How to write horror #3: Writing story outlines

In my previous post in this series, covering story development notes, I talked about the very earliest stages of writing The Shade Clan – the process of gathering ideas and trying to grow those seeds into a story.

In this post I’m going to look at the next stage – drafting rough story outlines. Horror novels are usually very plot driven, and this is where you will start to shape the foundations of a story that will keep readers turning the page. These tips and techniques will, I hope, also be useful for writers in other genres.


The essential difference between development notes and a rough outline is that while development notes are fragmentary, a rough outline should have something more like a narrative structure. It may have a lot of gaps, and places where it could branch off in different directions, but it will have a kind of continuity. It is a first attempt at actually writing down the story, as far as you know it. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but here are some points to bear in mind:

  • Keep it brief – write in note form, use bullet points and don’t be afraid to sum up something important in a few words. In an early outline of The Shade Clan, the final scene was represented as just one word!
  • Don’t worry if the outline only gets so far then peters out. It doesn’t matter if it just describes the first few scenes. Get it written down then take time to think some more about the following chapters. Once you’ve made some progress in your mind, go back and carry on writing or start afresh from the beginning.
  • If you do get from beginning to end, don’t worry if some parts are quite fleshed out but others are extremely sketchy. It’s unlikely that any novel ever written was outlined in full at the first attempt.
  • Keep your options open and consider multiple directions the plot could go – my outlines are peppered with the words ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, and ‘either/or’. In horror, readers expect the unexpected, so you may want to take the option that’s least predictable. But beware – don’t sacrifice credibility for shock value.
  • You are not writing something that is finished or definitive or will ever be read by someone else – this is the first of many versions and, like the crew of the Nostromo, it’s expendable!
  • You may feel what you’re producing is insubstantial but it can be very helpful to be able to look at a whole story on just two sides of A4. You can see the pattern of events and incidents, so this is a good stage to start to think about the rhythm and pacing. You may decide to go for a slow burn, with building tension – my favourite horror writer, Peter Straub, is an expert at this. Or you may favour throwing your characters into an adventure with non-stop action. You could so worse than looking to Suzanne Collins for a master-class in getting on with the action.


  • In structuring your plot at this early stage, start to think about creating suspense and scary moments, how you will hint at things (the darker the better) that will be revealed later, where to bring in unexpected twists, introduce jeopardy and how to build up to a terrifying climax. It will be much easier to manipulate things in this way now than at later stages.
  • Think about structure, for example devices like alternating between different locations, characters or timeframes. In The Shade Clan I used short ‘Interludes’ focused on a mysterious character to break up the main story.
  • Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to make drastic changes or even scrap an outline completely and start again. Don’t be precious about particular scenes, ideas, events – the story must work as a whole and you have to be prepared to make sacrifices.
  • Start to try out some of the plot lines on people you know (they should be trustworthy of course, and if they read a lot and will always give an honest opinion, then so much the better!) They will see holes in the story you won’t have thought about and may suggest solutions to problems you can’t get past.

Here’s an extract from my first rough outline of The Shade Clan, which at this point had the working title ‘Shade Island’.

“They go back. Much harder going through industrial wasteland. Harder crossing point – fell a tree and cross. Make their way into interior of island. Plan is to camp 2 nights then get off. Weird stuff. Girl uncomfortable. As darkness falls they take a photo’ of themselves on timer. That night there is a storm.

Next day more odd stuff. Then they look at photo’ – figure in background watching them. They decide to leave. Make their way back to crossing point. Tree has washed away in the storm.”

This bears some resemblance to scenes in the finished book, but not much. The scary moment of the group selfie revealing someone watching with the camera flash was one I liked and kept. Note how sketchy I am at this stage about some of what will actually happen – ‘weird stuff’ is all I needed to say at this point. Events outside characters’ control, like the storm that washes the tree away, are always good for introducing peril. Self-contained settings such as an island cut off from the shore are always good – they can make events easier to contain and force characters to confront dark forces.

culand pit panorama tint 2

Culand pit – the inspiration for the quarry in ‘The Shade Clan’

But things change. By my third attempt at a rough outline, the main setting had become a quarry and, while there were many familiar elements, just as many were dropped, including using loud noise from off-road bikes to ward off the creatures that live there! I had as many bad ideas as good ones – and I ran a lot of them past other people before I realised they were bad! I was still a long way off the final shape of things, so my key tip for this post is…

KEY TIP: PATIENCE! Take your time and don’t start writing before you’re really ready. Sit on ideas for a while – days, months if necessary – and come back to them; you may find they won’t work and you need to think again. So many books with plots that don’t hang together are probably the result of the writer’s impatience and things that don’t seem believable could have been dropped or improved with more work in the development stage.

Once you’ve got some sort of shape for your plot, it’s a good idea to develop your characters and settings a bit more. So in the next post I’ll be looking at character studies.


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