Friday, August 03, 2018

Stephen King’s Ten Tips for Horrific Writing

By Natalie Odisho

Let’s Get Lit: Spotlight on Allegory

JH: I'm introducing a new treat today--a recurring column that will tackle a literary device each month, and show how bestselling authors are using that device in their work. Please help me welcome Natalie Odisho to the Fiction University team! 

Natalie Odisho is an Assyrian-American artist who lives in Dubai. After graduating with a BS from Florida State University, she followed the music to Las Vegas where she worked in editorial and public relations. Now her focus is on acupuncture and telling you to eat only before 7pm.

Website| Instagram

Take it away Natalie...

Stephen King is the master of horrific writing. Or, rather, the horror genre. He boasts a best-selling authorship of terrifying tales, with over 350 million copies sold across the world. Also, he has penned the writer’s guide classic, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. If anyone knows horrific writing, it is Stephen King.

In King’s essay from Legends of Literature*, edited by Philip Sexton, he outlines the Ten Bears of Horror Writing. It outlines ten themes which may inspire a new story. This is just one technique to use for inspiration when writing.

Below is King’s go-to list of creative writing monsters. Monsters your mother warned you about. Monsters that keep scary stories scary. His personal list is as follows:

1. Fear of the dark
2. Fear of squishy things
3. Fear of snakes
4. Fear of rats
5. Fear of closed-in places
6. Fear of insects
7. Fear of death
8. Fear of others
9. Fear for someone else

What are you surprised to see on this list? You may notice that the number-one fear listed is ‘fear of the dark’. Fear of the dark is understood to be both physically scary and mentally torturous. It is a useful device to create conflict.

Fear of the dark is a universal symbol which also holds personal meaning. Meaning can add depth, rich layers and character to a story. When you give a universal symbol personal meaning, the characters may become rich, layered and vibrant. As we find out about the perspective of characters, more of the character arch is revealed.

Overall, fear is a universal symbol and motivating force which makes it a useful device for story-telling. Fear is relatable yet open to interpretation. It takes skill to slot fear of the dark, and ‘squishy things’ above even fear of death.

In this writing exercise of basic brainstorming, King teaches us to begin from a core idea and work outward. First, comes the list. Then one stands out as inspiration for conflict. An idea follows and then comes the plot. Afterward, the characters join the party.

Whether looking for inspiration, chopping writer’s block or working-out the writing utensil, King consults his master list of Ten Bears. King’s above ideas for fear serve as a central theme to an overall story. One of the ten ideas, or a combination, creates a theme and central conflict for a story. The method of idea-centric brainstorming has allegedly generated Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

If you find yourself stuck, model King’s list by starting with an idea and then working out an interesting plot. It is not copying to draw inspiration from those whom you admire. For example, King openly talks about being inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories and anthologies.

How do you incorporate the Ten Bears list-making into your writing? You can begin by listing themes which work for your genre. It is harmless fun: general, common themes are not specific enough to be common clichés.

Take King’s Fear of the Dark, for example. Generations, cultures and perhaps even other story-telling species have been using Fear of the Dark as a timeless theme. Think of your genre and what your audience needs.

These rules are not strictly for horror. Fear can be generated to any genre. What is a good romance without a fear? For romance, fear could be fear of commitment, fear of change, or fear of being alone. It is a known fact that fear of unrequited love has stopped 95.6% of prom dates from coming true.

For a children’s book, you could incorporate fear of moving or fear of a new school. Alternatively, you could scrap Fear altogether and generate your own list. List-making can be applied to any genre. Just modify the list from Things that Scare to another goal. If you’re a Romance writer, perhaps you would write Ten Seductive Scenarios to kick-start that first chapter. Even Five Uniforms We All Love could sew up a new series. You get the picture.

Ultimately, a common theme builds an audience. People know what to expect and how to match their needs. Familiarity breeds comfort. Comfort creates the warm memories of a reader for which every author strives.

So, start writing. Think freely and edit after. Language is fun and we are in the world of creating. As Hemmingway says, "write drunk / edit sober." We’re not advocating a seven ’n seven, but we do suggest that you find Seven Situations for your story that weren’t there yesterday. You can leave alcohol out of the equation and channel the same unrestricted flow that it alludes.

Let the pen go. Create a list. Have fun.

*(Phillip Sexton, p. 194, Legends of Literature)


  1. I'm so excited to be a part of Fiction University! Let's get writing :)

  2. Replies
    1. A top one! Toast Masters can be useful for public speaking fears. They have local chapters for leadership and communication.

    2. Fear of spiders

  3. Love this post. Gave me a lot to think about.

    1. Thank you, Jean! I'm happy you liked it :)

  4. What would be some suggestions for a list in the Mystery Genre?

    1. What about fear of failure? Fear of letting someone down? Fear of letting yourself down? Fear that you're not good enough to save the day? That people will find out you're a phony?

    2. Thanks! Those really help give me direction.

  5. Thanks! You've sparked several ideas for my upcoming novels. :-)

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. The first one that came to my mind was fear of the unknown

    1. Definitely. You could frame fear of the unknown a few different ways. Internally (the psyche) or externally (space, the sea). I'm interested to know where it takes your story. Best wishes

  8. The only thing I have to fear is fear itself...Baa ha ha ha