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The challenges of writing horror for teens

I’m proud to welcome a special guest to my blog today. I’ve known JG Faherty since our novellas were chosen for Samhain’s Childhood Fears collection. Since that time, JG has proven to be a gifted writer and an incredibly supportive colleague and friend. He’s always willing to give his time and energy to help his fellow writers, so I hope you will take a few minutes to read his post and vote for his latest project.

If anyone deserves some good karma, it’s him.

One of the big misconceptions regarding YA horror (and any other genres) is that it’s watered-down writing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Effective teen horror encompasses so much more than what we typically find in adult or mainstream horror. Think about it: horror is based on our fears. As adults, there are some universal fears we all share (death, loss, financial problems, illness) and some that vary, depending on the person and their environment. You could add war, terrorism, divorce, violent crime. And a good horror story will utilize some of these universal fears, either directly or in a metaphorical fashion.

But teens? They have all the fears of adults plus dozens more of their own, fears that we outgrow when we hit our twenties or thirties.

Acceptance. Physical appearance. Companionship. Grades. Bullying. The list goes on and on. And teens of different ages often have different fears. At fourteen, they are still shedding those childhood nightmares and phobias; at eighteen, they’re wondering if they’ll get into college or find a job. Yet, a YA book often is designed to appeal to that whole range of years, simply because so many young teens read at a higher grade level.

Then there are emotions – in teens, hormones are constantly flooding their bodies, creating emotional turmoil and exaggerated responses. Sure, we all know calm, logical teens, but they’re more the exception to the rule. Teens might fear death, but it’s usually the death of a loved one, a relative or friend, rather than their own. Think back to your own middle school and high school years. Remember that sense of invincibility as you rode your bike too fast, engaged in a rock fight, or went careening down a steep, wooded hill on a cheap sleigh?

Fear, anger, love, lust, joy, depression – these are the guiding forces of teenagers.

It’s a complex time, and the best YA books capture this sense of wonder and confusion. YA heroes are more flawed than their adult counterparts, which creates more opportunities for plot twists, cliffhangers, and subplots. Teen heroes rush in, they let their emotions rule, they make plans on the fly. Their reactions and thought processes are faster, but untrained.

For a writer, this can be both fun as hell and infuriatingly frustrating. It means delving deep to dredge up those memories of our own teenage years and confronting the kind of person we were. It means not thinking like an adult – teens will know if you are writing an adult character and simply slapping a teenage shell over it. It means observing teens – your friends’ children, your own, the kids in the school you teach at or who ride the subway with you – and noticing how they react differently to adults in so many situations.

The Changeling

In The Changeling, I modeled my main character after a few different people. There’s a bit of me in there: in high school, I was very anti-authority but I also got good grades in school and managed to stay out of serious trouble by being smart and careful. I added dashes of my nieces and the daughters of my friends. I had to use a bit of imagination as well, because some of the problems today’s teens deal with – gender issues, mass shootings, terrorism – weren’t in existence when I was in high school, and some of the issues I grew up with, such as race riots and dress codes – aren’t so relevant today.

The Changeling is also a bit of a departure for me in that it’s not horror at all, it’s strictly a sci-fi thriller. It has time travel, other dimensions, and super-hero type abilities mashed up with military intrigue and weapons development. In the book, my main character, Chloe, develops strange new powers after being struck by lightning and ends up on the run from the military, who want to recreate what happened to her in order to build an army of super-soldiers. In the book, her new abilities serve as a metaphor for the emotional, physical, and mental changes of the teenage years. If this sounds interesting, please feel free to check out my Kindle Scout promotion. Read the excerpt, and if you want to see it published, give it a vote. If it gets accepted, everyone who voted for it wins a free pre-publication ebook. Plus, you’ll have my ever-lasting gratitude for your support (and maybe another free gift as well!)

JG FahertyJG Faherty is the the Bram Stoker Award®- and ITW Thriller Award-nominated author of five novels, seven novellas, and more than 50 short stories. He enjoys exploring abandoned buildings, photography, hiking, and playing the guitar. As a child, his favorite playground was a 17th-century cemetery, which many people feel explains a lot. You can follow him on TwitterFacebookGoodreads, or his website

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  1. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    Teens really do come with a basket of issues all their own. Brave of you to slip back to that time so you can write for teens.

  2. Mary Aalgaard

    The book sounds very good. I’m heading right over to vote. In fact, I was going to purchase it! Great concept. Looking forward to reading it. I wish you much success.

  3. Mary Aalgaard

    PS: The link didn’t work for me. I’ll check back later.

    • JH

      Thanks for letting me know, Mary. I fixed it!

  4. Chris

    Great article–thanks for sharing! What’s your take on incorporating smartphone apps in Y.A. fiction? Most kids seem to live on their phones, and while today they’re Snapping each other constantly, tomorrow they may be ‘Scoping, or something else altogether. It can make writing more authentic to today’s teens, but needlessly date it. (Hello MySpace.)

    • JG Faherty

      Most times I’ll make up an app name. Friendspace, Snappic, Chirp, etc.

      • JH

        That’s a fantastic idea, JG. I actually never thought of that, but it makes sense.

      • Chris

        That’s completely and utterly brilliant. *bows*

  5. Birgit

    Teens are the big drawing card for horror movies too. They love going to these flicks and I think, as one gets older, some just don’t feel the same about seeing a horror film. On the other hand, others still love it. I was a strange one because I did think of my mortality and would often think about death. Part was due to the extremes bullying I dealt with but also my dad was in his 60’s when I was a teen and many of his relatives were already dead or they died when I was young so I had been to many funerals by the time I was a teen. I think the best is never to “dummy” down the horror because teens usually love this stuff.

    • JH

      Very good point, Birgit. I loved horror too, although I wasn’t brave enough to watch Elmstreet until I was an adult. I remember Salem’s Lot gave me terrible nightmares, but I was a little kid when I saw it.

      I was an old soul as well. My teachers often noticed and mentioned it.


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