Tuesday, October 12, 2021

13 Tips for Writing a Halloween Story

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Drawing inspiration from holidays is a great way to spark a new story. Rayne Hall shares 13 tips for writing a Halloween tale.

A Halloween story has two characteristics: it must unfold on or around the time of Halloween, and it must be scary in some way. Here are some ideas and tips for creating your own scary Halloween story.

1. The story features a Halloween ritual – but not necessarily a predictable one.

The story plot needs to involve Halloween customs or rituals. However, these don't need to be the conventional trick-or-treating, carved pumpkins and fancy-dress costumes. Consider the seasonal traditions of other cultures, regions and religions and draw on them for inspiration.
For example, in Italy, people turn cemeteries into stunning displays of color by leaving chrysanthemums on graves—not only the graves of loved ones, but those of strangers. What if someone decorates a stranger's grave, and encounters either the ghost of the deceased or a living relative? At the annual Halloween pageant in Kawasaki (Japan) only select people may participate, and competition is fierce. How far will someone go to be among those included in the pageant this year?

Also think of Día de los Muertos in Mexico with its manifold customs. Families bring the favorite toys of deceased children to their graves. What if they are mistaken about what toy a child truly liked and bring the wrong one? What if the dead child in the adjoining grave is jealous of the offerings?

Consider the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, still celebrated in Scotland and Ireland with huge bonfires, carved turnips and masked parades. October 31 marks not only the last day of the harvest and the beginning of the Celtic New Year, but is also date when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. This is the time to look into the future (with scrying and fortune-telling) and to communicate with the dead. It is also the time when evil spirits can enter this realm and possess people and animals, so many rituals exist to ward of demons. What if a character communicates with a departed loved one and opens the gates to invite him back into her life—and in doing so accidentally lets in an evil demon?

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Use Holidays in Your Story)

2. Draw on your own memories of the days around Halloween.

How did your family celebrate it when you were a child? Have you lived abroad and experienced different seasonal traditions?

In Germany, where I grew up, children hollowed out not pumpkins but fodder beets, whose flesh is much harder and more difficult to carve. Year after year, I begged to be allowed to make a 'Rübengeist', but my parents refused. Then one year, they gave me a fodder beet and a kitchen knife, and left me to it. I spent hours whittling away at the beet, my cold-stiffened fingers clasped around the knife, chiseling out one wet pale flake after another. When I realized that carving a Rübengeist was tedious work, I wished there was a way to get it done faster. What if someone—a ghost, the devil, an evil human—appeared and offered to hollow out the beet? In return for a favor, of course.

3. How to find your story's plot

What happens to set the story events in motion? Let it be a seasonal incident, for instance Halloween custom (e.g. two mums competing whose child will have the best costume), perhaps a deliberate dare among young people ("II dare you to spend Halloween in that haunted ruin"), the weather (e.g. a character seeking shelter from an autumn storm) or a communication with the Otherworld (scrying to see the future, using an Ouija board or summoning a spirit).

What can possibly go wrong with the character's plans? Let it go disastrously wrong, and leave the characters to cope with the fiasco as best they can. This will be your story's plot.

4. Make it Scary

A Halloween story must be scary in some way, but how scary is up to you. If you want to write a tale so terrifying that it scares your readers out of their wits, go for it. But you can also weave a tale which invokes the subtler flavors of fear, i.e. apprehension, dread and suspense. Whether you pen a splatterpunk story filled with gore and violence, a creepy atmospheric ghost story, or a tongue-in-cheek black humor piece, is your choice. Create the kind of story which suits your author brand and your personal taste.

What kind of horror story would you enjoy reading? Subtle or extreme? That's the style you should aim for in your writing.

(Here’s more with The Scary Season: Tips on Bringing the Scary to Your Novel)

5. It Doesn't Have to be Horror

Although a Halloween story has Horror elements, it can be of any genre: Humor, Romance, Mystery... Pen your Halloween story in the genre you like best, just flavor it with creepiness or fear.

6. How to Begin the Story

Don't start with a terrifying situation or a full-on shock, otherwise there's no way left to escalate the fear. The first paragraphs should set the scene and evoke a creepy atmosphere and introduce a disquieting sense of dread, apprehension or suspense, but not yet outright terror.

7. Build the Fear Gradually

With every page, the story becomes scarier. Turn on the volume of fear gradually, escalating it when the tale reaches its climax.

A good way to achieve this gradual build-up is to let the character realize the danger bit by bit. At first, he thinks of it as a disturbing nuisance. Then he gets worried that there may be more to it than he thought. When he realizes the magnitude of the danger, he wishes he could turn back, but it's too late. Of course the threat turns out to be much, much worse than what he imagines.

8. What is Real, What is Fake?

With a Halloween story, you can keep the main character (and your readers) in uncertainty about what is real and what is fake. He may cling to the hope that the horrific sight of corpses on his neighbor's lawn is merely a clever Halloween decoration, and that the cellar door locking behind him is merely his mates playing a prank on him. Of course, he'll soon learn better, but even then, reality and illusion intermingle.

