Sarah Pinborough on how to write a horror novel

The author of the Dog-Faced Gods series and Poison gives advice on writing horror fiction

Author Sarah Pinborough
Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough is the author of such acclaimed horror novels as The Hidden, the Dog-Faced Gods sci-fi detective trilogy and Poison, the first in her upcoming trilogy of updated fairytales from Gollancz.

We talked to the writer about how to avoid horror clichés, writing for young adults, and the importance of writing what scares you.

You’ve written creature-feature horror and detective horror. Do they require different approaches?

I probably approach them the same way but the crime ones obviously need a lot more research. Even though Dog-Faced Gods was slightly in the future it was only a little bit in the future, and you can’t have some kind of supernatural solution in a crime novel. Even though mine had sort of sci-fi undertones, you know a crime reader wants it all to play out in the real world. So you have to lay your clues more carefully, although my horror novels were quite plotty. You know, they weren’t just people stuck on an island with stuff happening. Although the creature feature ones probably were! (laughs)

I think any novelist has one way they write and plan a book so that doesn’t really change, but I think the research changes and the plotting takes a lot more time with a crime book.

Do you have any advice for avoiding clichés and tropes when you’re writing horror?

I would say, and I’ve said it a lot about horror, I’m sure I’m not the first person to have said it, is that when you plan your horror novel, make sure it’s about the man or the woman not about the monster or the horror or the ghost or whatever the supernatural element is. If you are pitching your novel as “It’s about some zombies” or “It’s about a werewolf”, then it’s going to be clichéd. If you say it’s about a man who’s struggling with such-and-such, and finds himself in this situation…you know, I always think whatever the supernatural element is, it should be a metaphor for something else in the book. I liked The Passage and that only came out a couple of years ago and that was a very original vampire novel. I tend to veer away from those kinds of monster books writing-wise, but people still do do original takes on them. I just think it’s about being very careful that it’s about the characters and not about the monsters.

So ground it in the characters…

Yeah, with all books, the plot should be driven by the character anyway. So I think with horror especially, make it about a person rather than about the monster. If that makes any sense.

Do you think it’s important to worry about whether the scares will work for other people?

You really can’t think about whether it’s going to scare other people. Because I would look at The Silence of the Lambs and say, “That to me is a far more scary horror novel than, say, Christine.” So what scares you is all you can really write about. And most horror writers are terrified of everything so it gives them a big scope! They’re so focused on a million ways they could die, real and unreal. So I think it would be naïve to say people don’t think “Oh that could be spooky.” But then you do end up writing something a bit clichéd.

If you think of, and I keep referring to film which probably isn’t very appropriate, but you know those Japanese horror films, when The Grudge or The Ring first came out that was really quite scary. By the time you’ve seen five of them with the girl with hair over her face, you know, it’s not scary any more! So, we all like a bit of a creaking door and a bit of atmosphere build up. When I was writing The Taken, I can’t remember what scene it was but I remember I scared myself and I thought “Oh that’ll be good.” Whether it was good for anyone else…you can’t predict what’s going to scare people. But you’ve got to write your fears for yourself. With pretty much any book you’ve got to write for yourself. And then if people like it or are scared by it that’s a bonus.

PoisonDid you take a different approach when writing your YA books?

On the first one I very much did, for at least half of it, I was very much thinking “This is for a younger audience.” And I think actually they were better books when I stopped, when I just got into the story. The main difference is that the characters are younger in a young adult book, so your main characters are young.

And they’re much more interesting in their views of right and wrong. I mean, you can have kids that are quite street-wise but they still have a very defined right and wrong. It’s only when you’re an adult that you get the proper grey areas creeping in, when you’ve made lots of mistakes and you kind of learn to talk yourself out of what you’ve done that’s wrong, you kind of make excuses for yourself. I taught in a very rough school and a lot of them came from broken homes, but if a teacher had an affair with another teacher they were shocked by it because that was wrong and that was grown-ups, so they have a much higher value system for adults than adults have for each other. So that’s quite interesting to play with in young adult.

And you have to be careful, I mean mine are quite, lots of bad things happen and kids die and there’s lots of adult stuff but how you write that changes. You have to be a bit more careful with how you do violence in young adult books, I think. I think some people don’t, I think some people get away with it. Plotting-wise, they’re quite twisty-turny. I think you have to be careful of not dumbing down, just adapting how you tell the story.

