How to Write Horror For Kids
by Daniel Parsons
Stephen King once said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” That quote is truer than many writers realise. For all of its psychological drama and bloodlust, horror is just entertainment – a fun, immersive way to escape reality. Often bizarre and illogical, it plays to our fears without getting too heavy. Fantasy with more blood, I like to call it.
Just consider the following components: monsters; death; fear; supernatural occurrences; a fight between good and evil; characters thrown into unfamiliar environments. All could be used to describe The Lord of the Rings just as much as The Walking Dead. So, what is it that separates them? Well, a few things.
ISOLATION IS KEY
In many cases, horror lacks many of fantasy’s main character types. It isn’t true in every case, of course, but there are often no mentor or sidekick figures present in horror stories. There is no cavalry rushing to help the hero. The protagonist is on their own, frequently enduring humanity’s most universal fears: feeling alone, trapped and helpless.
THE HERO ISN’T SAFE
Horror is remarkable because the hero often doesn’t make it. It’s unexpected and not always satisfying in the “happily ever after” sense but it works because it instigates self-reflection. The reader wears the hero’s skin and sees their inner workings, comparing the character to themselves. Then, when the clichéd cheerleader twists an ankle and takes a detour through the woods, they think, “What is she doing? I’d never do that!”
When they don’t make it, the reason is usually obvious – planted earlier in the story. Ultimately, it’s either because the protagonist has an unpleasant personality or makes horrible decisions – something the audience would never do. By comparison, the heroes that do survive are usually smart and morally pure, making decisions that readers believe would mirror their own.
No matter which scenario the story explores, though, the audience is satisfied, not because of what happened to the hero but because they are left to believe they knew the right answer all along. They either end the story feeling like they survived alongside the hero, or they watch a fatal end believing that they knew how to escape it, and could do so if they found themselves in the same situation.
SO, CAN YOU WRITE HORROR FOR KIDS?
Admittedly, helplessness and preventable deaths are heavy themes to tackle, even for adult readers. However, a younger audience can stomach them. They even expect them, including the occasional murder of a flawed hero. Actually, that particular trope comes up a lot, especially in short stories where the monster often preys upon unruly kids as the embodiment of social justice.
Children can handle those dark themes. I’m proof of that, having written two zombie books for teens and four dark fantasy books with horror elements for middle graders – all of which have seen success among eight- to sixteen-year-old readers.
ADAPTING HORROR FOR YOUNGER READERS
Adaptation is the operative word. You don’t want to talk down to them or soften the blows. Like adults, kids really want to be thrilled. In fact, many have a higher tolerance for fear than adults, having conditioned themselves with movies and video games.
The key is first to write a good horror book – for all ages – and then to prune back on anything that is obviously inappropriate.
WHAT TO TAKE OUT
Explicit adult elements are a no-no. For me, that means all but the mildest of bad language and sexual references. While those two elements are staples in adult horror, they don’t work well in children’s literature. You can get away touching upon those subjects for teens, but even then I would approach with caution.
“And what about gore?” I hear you say. “Can I include blood and guts?”
Gore is fine. Go as nuts as you want! Generally, the level of blood needed in your story depends on the kind of horror you write. For ghost stories, the fear tends hide more inside the psychological aspect of the story. Not seeing gore can be more unsettling than slathering it all over your readers’ faces. The moment you reveal the horrors and expose the monster, you diffuse the situation. As Alfred Hitchcock once said: “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.”
If, like me, however, you write about zombies, you’ll want to ramp up the messy details because that’s what your readers will want. Even book lovers on the younger end have come to expect it. Creative death scenes are all part of the fun!
Just look at Halloween and you’ll understand. Fake blood is everywhere. Kids walk the streets, slathered in slime and synthetic innards, chewing gummy eyeballs. They play games where characters lose limbs. They stay up late watching horror shows on TV. Even to kids as young as eight, a monster biting off a man’s head is welcomed with the same gusto as seeing a dragon torch a whole army as it flies overhead.
They love bodies thrown into wood chippers, heads popping under heavy machinery and survivors clubbing away the undead with severed arms. One of my stories, The Dead Woods, contained all three of these elements and it was voted one of Wattpad’s “Top Zombie Stories” back in 2016 – on a site with more than 40 million readers, the majority of whom are under 18.
Darren Shan, arguably the king of children’s horror in Britain, rose to fame using the same logic to write his million-successful Demonata series. In an early scene in book one, the hero Grubbs Grady finds his parents torn apart by demons, his father hanging by his ankles, decapitated. Twelve-year-old me, along with thousands of other readers, devoured that scene. It wasn’t scary – it was cool!
NEVER KILL THE MOTHER
As much as you have free rein on blood and guts, there are lines you shouldn’t cross in children’s fiction. Shan himself has revealed in an interview with The Guardian that, despite the gruesome scenes in his books, his editor took an exception one detail which had to be changed: he couldn’t decapitate the mother. It had to be changed to the hero’s father.
By Shan’s admission, mothers are protected in children’s horror. They can be killed, but the scene can’t be overt and detailed because of children’s attachment to their mothers. If such a scene is described, it must be overshadowed by a more barbaric act to draw away the reader’s attention – in this case, the dad.
AVOID REAL-WORLD HORRORS
While I’m not sure I agree (and neither would plenty of dads, I’d wager), Shan’s point still stands. Horror, being an adventure designed to thrill, should never stray too close to real dangers. It’s meant to be enjoyable – to fill the reader with the sort of tension that ends in an almighty jump and a self-conscious laugh. It’s not meant to force them to face the hard truths of the real world.
R. L. Stine, whose Goosebumps series has sold over 350 million books across the world, words it well: “The real world is much scarier than [my] books. So, I don’t do divorce, even. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do child abuse. I don’t do all the really serious things that would interfere with the entertainment.”
TRY FIRST-PERSON NARRATORS
Writing in first person, I’ve found, is a great way to create this entertainment-based brand of horror without straying too close to real horrors. It focuses the lens and omits any details that could otherwise release the tension, allowing the reader’s imagination to go crazy as they see each scene through the hero’s eyes. Trapped, they are drawn into the moment, unprotected, without a narrator to shed a light on the shadows and let them relax.
In this case, if the hero doesn’t see the monster until it’s already too late, neither does the reader, which allows the tension to keep building. It postpones the inevitable bang Hitchcock mentions. And with the reader experiencing your world from inside the hero’s head, they grow to feel that true human terror as if it were their own.
Believe it or not, kids can deal with that sort of tension. Better yet, they thrive on it! They’re tougher than you think.
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