H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips for Writing a Horror Story, or Any Piece of “Weird Fiction”

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Image by Lucius B. Trues­dell, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Though the term “weird fic­tion” came into being in the 19th century—originally used by Irish goth­ic writer Sheri­dan Le Fanu—it was picked up by H.P. Love­craft in the 20th cen­tu­ry as a way, pri­mar­i­ly, of describ­ing his own work. Love­craft pro­duced copi­ous amounts of the stuff, as you can see from our post high­light­ing online col­lec­tions of near­ly his entire cor­pus. He also wrote in depth about writ­ing itself. He did so in gen­er­al­ly pre­scrip­tive ways, as in his 1920 essay “Lit­er­ary Com­po­si­tion,” and in ways spe­cif­ic to his cho­sen mode—as in the 1927 “Super­nat­ur­al Hor­ror in Lit­er­a­ture,” in which he defined weird fic­tion very dif­fer­ent­ly than Le Fanu or mod­ern authors like Chi­na Miéville. For Love­craft,

The true weird tale has some­thing more than secret mur­der, bloody bones, or a sheet­ed form clank­ing chains accord­ing to rule. A cer­tain atmos­phere of breath­less and unex­plain­able dread of out­er, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seri­ous­ness and por­ten­tous­ness becom­ing its sub­ject, of that most ter­ri­ble con­cep­tion of the human brain–a malign and par­tic­u­lar sus­pen­sion or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safe­guard against the assaults of chaos and the dae­mons of unplumbed space.

Here we have, broad­ly, the tem­plate for a very Love­craft­ian tale indeed. Ten years lat­er, in a 1937 essay titled “Notes on Writ­ing Weird Fic­tion,” Love­craft would return to the theme and elab­o­rate more ful­ly on how to pro­duce such an arti­fact.

Weird Fic­tion, wrote Love­craft in that lat­er essay, is “obvi­ous­ly a spe­cial and per­haps a nar­row” kind of “sto­ry-writ­ing,” a form in which “hor­ror and the unknown or the strange are always close­ly con­nect­ed,” and one that “fre­quent­ly emphasize[s] the ele­ment of hor­ror because fear is our deep­est and strongest emo­tion.” Although Love­craft self-dep­re­cat­ing­ly calls him­self an “insignif­i­cant ama­teur,” he nonethe­less sit­u­ates him­self in the com­pa­ny of “great authors” who mas­tered hor­ror writ­ing of one kind or anoth­er: “[Lord] Dun­sany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Alger­non Black­wood, and Wal­ter de la Mare.” Even if you only know the name of Poe, it’s weighty com­pa­ny indeed.

But be not intimidated—Lovecraft wasn’t. As our tra­di­tion­al hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion of fear approach­es, per­haps you’d be so inclined to try your hand at a lit­tle weird fic­tion of your own. You should cer­tain­ly, Love­craft would stress, spend some time read­ing these writ­ers’ works. But he goes fur­ther, and offers us a very con­cise, five point “set of rules” for writ­ing a weird fic­tion sto­ry that he says might be “deduced… if the his­to­ry of all my tales were ana­lyzed.” See an abridged ver­sion below:

  1. Pre­pare a syn­op­sis or sce­nario of events in the order of their absolute occur­rence—not the order of their nar­ra­tions.

This is a prac­tice adhered to by writ­ers from J.K. Rowl­ing and William Faulkn­er to Nor­man Mail­er. It seems an excel­lent gen­er­al piece of advice for any kind of fic­tion.

  1. Pre­pare a sec­ond syn­op­sis or sce­nario of events—this one in order of nar­ra­tion (not actu­al occur­rence), with ample full­ness and detail, and with notes as to chang­ing per­spec­tive, stress­es, and cli­max.
  1. Write out the story—rapidly, flu­ent­ly, and not too critically—following the sec­ond or nar­ra­tive-order syn­op­sis. Change inci­dents and plot when­ev­er the devel­op­ing process seems to sug­gest such change, nev­er being bound by any pre­vi­ous design.

