If love stories make you swoon and comedies make you belly laugh like a deranged raccoon, then horror stories make you clench your gut, slam shut your eyes, and pray for the nightmare to end. Scary stories deliver fear. That’s their job. But can you write a scary story in 150 words?
That’s a question terrifying enough to send shudders down the spine of the most experienced writer.
Yes, you can write a scary story in 150 words (or less). The keys are: 1) To trigger fear fast by leveraging age-old human psychology, and 2) To narrow the story to its most basic elements. In this post, you’ll learn 7 ways to terrify readers while keeping your story super short. Plus 75 fear-themed prompts to give you all the goosebumps.
That brings up a few other questions: how to write a good horror story? what even makes good horror?
Let’s start with how to write micro-stories, then layer on the scary.
Read some real life writing convention horror stories.
How to Write Short Horror stories
There are a number of effective ways to write super short stories, or micro-stories (also called micro-fiction or, in our case, micro horror). It’s all about drilling down to the heart of the story. Then cut away the fat. After that, you keep scraping away at the story until you get all the way to the bones.
Three scary effective ways to write short:
- Story Stripping (I promise this is SFW – safe for work 😉 )
- Find the Bones
- Write the Bones
To write a short story, you write a story short.
Trust me, that sounds more profound than it actually is (don’t end sentences with is, it’s just poor grammar-ship). But the point stands. Writing short stories doesn’t mean that you shortchange the story. It means that you take the complete story and strip it down to its essence.
So, that means you have to really understand the story. That’s the only way to know what to save and what to shave.
Consider these tips when stripping your story:
- Complete this story template (Character + Conflict + Crucible). Just fill in the details of your story so that you have the main elements – the character (who the story is about), the conflict (what is the main character up against), and the crucible (the setting or situation that traps the character in the story so they can’t just run away).
- If you don’t have a story, use a prompt (like the 75 scary-themed prompts later in this post)
- Strip your story down to one or (at most) two characters. You only have 150 words after all.
- Strip your story down to a single setting. More settings mean more words, which you don’t have at your disposal.
- Strip your story down to one conflict.
Find the Bones
After you finish story stripping, it’s time to find the bones. In practice, it’s really just another, deeper level of cuts. You might have a scene or series of scenes in your mind.
Time to kill those darlings. Prepare yourself because this is going to hurt.
It’s time to find the bones of your micro-horror story:
- Cut your story down to one character (really, give it an honest try). You probably don’t need the other character (at least not much). Pretend you HAVE to cut your story down to one character. How would you do it? (Then do it).
- Cut your story down to one scene. (There’s probably no time for multiple scenes. Go deep with one scene instead of drifting on the surface of several scenes).
- Now cut your story down to a slice of that scene (a micro-scene). Which slice? The most dramatic slice. The scariest slice (Scary Spice?).
- Cut your story down to one slice of the setting, the micro-setting. (If your setting was a graveyard, now it’s one tombstone. If your setting is an abandoned school, now it’s a haunted bus or empty classroom)
Once you complete those steps, you will have a super bony story ready for the page. You have finished the brutal work of chopping away at your story. Now it’s time to focus on techniques for translating your slimmed up story into actual words.
Write the Bones
But before you grab your pencil or keyboard, I have two more cool techniques to share with you. These methods will help you maintain your narrow focus to reach your goal of penning your story in a maximum of 150 words.
The first approach is called the Napkin Test. Here’s how it goes. You attempt to write your entire story on one regular-sized napkin. I know! It’s a terrible test. The worst, really. But it forces you into conciseness. The physical edges of the napkin taunt you with their limits.
Try it out. Grab a napkin (or go buy a cheap pack the next time you are at the store). Try to force yourself to write the entire story in the square space of that napkin.
The second method is even worse. I call it Twitterizing your story. Instead of the napkin, write your entire story in one 150-character tweet (or whatever the current Twitter limit is – if Twitter still exists lol). Even if Twitter is a distant relic of the past when you are reading this post, you can still attempt to write your entire story in 150 characters. Let’s be nice and not include the spaces in the character count.
Why punish yourself with the nearly impossible? Because, once you struggle to write your story in 150 characters, 150 words will seem like a football field of space.
Then there is the actual writing of words. Writing a scary story in 150 words is a challenge best met with intention.
Apply these best practices for writing super short copy:
- Use short words (as a bonus, often shorter words pack more punch)
- Use short sentences
- Avoid adjectives and adverbs (you can always add them in later if you are under word court)
- Use vivid verbs with more emotional connotation
- Use nouns with more meaning
- Use symbols, subtext, and multiple meanings as often as you can (you can double the emotional impact of your writing while keeping the word count low)
Check out my post on The Best Thesaurus for Writers.
