Weekly Writing Prompt: Horror Story


Every post in this series will include a weekly reading and a list of prompts in response to that reading. Some of them will be focused on craft; some will ask you to evaluate content. This idea was born from an MFA course I took that focused almost entirely on emulating the style of other writers and then reimagining that first draft into something that was our own but still had echoes of the original. It's also inspired by the heightened sociopolitical reality so many of us come face to face with each day. Writing can be for pleasure; it can be cathartic; it can be used as a tool; it can preserve memory; it can foster connection. Whatever it may be, I hope this series helps you find what you're looking for out of your practice.


Week of August 24

Reading: "Horror Story" by Carmen Maria Machado

Craft element to note: Genre elements. Writing about romantic relationships, especially difficult ones, comes to many writers naturally. At one point or another, most people have experienced pain at the hands of someone they've loved, either intentionally or unintentionally, and reciprocated that pain back. The universality of it makes relationship woes an obvious topic—what better common ground to find with readers?—but also makes it extremely difficult to write about said woes a way that stands out from the masses of similar tales. 

The heart of Machado's story isn't uncommon: lovers already on shaky ground who encounter an obstacle that pushes them too far from each other. What makes it uncommon is the way she pulls in genre tropes—in this case, horror (she's also very well known for pulling in elements of fairy tales). This story presents all of the usual suspects: hair in the drain, footsteps in the attic, an exorcism gone wrong, a Ouija board gone rogue, inconvenient disappearances and reappearances, a house with a murderous history. But we don't get any of the tension. In fact, our narrator feels pretty clinical about the whole ordeal. This combination of exaggeration and dispassion serves a purpose. Even in the face of the worst of what creative minds can conjure, our narrator is most focused on the inevitable loss of the woman she loves. The disjoint between content and tone is mimicking that emotional dead space of trying to get through it when you know you're bound to fail. Instead of trying to convince us the narrator is feeling pain and loss, Machado is relying on the reader to feel that disjoint. 


  1. The best way to start incorporating different genre elements is to fully write into them. Adhering to the typical "rules" (here are some tips from R.L. Stine to help), write a short horror story.
  2. As mentioned earlier, Machado also uses this technique to draw in elements of fairy tales, which are particularly good for crossing genres because they're so driven by a moral. Machado has a penchant for turning fairy tale tropes around (playing on their patriarchal structure to instead empower women) and redirecting their lessons to a surprising and topical end. Think of a fairy tale you grew up with that never quite landed right with you and give it a rewrite. 
  3. The atmosphere of this piece really comes from the house, which almost acts like a character in the way it moves the plot along. Using whatever tone you'd like, write about a place that does something—it could be something uncanny, like the house in this piece, or something natural.
  4. Often, writers are told not to go to extremes because it seems so unrealistic, but following Machado's lead means we need to do just that. Write a scene between two characters who are having a tough time in love, making it as realistic as you can. Now, using it as a guide, write the same encounter but take everything to the extreme—dialogue, reactions, atmosphere changes, catalyzing incidences. 
  5. For whatever reasons, when writers tell readers a character feels a certain way, readers tend to not quite believe it or at least aren't as engaged in it—hence the "show don't tell" rule. Showing can also be accomplished with a tone disjoint like we see here. Write a scene that should be really emotional, but take all of the emotion out of it, having your narrator react as clinically as Machado's.