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How to write thematic horror

A guide to successfully weaving themes into your spine-chilling fiction.

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Horror is a small word for a big world. There’s science fiction horror, cozy horror, fantasy horror, soft horror – the list goes on. Writers use horror to explore not only the scary and terrifying aspects of our world but the tender, hilarious, and heartbreaking moments, too. 

With horror, you can show the world’s injustices to an otherwise unwilling audience and make them feel almost anything you want. But to do that, you can’t just throw some blood across a few lines and invent some monsters so scary they’ll haunt your readers till their last dying breath. 

No. 

To make your readers feel, you’ll have to make your killer be more than a knife-wielding possessed soul. In fact, some of the best horror stories out there are so heavily steeped in their chosen themes that they can be considered “thematic horror” above all other types. 

But how do you write thematic horror in a way that isn’t strictly literary? Or in a style that is literary? Surprisingly enough, the way you approach writing thematic literary or commercial horror is actually the same. Here’s how to go about it. 

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Figure out your themes and thematic statement

If you’re going to write horror that touches heavily on its themes, you will need to understand the basics of themes and thematic statements. Themes are the underlining subjects or topics at work within your story, like “school,” “government,” “revenge,” etc. A thematic statement is the main driving statement behind your work. It can pose a question or directly state an idea that your story will prove in various ways.

To figure out your story’s themes, examine what subjects or topics take up weight in your story.

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The biggest pushback received when talking with horror writers about utilizing themes to enhance their work is that these writers just want to tell a good story; they’re not looking to say or state anything.

Here’s the thing, though; even fluff – good fluff – is still about something. Even if the author isn’t out to teach a lesson or have something to say, their story is still based on topics or themes they make apparent through their choices as they write and revise their stories. There’s no escaping theme in any story. 

To figure out your story’s themes, examine what subjects or topics take up weight in your story. For example, if you’re writing a story about a monster made of sticks and rocks that haunts a schoolyard, a few likely themes are aging, children, and school. The point of view (POV) you choose can also give insight into your themes or thematic statement. In the monster story example given above, a story where the POV is a teacher would have different themes than if the POV is from a child, a swing set, a local raccoon, or a parent. 

Exercise

Draw a mind map of the topics and issues you cover in your book. What themes stand out the strongest? What statement aligns with your story’s driving idea and your characters’ choices along the way?

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