Horror Writing: How to Write a Scary Story

I recently listened to “The Nimble Men” by Glen Hirshberg on Pseudopod. While I enjoy a lot of what Pseudopod produces, this story struck me as especially effective at telling a good horror story and worth taking a deeper look at how Hirshberg did it. (Spoilers follow.)

What’s the Story About?

The story is told first person past tense from the point of view of a pilot. Years ago, he and his co-pilot were waiting to take off at a small airport in Northern Ontario. They became concerned when the di-icing truck didn’t approach them, remaining dark and still in a field. Though mildly spooked by lights in the trees, they went outside to investigate. But the lights in the trees were more than illusions and the two pilots barely made it back to the plane when attacked. However, upon returning they find a passenger has somehow disappeared.

Years later, after the airport is closed, a former employee tells the pilot that his experience is one of many times the lights came and someone disappeared, but it only happens on cold, snowy nights.

Why It Works

Characters

There are three main characters in the story—the two pilots and a flight attendant—and each are given enough time to develop as their own person. Also, each is given a unique relationship with the other. By establishing characters and their relationships, we understand why each would react to the other and we care about them, making us invested in the story.

Voice

Since the story is told in the first person, there is a level of involvement and “being there” for the reader. We do not have the detachment of third person voice.

Setting

Setting a story on an airplane immediately heightens tension. Though statistically the safest way to travel, there is a lot that can go wrong on a plane. Plus, there is the sense of a tight, enclosed space.

More than that, the plane is set at the end of a runway at a small airport in a snowstorm. These elements reinforce its isolation.

Foreshadowing

At the beginning of the story, the two pilots notice the lights in the trees, but believe it’s either the northern lights or a reflection of runway lights off snow in the trees. But the older of the two pilots tells a story about a woodsman going out into a snowstorm with a lantern to search for his lost daughter, but neither returns. The odd lights, the story goes, are his lantern. Though we have all heard these kind of local legends, it sets the expectation in the reader’s mind that this ghost story may play a role in events to come.

Mysteries

The story presents two mysteries early on: what are the lights in the trees (even though the two pilots come up with a plausible explanation, we the reader know it can’t be that simple) and why has the de-icer truck not arrived? To the latter, the pilots are able to see someone in the de-icing truck, but he looks slumped over.

These two elements present us with potentially sinister unknowns. We the reader are thus pulled into the story, wanting to have explanations.

The Ending

This ending is effective because it doesn’t resolve everything. We do not learn what the lights are, why or how the man disappeared off the airplane, or the reason the crew of the di-icing truck never moved to approach the plane. On this last point, I did expect some explanation, yet I must respect that this story is told first person. In life, we don’t always get nice, neat explanations for why things happen.

So, Elements of How To Write a Horror Story

This story works because of three key elements.

  1. The characters are rough sketches since it’s a short story, but defined enough to be interesting. We understand them, care for them and can be scared for them. And since the story is told first person, it adds a level of intimacy.
  2. Multiple elements combine to create tension in the story. Any number of things could go wrong on an airplane at the end of a runway at a remote airport in a snowstorm.
  3. Mysteries are created one after another, teasing the reader and wanting us to keep reading to see what will happen next. And in the end, not all mysteries are resolved.

Taken together, “The Nimble Men” presents a good blueprint for how to write a horror story.

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