For example, he may snatch up an axe to use in defense against the monster and find that it's a toy made from foam. Or perhaps he drags himself, injured and bleeding, into the street and begs passers-by to call an ambulance—and they laugh, believing it to be a Halloween gag.

9. How to End the Story

Sulu does a little dark reading
A Halloween story can have a happy or unhappy ending, or anything in between. The main character may escape from the threat and defeat the monster, emerging a wiser and better person than he used to be—or he may pay for his foolishness with his life, realizing with his dying breath what a mistake he made.

But it must not end with an anticlimax, showing that the danger was not real. Don't disappoint your readers by revealing that it was only a scary-looking Halloween decoration, a misunderstanding, or a trick-or-treating prank.

10. Use the Weather

The weather is a great way to create atmosphere, establish a seasonal flavor and bring a story to life, especially if the story is set out of doors. Do golden leaves dance in the autumn breeze, or do the brown leaves turn to mush in the gutter? Does rain soak the character's fancy-dress costume, or does the fierce chilly wind bite her cheeks? Do her steps sink into the muddy ground or slip on the frozen pavement?

11. Use the Senses

The ancient Greeks believed there were only five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch), but actually there are many more. Use whichever senses work in the context of your story, and use them a lot. Don't rely on the sense of sight alone.

In a Halloween story, the sense of hearing is especially effective because it creates excitement, enhances creepiness and intensifies fear. Describe the sound of a door squealing open or clanking shut, of footsteps thudding on the steps or clacking along the corridor, of stairs creaking floor, of stairs creaking and shutters banging. Another great sense to apply in a Halloween story is the sense of temperature. Turn the temperature up or down to make your characters shiver or sweat.

(Here’s more with Description Tip: Making “Sense” of Your Characters)

12. Play with Light and Darkness

Describe the source and quality of light: the jaundiced glow of the street lamps, the cold white glare of the bare light bulb, the flickering neon tube overhead. Let the readers experience darkness descending as day surrenders to night, as the candle burns out, as the power cut plunges everything into darkness. Show shadows dancing, creeping, sneaking across floors and walls, lengthening, stretching, reaching. This helps to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere.

13. Research and Write Now

At this time of the year, surrounded by Halloween customs and drenched in seasonal weather experiences, it's easy to get in the mood. Observe, research, experience, take notes and start writing your story now. This will give you time to revise, edit and polish your tale and submit it to zines and anthologies in time for next year's Halloween issues.

What kind of Halloween stories do you enjoy reading? Do you have a favorite story to recommend? Tell us about it in the comments.

Rayne Hall is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages. A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. She is the editor and publisher of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

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Learn to haunt your readers with powerful, chilling tales. Make their spines tingle with anticipation and their skins crawl with delicious fear. Disturb their world-view and invite them to look into the dark corners of their own souls.

This book gives you a wealth of tools and techniques for writing great short stories. It is part of the acclaimed Writer's Craft series.

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  1. Thanks for featuring my post. I hope many followers of this blog will be inspired to write a Halloween tale - and maybe I'll even get to read the published stories one day. :-)

  2. I like Rayne's advises, they are always very useful and practical. I have a Halloween story in progress (though, it won't be ready by this Halloween), therefore I really appreciate this certain blog post. :-)

    1. Now's a great time to work on a Halloween story, for publication in a future year.

  3. Halloween isn't 'done' here, but I love the stories. Maybe now I'll try the techniques for some of our rituals - using all her advice!

    1. Using the seasonal rituals of your own country and culture is a great idea.I'm sure many people would enjoy reading about this.

  4. Hall's second tip, to "draw on your own memories," made me recall a trick-or-treater who came to our door wearing a grim reaper outfit. The hood was so deep I couldn't see the kid's face. It was just a black hole. (How did the kid see to walk?) He/she said nothing and really had the creepy movements down.

    That experience would make a fun story if the trick-or-treater was the actual grim reaper!

  5. A great article. I love the suggestions of using other cultural traditions as well as the common Western ones in movies. Thank you for the tips, Rayne. (You know me as Dark Wolf Writer on Twitter)

    1. Hello Dark Wolf Writer. :-) The way Twitter is going, I'm looking for a different social media platform. I'm currently trying out Mastodon and Instagram. You?

  6. As always, Rayne Hall's incisive advice is invaluable. She has made me feel that I should write some NOW, to be immersed in the autumnal experience. Difficult to write a Halloween story in April!

    1. Take lots of atmosphere notes (about sounds, sights, smells, weather etc.) now. Then you'll have vivid notes to draw on when you craft a Halloween story next April. :-)

  7. Great tips Rayne, thank you!

    1. You're welcome. I hope you'll put them to use and write a great Halloween yarn. :-)