Middle-Grade Students Love Horror Too, Just Ask Neil Gaiman

To celebrate Women’s Horror Month, please welcome my special guest Laura Emmons, author of The Queen of the Night series. She’s recently written a horror story for middle-grade readers and is shopping it around to agents and contests. Good luck!

Writing Horror Stories for Middle-Grade Readers
by Laura Emmons

Neil Gaiman once said in an interview that, “Kids are so much braver than adults, sometimes, and so much less easily disturbed. Kids will make their nightmares up out of anything, and the important thing in fiction, if you’re giving them nightmares, is to demonstrate that nightmares are beatable.” Perhaps that is why the horror/ghost category is such a fast growing genre in middle-grade fiction.

The Graveyard Book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean is a perfect example. The story starts with a grisly murder, but morphs into a sweet story about a boy raised by ghosts, tutored by a werewolf and mentored by a vampire who decides he wants to experience life among the living. By combining the poignancy of a coming-of-age tale with the thrill of suspense, the novel delights readers of all ages. As a winner of the Newbery Medal and the Hugo Award, this is a perfect example of a middle-grade horror story.

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Gaiman’s Coraline is another successful novel in the genre. When Coraline and her family move into a new house, Coraline finds a portal to an alternate world behind a locked door. She returns to her reality to find that her parents are missing and she must rescue them by herself.

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Serafina and the Black Cloak written by Robert Beatty is a NY Times bestseller. It won the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize in 2016. Serafina lives with her father, a maintenance man, in the basement of the Biltmore estate. When children start disappearing, she and her new friend, Braedon Vanderbilt, must solve the mystery of the man in the black cloak and save the day.

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Important factors in these books are the tenacity and courage of the main character. Although these characters are tweenagers, they are all heroes.

Middle-Grade readers are defined as aged 8-12. Books in this category are generally 30,000 to 50,000 words in length, although fantasy novels may be longer. As a rule, no profanity, graphic violence, sex or drugs should be involved in stories written for this age group. The focus of the novel should be on friends, family and the character’s changing relationship to the world around him. Some key guidelines to writing a great middle-grade horror novel are

  1. Start with a great hook. Although this is true for all novels, it is especially true for the attention span of tweenagers.
  2.  Keep the pace fast. Building suspense throughout the story is critical to keeping the young reader’s interest.
  3. Use humor to offset scary scenes. Children respond better to humor and may be more tolerant of terrifying action if they can relieve the tension with jokes.
  4. Make the protagonist a strong character. This is more important among middle-grade fiction, where the reader identifies closely with the main character.
  5. Have a happy ending. Children like to be scared, as long as everything works out in the end.

Good luck and happy writing!