Book summary: Writing Monsters

This is my (partial) summary for the book “Writing Monsters” by Philip Athans. It’s a book with advice and tips for fiction authors on writing effective monsters for your stories. Instead of following the book structure, I’m going to try to summarise a selection of its ideas.

Predictability is the enemy of horror

This is by far the most important idea in the book, and many of the tips stem from this principle. I have marked in italics everything connected to this.

What is a monster?

Uniquely strange creature that we instinctively fear. A distortion in appearance, behaviour or thought. Characteristics:

  • Monsters have a disturbing capacity for violence.

  • They are amoral and beyond our control: cannot negotiate with them, don’t seek or respect our opinion.

  • They turn us into prey, sometimes isolating us and/or taking our weapons.

Note that shape, appearance (hideous to beautiful) and size (giant to microscopic) don’t matter!

A strange, terrifying creature might not be a monster once its behaviour is understood.

Uses of monsters

  • Villains: Monsters don’t have to be villains, and villains don’t have to be monsters. If a character is both, build the villain facet first.

  • As transformation: We’re afraid of what we can’t control, including ourselves and other people (werewolves, Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, etc). Our psychological well-being is as important as the physical, maybe more, because otherwise we’re expelled from society and civilisation.

  • As “natural disasters”: They bring the best and worst in people. Useful to explore honesty, loyalty, vanity, etc., not just good/bad.

  • As obstacles: Simply what stands between the protagonists and some goal. Note that “defeating” a monster might mean understanding it, helping/rescuing it, or sending it home.

Defining Your Monster

When defining your monster, define its offence (why it’s dangerous), defence (why it’s hard to get rid of it) and utility (features that gives it “colour”, like Blair Witch Project making stick figures and putting victims in a corner). Make rules for it, even if they’re never fully explained to the reader. You can use a monster form as a reference.

Archetypes like vampires, zombies, dragons, etc., are useful, but you need to define your own twist to them, see eg. 30 days of night and 28 days later. Otherwise, they’re unoriginal and, worst of all, predictable.

Describing Your Monster

Show, don’t tell! Describe the visceral experiences of the protagonists/victims (eg. use of “shuddering” instead of “being afraid” in Lovecraft’s Dagon excerpt on p. 142), the monster’s effects on people, and its possible intentions. Not knowing what the monster is, or not seeing it, is effective.

Think of all the senses. Limiting one, or all but one, can be effective. We don’t have to be turned away by appearance, smell, etc: sometimes predators use good smell to attract prey.

Revealing Your Monster

Monsters should be revealed in three stages:

  1. Initial contact: Announces there is something. It’s fast (uses few words) and dramatic.

  2. Build-up: Reveals aspects of it, takes the most space: increasing the threat, leaves reader wondering where does it stop. Reveal no more than necessary (our imagination makes them scarier), use “red shirts” (side characters who die) to show the danger.

  3. Final encounter: Play with expectations and wait as long as possible to show the monster. Don’t actually show the monster until the end.


There’s much more to the book than what I’ve written here: I just included the parts that were more interesting for me personally. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the book: it seemed messy, some of the ideas and examples I didn’t find enlightening or useful, and some ideas were repeated several times (didn’t feel like reinforcement, just messy writing/structuring). Maybe I had too high expectations.

That said, the book was interesting and useful, at least for a n00b like me. So I recommend it, just not wholeheartedly.