How to Write Middle Grade Horror: 7 Tips

I scare children for a living.

As the author of a middle grade horror series, my job is to deliver stories that frighten and thrill my readers. Those readers tend to range in age from ten to fourteen, which makes delivering on that task more difficult than you might imagine. My readership is growing up in the age when video games are rife with monsters and violence, when YouTube offers limitless access to scary independent films and, of course, when “The Walking Dead” is the number one show on television. So, if I want to inspire some good old fashioned fright in my fans, I need to do more than yell “Boo!” Here, then, are seven tips for scaring the pants off of young readers:

GIVEAWAY: Ty is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Lisa won.)



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA        the-undertakers-novel-drago

Column by Ty Drago, author of THE UNDERTAKERS: SECRET OF THE
CORPSE EATER (the third book in his middle grade horror series). The
book was praised by Publishers Weekly, while Booklist said the story was one
that would “both disgust and delight readers . . . who will be clamoring for the
continuation of the story.”  Ty has authored numerous sci-fi and horror books
for kids. (Find them all on Amazon here.) His first Undertakers novelette,
NIGHT OF MONSTERS, is currently available for free on
and Connect with Ty on Twitter or Facebook.

1) Pick the right villain

Any horror story is only as good as its bad guy. When writing adult horror, it’s prudent, when appropriate, to add a dash of humanity to one’s serial killer, vampire, succubus, etc. We do this to give the character depth. But in children’s fiction, that rule goes out the window. Even if your villain is a human, he or she must still be a monster. They should be savage and pitiless. Your bad guy needs to take delight in their misdeeds, cherish each moment of the suffering they cause. And if he or she is inhuman, then let them revel in their inhumanity. Let them be the absolute worst that they can be — then throw in a little more awful, just for the fun of it.

2) Start on page one

In children’s fiction, the old writer’s axiom, “start the story where it starts,” is at its most vital. Kids, even avid readers, expect a book to grab them from page one. They have a harder time immersing themselves in a plot with a gradual build. If your story is about an alien invasion, open with that. If your story centers around demonic slayings, begin with the first of them. Whoever — or whatever — your villain is, let’s meet him, or at least glimpse him, right up front.

So here’s a new axiom: “The first scare should be on the first page.”

(Never open your novel with a dream — here’s why.)

3) Find a new slant

Say what you will about sparkly vampires, they worked.

Even the villain you tout is one of the classics, your young readers will still expect to see something they haven’t before. Be it a two-headed werewolf, a mummy who can wrap up its victims in bandages and turn them into mummies, or a vampire clown (kind of like that last one!), your bad guy has to bring something original to the table. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked at a school visit, “Do we need another vampire book?” and received a resounding “No!” I wonder how they’d feel about the clown?

4) Ebb and flow

Non-stop action worked for Indiana Jones, but it’s tiring in print. Even the most gripping horror story needs to allow its readers to take a breath. This is especially true in children’s fiction, where the attention span can sometimes be — abbreviated. Keep your chapters short, your scares solid, but use the gaps between the scares to build characterization, establish mood and voice, and let your reader’s heart rate steady.

Then: At ’em again!

5) Use the “Pop Out”

I know: It’s considered cheap in a horror movie. The terrified heroine standing before a mirror and, suddenly, the demon’s face is at her shoulder. The violins slash a discordant chord as she spins around, to only find nothing there. But in fiction, the Pop Out can actually prove quite effective. The trick lies in how you spin it. When writing such moments, keep the paragraphs small and the sentences short. Don’t over-describe the scene; allow your reader’s imagination do the work.

So let those purple dead hands reach out from a hole in the floorboards to seize an ankle or two, let those red eyes shine in the window, and never hesitate to have something drop out of a tree or lunge from under the bed.

(Agents define their “ideal client” — hear what they have to say.)

6) Use the “Slow Dread”

Pop Outs are great. But they don’t tell a horror story. For that, you need the right mood, the perfect edge, the slow dread. Even when no immediate danger threatens your heroes, the whisper of it must always be there. I usually establish this subtle undertone of menace by getting inside my character’s head, letting my reader share their apprehension, their fear of what might be around the next corner, or what may happen when the sun goes down. Just remember to “show” and not “tell.” Never inform the reader, not even in children’s fiction. Instead, let them use what the characters see, hear, smell and feel to inform themselves.