In summary, to write short requires short, simple sentences filled with short, simple words packed with subtext.
7 Ways to Terrify Readers (Based on Neuroscience)
You have the bones of your story. It’s time to talk terror. There are certain tools and techniques writers use to create the unsettling atmosphere of psychological suspense.
When you are writing micro-fiction, you must employ the best horror tactics to terrify readers in the small space of your story. Apply these next tips to scare your readers’ shorts off.
By the way, all of these tips work wonders because they are based on real brain science (sources at the bottom of the article).
1. Scare them Early
Things are scarier if you are already afraid. So scare them early and often. Once we are primed for fear, we interpret everything else through this fear-smeared lens. Especially in a micro or short story, we need to get to the fear fast.
In your story, don’t go for the slow burn by building to suspense or fear. Dive into the middle of the scary. Think that’s hard to do in 150 words? Try 5 words.
2. Threaten the Ordinary
Un-scary things can be the scariest (humans imagine the worst). One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques was to invoke fear in normal settings, like showers, and into normal things, like birds.
Sure, graveyards and old, empty houses are scary. But so are rain gutters with smiling clowns.
When choosing your story and scene settings, think outside of the graveyard. Invoke fear into the ordinary. Pick a normal place and make it terrifying.
3. Slow Time Down
When scared, people experience time distortion where time appears to move slower. Novice skydivers, for instance, often think the preparations before jumping take longer than they do. Horror scenes in movies and fiction often exploit this slo-mo feature to terror by increasing the pace of terror while simultaneously slowing time down to focus on the fear.
You can achieve a similar effect by raising the pace of action in your story while slowing down the experience of the horror. You do that by focusing in on specific character actions, description of simple setting details (like the bloodstained baby shoes), and entering into the mind and emotions of the character.
4. No Way Out
According to neuroscientists (people way smarter than me), the purpose of fear is to prompt us into appropriate adaptive action. Mainly, that is to escape the source of the threat or perceived threat.
That’s why it’s so terrifying to feel trapped. So, ramp up the fear in your stories by hemming in your characters so that they can’t do what everything in their biology is screaming at them to do: get the hell out.
Now all of those buried alive stories make more sense. So do the stories of being conscious but immobile on the surgeon’s table, the scalpel sharp and gleaming inches away from the whites of your eyeball.
When you think about trapping your character or characters, think not only about the physical location. Also, think about access to help through cell phones and other resources like food, water, and air.
Another primitive fear is powerlessness. When we feel helpless, we feel desperately alone. That’s another reason those buried alive stories are so dang terrifying.
Spook up your story by getting your character alone and without any outside help. In your 150-word story, you might only have one character anyway. But this technique also works for longer stories.
When plotting out your story (or pantsing your way through it), ask yourself, “How can I make my character more helpless?” and, “What do they need? How can I take that away?”
Like helplessness, vulnerability is another fear trigger. That’s one of the reasons the shower scene in Psycho is so visceral. The female character is completely vulnerable.
The same can be said of the movie Jaws. When we are floating in the ocean, we are easy prey. Vulnerability can be terrifying.
What parts of your story can exploit vulnerability? How can you make your character more vulnerable?
Consider these possibilities:
- Darkness (When we can’t see, we are more vulnerable)
- Handicapped (Such as when we are injured and can’t run or defend ourselves)
- Weaker/Smaller (Children are vulnerable, when facing bigger and stronger opponents, we are all vulnerable)
- The unknown (When we don’t know what is out there or what we are up against, fear magnifies)
7. Empathetic Fear
The terror that I can relate to is more terrifying. Vampire horror stories and zombie stories can be very scary, but I can’t really relate to them. But hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night? I’ve been there.
That’s why scary stories involving pets (Pet Cemetery) and dolls (Chucky) scare the goodness right out of us. Most all of us have experienced pets. Most of us have glanced side-eyed at a creepy doll perched on a dusty dresser and wondered at the dark intelligence that might be starting back at us.
When crafting your story, dig into relatable experiences and places. They terrify us in their normalcy. We connect to them more easily and fully.
75 Scary Story Writing Prompts
In case you need spooky story starters to write your short horror story, here are 75 writing prompts. Use them for writing sprints, creative fodder to generate new and terrifying micro or long-form horror story ideas, to write creepy fanfiction, or just as a mental exercise to train your mind to see story possibilities everywhere. You could even consider them 75 Halloween themed prompts (since some of the prompts reference this spooky holiday) . It’s completely up to you!
Download a copy of all 75 Horror writing prompts as a PDF below: (Just click the Download button)
- You come home and no one recognizes you.
- The old civil war painting in the hall just blinked.