You’ve written a series of novels but you’ve also had two series on-going at the same time. What advice would you give to authors attempting to write two series simultaneously?

Don’t do it! (laughs) No…Doing the two trilogies at the same time was horrific. Because I would write one of one, and then one of the other, then one of the first one so I was constantly forgetting where I was in the story for each one, and I’d have to go back and really refresh my memory, whereas with the three fairytales I’ve just done I wrote them back to back, and so it felt like I was writing one long novel rather than three interlinked. There was no divide between them. And now I’ve got to write the second one of the duology. Which I’d completely forgotten the first one of but luckily just had the page proofs, so I can remember the story now! So it’s hard to juggle lots of things. I mean, I do and people do, but in some respects it’s better to make lists and think “Right, let’s get that done, and then work on that and then work on that.” But if you’ve got two publishers to keep happy then you do sort of have to jump between the two.

But make sure you keep all your notes from the first ones. I had notebooks of stuff so I could go back and think, cos I might make little notes, like when I was writing Mayhem I’ve got a sheet of notes and I’d think “Oh, this could go in the second book, that could go in the second book,” which obviously I’ve completely forgotten now, but I’ve dug the notebook out, I had a look through and thought “Oh yeah, that’s where I was going with it.” So always scribble stuff down that you might need later, especially if you’re working on more than one project at a time, definitely.

And how has writing a novella like Poison been different to writing a novel?

It’s much more linear, when you’re writing a novella. If you’ve only got 40,000 words as opposed to 110,000 words there’s very little in the way of subplot, it’s quite a linear storytelling because you haven’t got a lot of space. And I’ve seeded things in each one that would come up in the next one and that kind of thing but you have a much smaller cast of characters. Your story starts at A and ends at Z without too much jumping off and going off to other things.

I mean, I feel like I’ve written a novel now because I’ve done the three of them and they’re all done. When I was starting each one I had a one-page outline for each one and I’ve pretty much stuck to it. Which is a lot easier than a novel, where you’ve got far more layers to feed in. And I think as well, the fairytales are different simply because the language style is quite different and much cleaner, a lot less description. But with novellas I would say the main difference is that you have a much more linear plot than you do in a novel, fewer layers.

And you’ve written for TV, which I assume is completely different again?

Oh hugely, yeah, massively. The main difference between TV or film writing and novels is the collaboration element. So many more people have a say. You know, because there’s budgets, locations, the director will have a view, the producer will have a view, the script editor…So you start off with your pitch and then your treatment and then your first draft.

And your first draft you can knock out in about two and a half weeks because you know that a lot of it’s going to change. They’re going to sit around the table and say “What if that moved to there, what if this character did that?” and suddenly you’ve got a whole new sort of story, almost. And I would say the only thing with TV writing is if you come away from it knowing that you’ve told the very kernel of the story that you had at the start, then you’ve done alright. Because it goes through so many changes. But, to be fair, they’ve got a whole machine waiting for that script, whereas with a book, you can be late a couple of weeks, it’s not going to matter. Whereas you can’t be late if everyone’s set up to start filming on Monday. So it’s much more high-pressured than novel writing.

Does it take some getting used to, knowing that people are going to be changing your work?

I was quite prepared because I know a lot of people who work in TV. But I wasn’t prepared enough! (laughs) It can be really good, it can be quite nice if you’re used to working entirely on your own, to then sit round a table and bounce things around and have other people’s viewpoints. You know the point is that everyone’s trying to make it the best it can be, but I think it can be quite soul-destroying at times. If you’re not in the mood, if you’re feeling a bit flat, to sit round a table and then being told that they want to change your entire backstory. It can be a bit “Oh my god!” And I made the mistake of going on holiday to LA, and ending up being up in the middle of the night with Skype calls with script editors. When I did it I was suddenly very glad that I had my books as well, that I could just go home and go “Ah, this book’s entirely mine! It’s great fun, but it’s really “guaranteed to lose half a stone” kind of work.

Poison by Sarah Pinborough will be available on the 18th of April from Gollancz, and you can pre-order it for £7.49 at