How to Terrify in Two Sentences

(Estimated reading time: 5 minutes)

My mom told me my first two-sentence horror story while we were driving through a sunny strip mall parking lot (I know, the perfect environment for horror). “This one always made me feel terrible,” she said, and she raised her voice to a squeaky pitch: “‘They’ll never find me in here,’ the little boy said. Then he closed the fridge door behind him.” 

I sat, sixteen and impassive, waiting for the light at the parking lot’s exit to change. “I don’t get it.”

“Refrigerators used to have a latch,” Mom said. The light turned green, and she pulled forward into the intersection. “And once you closed the door, there was no way to open it from the inside.”

“Oh,” I said. For a few moments, the hot Southern sun stopped warming my skin. 

I guess this is more of a three-sentence horror story, if you count the context Mom needed to give me. But for her, and others of her generation, the first two sentences have an immediate impact–the stomach-drop fear of gasping for air, alone, in the dark. My mom carried those sentences around in her head for years, snippets of pre-internet storytelling. 

Of course, now that we do have the internet, two-sentence horror stories are abundant. Whether you find them fresh at r/TwoSentenceHorror or devour one of the collections on sites like Thought Catalog or BoredPanda, you know that the thrill of dread from good two-sentence horror is unmistakable. It lingers. 

Others, though, are about as frightening as day-old bread. 

So what’s the difference? What makes two-sentence horror stories, you know, horrifying? And how can you create one that lives in someone’s head rent-free?

Here’s the simple answer: If you write short stories, you’ve probably gotten the advice that every little piece of writing has to contribute to the overall narrative. Two-sentence horror stories take this advice and hone it to a fine point–no wasted words. The challenge of two-sentence horror is maximizing fear in, well, two sentences.

Of course, it is possible to extend a sentence ad nauseum: By using punctuation like commas, semicolons, colons, and em dashes and by employing all sorts of subordinate clauses, you can hypothetically create a two-sentence horror story that goes on for pages, but this isn’t the best approach–as you’ve probably already noticed in this extraordinarily long sentence–because the effectiveness of your sentences does not come down to how much information you’re able to fit in that space. 

Phew. Anyway.

Sentence breaks are places for the audience to take a breather and process what they’ve just read. If they have to process a lot of information, then the horror won’t hit as hard. (At least, that’s usually the case, but writing rules are meant to be broken.) Longer sentences can also deflate a story because sentence structure influences tone. If you have a long, flowing sentence with a lot of clauses, it can often feel relaxing or even musical. Shorter, simpler sentences are tighter, tenser. 

To demonstrate, let’s take a look at some examples from the Thought Catalog article I linked to earlier:

Short. Sweet. The longest sentence in this bunch has seventeen words, and most of them just have one or two clauses. Like I said, though, writing rules are made to be broken, so here’s an exception:

The shorter sentence in this example has seventeen words; the longer one has twenty-seven. But take a look at how it works. There are these quick bursting phrases between commas–”him, another him, under the bed, staring”–that cause the sentence to fragment and accelerate in a way that mimics the speaker’s confusion and growing fear. Then, the confusion resolves with the last independent clause: “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.” The reality of the situation thunks into place. Chilling. 

In all four of these examples, the real gutpunch of realization, disgust, or terror arrives in the second sentence. However, this doesn’t mean your first sentence is off the hook. Since the challenge of this genre is maximizing fear in two sentences, your opening has to deliver a situation that’s unsettling in itself. Take this example from the CW’s anthology Two-Sentence Horror Stories:

Oh my God, this person is holding a corpse. No wait, it’s a doll. Oh my God, the doll is haunted. The horror in this story doesn’t start at zero percent–it’s already been ratcheted pretty high by the time you’re three words into the first sentence. Most of the stories I’ve included here have something unnerving happen right away, whether it’s the shock of seeing a grinning face outside your window or the terror of being unable to move, speak, and breathe. 

But after you grab your reader with that initial can’t-look-away feeling, you have to deliver by heightening the horror even further. And like we talked about with sentence length, less is often more here. My mom’s two-sentence story scared me because of what it didn’t say; because I could imagine darker, more terrible things than could be included in a few phrases about darkness, suffocation, and/or bloody fingernails.

See? That detail about the fingernails feels a little excessive, doesn’t it? 

Horror here often comes from implications, about the feeling that something awful is about to happen. The doll blinked–what’s going to happen next? One of the sons is a fake–is the father in danger? There’s a creepy floating bastard outside a 14th story window–is he going to break in? Or, here:

I love this one so much! It raises so many questions. What the hell is the other phantom hand? Is it a ghost? Is it malevolent or friendly? Is this the beginning of a rollicking buddy cop horror story between a veteran and his ghost friend? Because I want that so badly. 

In any case, you’ll notice from these examples that the horror doesn’t proceed along an uncomplicated plot line; rather, they are horrifying because the situation has become more complex. The pain of losing limbs takes on a new dimension when an unknown hand touches a phantom limb. In the cremation story, the dread of being (temporarily) trapped grows into the realization of eternity. And for the doll story, the horror of holding a corpse transforms into the horror of holding something that should be corpse-like but isn’t. There’s a twist that reshapes our understanding. The situation is worse, weirder, darker than we first thought–and isn’t that always the most horrifying thing?

This is my first blog post, so I don’t really expect to get comments. But that’s defeatist–if you have your own pointers for writing in this genre, I’d love to hear about them! And if you want to share your two-sentence horror with me, I’m always ready for some chills. 

Thank you for reading ❤

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