7) Mind your happy endings

We’re living in an age of ambiguity, at least where endings are concerned. In fiction, as in life, endings are rarely completely happy. Young readers tend to be skeptical of a conclusion that ties everything up in a neat bow. Heroes can ride off into the sunset, but there should be an edge to their triumph — the death of a friend perhaps, or a broken promise, or simply the loss of innocence — that tempers their success. This is not to say that evil should triumph. I’m a big believer in good winning the day every time. But victory should be tempered with sacrifice, and no hero, regardless of their tender age, should escape entirely unscathed.

To wrap things up, here’s another axiom: “Never underestimate your reader.” Today’s kids don’t want to be coddled. They don’t want you to hold back the frights. They don’t fear nightmares, and they want to show the world that they can “take it.” So if horror is your genre, then horror should be your goal. Let your young readers tremble in the shadows and run for their lives.

After all, it’s why they bought the book!

GIVEAWAY: Ty is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Lisa won.)



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16 thoughts on “How to Write Middle Grade Horror: 7 Tips

  1. Amyithist

    I used to read Goosebumps and The Babysitter series by R.L. Stine. I’ve always wanted to write YA Horror. Perhaps with this plethora of tips, I’ll try it now. Thank you. 🙂

  2. geclifford

    Nice article. I read the first Undertakers book and enjoyed it very much. I guess I’m just a big kid at heart. I intend to read the rest of the series once I get caught up on my other reading. Count me out of the free copy giveaway. I’ll buy the books.

  3. puppeterry

    Thinking of the YA and middle-grade horror I’ve read lately, these suggestions are spot-on. The grabber is front-loaded, villains are broadly-drawn, there are short chapters with breathing spaces, endings are good–but not always happy, some scares are “AHA!” and some build. Good article, and I plan to use the advice.

  4. tracimichelle67

    Thank you Ty for sharing these tips with us aspiring writers. I too love the scary fiction both to read and to write and I write children’s through YA with ghost stories being my favorite to write for the YA crowd. Your tips have come in handy while I am revising my current YA novella that I want to send to publishers.

  5. tracimichelle67

    Thank you for sharing the tips. Scary fiction is my favorite to read as well as write and I am currently working on a YA ghost story novel so your tips are very helpful. I will check out a couple of your books from our local library when I volunteer there tomorrow.
    Again, thank you for sharing your knowledge. 🙂

  6. JessaRusso

    Oh how I love this post! I’m attempting to write a YA horror, and even though I grew up reading King and Koontz and the like, I feel like my attempt at horror is a bit . . . well, bland. :-/

    Thanks so much for the tips and the opportunity to win a copy of THE UNDERTAKERS! It looks amazing, and my kiddo would be obsessed for sure!

  7. writergale

    Great post, packed with fabulous information. It’s great to read what kids want to read and how they want it dished up, brains and all. 🙂 You’ve certainly given me the flashing green light to add more to my story than I intended and for that, I thank you! Look forward to reading your stories now.

  8. dora m

    Great tips! I’m so happy to see a middle-grade focused column.

    Boy, that first scare, first page idea…as a devotee of slow builds, it’s hard for me to switch gears so completely. John Bellairs’ books were always my favorites, and I guess I’m still stuck on that being the gold standard in creepy books for kids 🙂 But I’m really starting to realize now that my pace is just too slow for young readers now! So, I guess I’m off to revise my beginning chapters yet *again* 🙂

  9. Lisa

    I’m working on a middle grade dark fantasy. Your tips made a lot of sense. My biggest issue is pacing right now and your suggestions about maintaining the ebb and flow is exactly what I need to do. Thanks!

  10. Debbie

    Beginning…middle…end — so basic, yet so imperative. Your genre truly defines impact vs. taking a breather. Thanks so much for the wise tips. I’m left intrigued.


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