How To Describe Surroundings In Your Horror Story


As a storyteller, your first job, while seemingly simple, is also exceedingly crucial: to get your readers on board so they want to read on. As any experienced writer will tell you, that first job rarely has anything to do with the plot of the story, or even the characters. It has everything to do with your descriptions.

This is as true in the horror story genre as it is anywhere else. Remember that you don’t have the luxury of using jump scares like a screenwriter. Yours is a subtler trade, engaging the reader’s senses and imagination to instill gripping fear.

To succeed in this, you should be able to make your fictional world seem convincingly real and intense, perhaps even more than the real world itself. Vivid descriptions are necessary to achieve this effect. The locations, buildings, materials, trees, weather, rooms, and everything else that makes up the environment should not only be believable, but emphatic and engaging components of the overall mood.

The real challenge, then, is to know how to do this. You can read about this on various essay writing websites that offer horror story samples to get an idea. It boils down to understanding a few key principles and then practicing. Over time, as you write more, you will become a master at writing compelling descriptions for horror story environments. Your readers won’t be able to put your books down!

Start your descriptions early

Because descriptions are important to setting the mood, they should ideally come first. This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many essay writers start scenes with little or no useful descriptions, only to begin adding details later. Usually, it’s too late by then, as they have already lost the precious reader. When you read a story without an adequate description, it often feels like the characters have been placed in an empty white room or a nameless generic street. There’s no setting – no anchor and the reader’s mind is at a loss.

The solution is to tell the reader where they are at the beginning, or very close to it. If they are in a haunted house, let them know through your descriptions. Not a generic haunted house, but a unique one that they feel they could recognize among the thousands of others. Use environmental cues, like creaking stairs or musty air to frequently remind them that the house is frightening.

Be specific with your descriptions

As mentioned above, your descriptions shouldn’t be generic. Instead, they should focus on the unique aspects of the environment that make it stand out, as opposed to similar environments. What’s so special about your haunted house? Does it have a unique architecture? Is there something special about the doors and windows, or the smell when you’re inside it? What feelings does it evoke? This is an opportunity for rich descriptions with extensive use of similes and metaphors.

Don’t describe everything

Part of being specific is holding yourself back from describing everything. Don’t give the dimensions of the coffee house where the characters are seated, or the exact material used to make the seat cushions or every single artwork displayed on the walls. Only do any of that if it is a crucial part of the story you’re telling. Imagine if Stephen King described every aspect of Pennywise the Dancing Clown’s lair in the novel ‘IT’. It would take away from its mystery and sense of terror. As it is often said, we fear the unknown, and part of the business of horror is to peddle the terrifying unknown.

At any rate, descriptions that cover every detail can be long-winded and cheerfully help you lose your readers. While descriptions are indispensable to setting the mood, the focus is still the story and the characters. Use only descriptions that help to move the story forward. No more. No less.

Engage all the senses with your descriptions

A common pitfall many beginning writers fall into is to only use visual descriptions in their storytelling. While visuals are important, they limit you to a very small slice of the human experience. We have 5 senses, so a story that engages two or more of them will be more immersive than a narrative that engages just one.

Back to our haunted house example: Are there any special sounds and smells that characterize it? What about tastes? Can you taste something sinister in the air? How does it feel when the characters touch things in the house.

Note that you can also use metaphors and other devices to work the different senses in your story. This allows you to use senses in places where they are not typically used, like a “deliciously blue wall” or an “oil painting that had taken on the patina of rotten eggs”. Such seemingly contrasting descriptions help to drive home the exact experience the character went through as they beheld these elements of their environment.

Infuse some action into your places

When setting the atmosphere of a place with your description, consider making it feel dynamic for the reader, almost as if the place is coming to life. This is especially useful when you want to build up the tempo, and the reader’s anticipation along with it. Take the following description from Above Suspicion, for example:

“Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.”

The description here manages to turn a comfortable apartment into a place teeming with shadows and malice, spawning drama out of nothing.


If you would to take only one thing from this article, then take the fact that your environment is as much a character of the horror story as anyone else. Flesh it out with the same level of detail, chop off the redundant things, and season it with delicious metaphors. It will make your story pop in a way that might surprise even you.

Author Bio

Leon Collier is a blogger and academic writer from the UK who offers assignment writing services and various dissertation services. For his essay writing service, he likes trying new subjects and is always focused on proving his worth as a writer in new and challenging writing areas. His hobbies are reading books and playing tabletop games with his friends. You can reach him via Twitter @LeonCollier12.

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