It may be that the sec­ond rule is made just to be bro­ken, but it pro­vides the weird fic­tion prac­ti­tion­er with a begin­ning. The third stage here brings us back to a process every writer on writ­ing, such as Stephen King, will high­light as key—free, unfet­tered draft­ing, fol­lowed by…

  1. Revise the entire text, pay­ing atten­tion to vocab­u­lary, syn­tax, rhythm of prose, pro­por­tion­ing of parts, niceties of tone, grace and con­vinc­ing­ness of tran­si­tions…

And final­ly….

  1. Pre­pare a neat­ly typed copy—not hes­i­tat­ing to add final revi­so­ry touch­es where they seem in order.

You will notice right away that these five “rules” tell us noth­ing about what to put in our weird fic­tion, and could apply to any sort of fic­tion at all, real­ly. This is part of the admirably com­pre­hen­sive qual­i­ty of the oth­er­wise suc­cinct essay. Love­craft tells us why he writes, why he writes what he writes, and how he goes about it. The con­tent of his fic­tion­al uni­verse is entire­ly his own, a method of visu­al­iz­ing “vague, elu­sive, frag­men­tary impres­sions.” Your mileage, and your method, will indeed vary.

Love­craft goes on to describe “four dis­tinct types of weird sto­ry” that fit “into two rough categories—those in which the mar­vel or hor­ror con­cerns some con­di­tion or phe­nom­e­non, and those in which it con­cerns some action of per­sons in con­nec­tion with a bizarre con­di­tion or phe­non­menon.” If this doesn’t clear things up for you, then per­haps a care­ful read­ing of Lovecraft’s com­plete “Notes on Writ­ing Weird Fic­tion” will. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, “there is no one way” to write a sto­ry. But with some practice—and no small amount of imagination—you may find your­self join­ing the com­pa­ny of Poe, Love­craft, and a host of con­tem­po­rary writ­ers who con­tin­ue to push the bound­aries of weird fic­tion past the some­times parochial, often pro­found­ly big­ot­ed, lim­its that Love­craft  set out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ries Free Online: Down­load Audio Books, eBooks & More

Love­craft: Fear of the Unknown (Free Doc­u­men­tary)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Noor Hussain says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I love hor­ror. What is the title of this book. I want­ed to read more of it. Please let me know where the quo­ta­tion is tak­en from.

    Thank you so much

  • Phil Slattery says:

    Excel­lent arti­cle on writ­ing hor­ror, but also on writ­ing in gen­er­al. As a fan of Love­craft, I am always inter­est­ed in read­ing more about his writ­ing method. But, as said, this is also an excel­lent arti­cle on writ­ing horror/weird fic­tion. The five “rules” are excel­lent fun­da­men­tal guide­lines for writ­ing any kind of fic­tion. But I think they could be more eas­i­ly sum­ma­rized by using the accept­ed lit­er­ary ter­mi­nol­o­gy for each stage: 1. Draft the back-sto­ry 2. Draft the plot 3. Write out the sto­ry using the plot 4. Revise the sto­ry 5. Type out the final draft. I would like to know how many times Love­craft usu­al­ly revised a sto­ry. His writ­ing is excep­tion­al­ly well done for hav­ing only two revi­sions. But then, I believe Stephen King does only three revi­sions, so I could be wrong.

  • Lauren Wills says:

    ‘Chil­i­ad’ by Simon Otius, at unhap­pened dot com, is weird metafic­tion­al lit­er­a­ture; a dif­fi­cult read, requir­ing great patience, yet immense­ly reward­ing.

  • John says:


    “It seems a an excel­lent gen­er­al piece of advice for any kind of fic­tion.”

    “a an”.

  • Julie Anne Peters says:

    Love that guy!

  • Jacob Flowers says:

    Help me

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