- Describe Halloween from a Jack-O-Lantern’s point of view.
- What is the most terrified you have ever been?
- What are some unusual tools that you could use to carve a pumpkin?
- Write a scene where someone carves a pumpkin while the pumpkin screams.
- Something is following you while trick-or-treating.
- You realize that you are slowly losing your mind.
- Your character must stay overnight in the room where a dozen people were murdered.
- The old man in front of you has fully black eyes (no whites)
- Your dog is acting strangely like it doesn’t recognize you.
- Your character wakes up trapped somewhere.
- What is the most terrifying day of the year? Why?
- A kid suspects his or her parents may be trying to murder them.
- Your mirror image stops mimicking you.
- Your character finds a long-lost letter that chills his spine.
- The doll on the dresser just moved by itself.
- Who do you want to scare this Halloween? How will you scare them?
- Your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
- What would you do during a zombie pandemic?
- You suspect the old lady next door is cooking more than bread.
- Write a story about a haunted playground.
- Share your first pumpkin carving experience with a person deathly afraid of knives.
- Can you write a poem from the point of view of a serial killer?
- Prepare a questionnaire to interview the monster under your bed.
- How would you define yourself, a scaredy-cat or strong-hearted person who is difficult to scare?
- Do you believe in ghosts?
- Write a descriptive recipe from the point of view of an evil witch.
- Complete the sentence- When I looked behind the basement water heater …
- Your little brother tells you that he saw a monster underneath the bed. Then he shows you the claw marks on his shin.
- Write a persuasive letter to your pen pal pleading with them to never to play “Bloody Mary.”
- Flip to three random words in the dictionary and create a scary story that connects all three.
- Make a list of decorative items that can be used by a Vampire to lure victims into his lair.
- A new mother finds a jack-o-lantern with a secret spooky message inside it.
- What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night to find someone staring at you?
- Your shadow stops following you. What do you do?
- You wake up in the middle of the night and can’t breathe.
- Write about the history of a ghost town.
- Write a story about a kid who goes trick-or-treating but gets lost in the woods.
- While taking a shower, your character realizes she is covered in giant tarantulas.
- All the power and lights suddenly go off in the middle of a storm.
- Your character starts spitting up blood.
- You are a vampire trying to get invited into a house. Write a first-person account of what you would say to gain entrance.
- What scares you the most?
- What are the similarities of your top three scary movies?
- Write about a normal object that becomes unsettling.
- A traveling minister brings your dead brother back to life but something is different about him.
- List as many words as you can that sound “scary” to you.
- You start hearing the thoughts of a serial killer.
- A new girl in town puts a curse on you.
- You wake up in bed next to a dead body.
- A man attends a funeral and realizes the body in the coffin isn’t dead.
- A woman gets in touch with her dead younger sister.
- A woman attends a funeral and realizes the body in the coffin is her.
- If you could bring any Halloween monsters back to life who would it be and why?
- A man is accused of kidnapping a child he has never met.
- A woman wakes up with no eyesight in a place she has never been.
- Write a story where nothing is as it seems.
- A scary clown is walking towards you in the dark.
- The local psyche ward just lost all power and all staff has mysteriously disappeared.
- The empty subway train slows to a stop in the middle of a tunnel.
- A serial killer is recreating every one of Stephen King’s novels.
- A man takes a beautiful woman home, but she starts acting oddly inhuman.
- A woman’s spouse is convinced she’s been replaced with a clone.
- A man’s dog starts becoming more aggressive.
- Create a social media profile for one of the following: mummy, clown, zombies, vampires, or werewolf.
- All the children in town disappear.
- A woman gets out of the shower to a strange message written in the steam on the bathroom mirror.
- A mythical being comes back to life.
- The faces of a man’s neighbors start to sag grossly.
- Write about a household item possessed by an evil spirit.
- Complete the story – The moment she stepped off the curb onto the deserted street…
- You think you might be starting to crave blood.
- The magnets on the fridge spell out, “I’m in the room with you.”
- You start to hear whispering in the walls of your house.
How to use These Horror Writing Prompts for Writing Sprints
- Choose one or more prompts from the list
- Prepare your writing tools
- Decide on a word count goal, for example, 1,000 words (hey, that’s almost 7 of those 150-word stories. The actual calculation is 6.66. Coincidence??).
- Set a timer for between 15 and 60 minutes.
- Start the timer.
- Write as many words as you can until the timer stops or goes off.
- Record Your word sprint data on a spreadsheet or using online software. For example, your word count achieved compared to your word count software.
For a complete breakdown of writing sprints, read Writing Sprints: The Ultimate Guide to Successful Writing Sprints.
So, that’s how to write a scary story in 150-words (or less). For even more awesome content, consider these articles: