of dread and unease that characterizes quiet horror.

How to use language to enhance the horror

The choice of words can significantly impact the tone of your story and the emotions it evokes. In quiet horror, the language should reflect the subtlety and psychological depth of the narrative. Here are a few tips:

  • Choose precise, evocative words: Aim for words that not only describe the situation or setting but also evoke the desired emotion in the reader.
  • Vary your vocabulary: Overuse of certain words or phrases can dull their impact. Try to keep your language varied and fresh.
  • Use connotation: Consider the connotations of words. Words with negative or disturbing connotations can subtly contribute to the eerie atmosphere.

The role of descriptive language and figurative speech

Descriptive language and figurative speech can make your story more vivid and engaging. In quiet horror, they can be used to create an unsettling atmosphere and hint at the horrors lurking beneath the surface.

  • Sensory details: Engage all the senses in your descriptions to make the setting feel more real and immersive.
  • Similes and metaphors: These can add depth to your descriptions and convey complex ideas or emotions. For instance, describing a house as "standing like a haunted memory" can suggest an eerie history and invoke feelings of dread.
  • Symbolism: As discussed earlier, symbolism can convey deeper meanings and enhance the psychological horror.

The importance of pacing and sentence structure

Pacing and sentence structure can greatly influence the tension and suspense in your story.

In quiet horror, the pacing is usually slow to medium, allowing for a gradual build-up of tension. Be sure to balance suspenseful scenes with quieter moments to give readers a chance to breathe.

In terms of sentence structure, always vary your sentence lengths. Short sentences can quicken the pace and heighten tension, while longer sentences can slow down the pace and allow for detailed descriptions or introspection. Using a mix can create a rhythm that keeps readers engaged.


In the realm of quiet horror, writing is an art of subtly whispering terror, allowing the imagination of readers to amplify their own fear. It's about creating an unsettling atmosphere, deeply flawed and relatable characters, and narratives that are imbued with an eerie sense of dread. The key elements – a slow-burning plot, subtext and symbolism, and a carefully chosen language and style – all work together to create stories that linger long after the last page is turned.

Writing quiet horror can be a rewarding challenge. It offers the opportunity to explore the darker sides of human nature, to reveal the horror in the ordinary, and to delve into psychological depths that other genres may not reach. The horror is quiet, but its echoes are loud, and its impact is deeply felt. As a writer, remember to trust your readers' imaginations, for they can often conjure up horrors far more terrifying than any explicit scene of gore or violence. Harness this power, and you can create quiet horror stories that are truly chilling and unforgettable.

Header image by Annie Spratt.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.