Haunting Hooks: Scary Story Opener Writing Contest

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

It’s a classic scary story opener for a reason, but it’s been done to death. It’s time to bury it for good, and you’re the writer who’s going to put the nail in the coffin.

So, here’s our chilling challenge to you: write a spooky, captivating opening to a scary story using 50 words or less. (Or is it fewer? Whatever, just make it scary.)

Kind of like this: The clock ticks maddeningly. The wind howls howlingly. The adverbs adverb adverbially. The cursor blinks menacingly on a blank screen. Starting a new piece of writing can be scary. But who’s afraid of 50 words? Not you.

OK, we know you can do better than that, but you get the idea. We’re looking for the *opening* of a story—the beginning, not a full story—that sets a spooky scene, establishes an eerie mood, and lures the reader in.

It’s time to put your warped mind to work. Maybe your opening will be the start of the next great masterpiece of horror. Maybe you’ll pen the new “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Either way, only one will survive: the writer who crafts the most haunting hook.

Enter if you dare. All the details—including what to write, how the contest works, examples, inspiration—are lurking below. And oh, please be sure to review the official contest rules for eligibility and other important conditions.

 

Submit your entry here

🎃 Haunting Hook: Scary Story Opener Writing Contest 😱

Are you scarier than Stephen King? Now's your chance to write the next "It was a dark and stormy night." Give us your spookiest opening to a scary story in 50 words or less—if you dare. Mwahahaha!

  • In 50 words or less, type your spookiest—or spoopiest—original opening to a scary story.
  • Be sure to review the official contest rules for eligibility and other conditions.

What to write

Compose an original opening to a scary story in 50 words or less.

We define an “opening” as the first sentence or sentences that establish the beginning of a written narrative.

Your opening must (and will be judged on):

 

  1. Be original.
  2. Be captivating as an opening.
  3. Follow the general conventions of the horror genre.
  4. Establish a spooky—or spoopy—atmosphere or mood.

For more information on these criteria, please scroll below—if you’re brave.

Need inspiration?

Try adding some frightful flair to your hook with one of these eerie alternatives for the word scary or one of these haunting words ideal for Halloween. Or, take a look at the some the most memorable and captivating first lines we’ve encountered in books.

When and how to enter

We are accepting submissions starting at 12:00 am PT on Tuesday, September 14, 2021. The deadline to submit is at 11:59 pm PT on Friday, October 8, 2021.

(Deadline? See what we did there?)

You have multiple ways to submit:

Submitting on site

In the form provided above, submit your entry with your name, email, and, of course, your opening in 50 words or less.

If you have not already provided an entry, you may also submit it in any subsequent instances of this form on Thesaurus.com or Dictionary.com.

Submitting on selected social media

We are accepting submissions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

To submit, you MUST:

 

  1. Include the hashtag #hauntinghook. (You do not have to tag @Dictionarycom or @Thesauruscom.)
  2. Use 50 words or less. (We won’t count the hashtag as part of the word limit.)
  3. Contain your submission within one post. (Make sure you adhere to the platform’s character limits so your submission can fit into one post.)

Only one entry per person. We cannot accept multiple submissions from the same person on multiple social media accounts or on more than one platform.

How you can win

When the contest entry period has closed, our editors will review all the submissions and narrow them down to three finalists based on our writing criteria.

Starting on Monday, October 25, users will have a chance to vote on our sites or social media to choose which of the finalists they think is best. Voting is open to all.

The results of the votes will be announced by Friday, October 29, 2021.

What you can win

The finalist who receives the most votes will win:

 

The second- and third-place runners-up will receive:

 

  • A gift package with Thesaurus.com or Dictionary.com brand swag

All three finalists will have the opportunity to have their opening published on and shared by Thesaurus.com and Dictionary.com.

Didn’t make the cut? Your opening may still have the chance to appear on our sites and social media.

More information on writing criteria

As noted above, your opening has to meet and will be judged on four criteria, which we’ll explain below. Stay posted—we’ll be providing articles diving deeper into many of these topics in the weeks to come.

1. Be original.

Now’s your chance to share that great idea for the start of that scary story you always knew would get those spines tingling!

Your opening must be your own unique, previously unpublished work. A word to the wise: do not not use any copyrighted material from existing stories in any form. This includes, but is not limited to, horror books, fanfiction, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and other print and digital media.

We’re looking for scary, not obscene: no slurs, no swears or offensive language, no sexually explicit content, and no gratuitous violence.

Take the worry out of writing by using our astute plagiarism checker in Grammar Coach™.

2. Be captivating as an opening.

Hook your audience right away! A great story pulls you in—and doesn’t let you go (like any good monster).

A compelling opening is one that can do a lot in just the first few lines. It can spark interest, curiosity—and fear! It can set a vivid scene or introduce a compelling character. It can establish an evocative world. It can start a story the reader just has to keep reading.

💀  Spooky example: “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” — It, Stephen King (1986)

Explanation: Here, master of horror Stephen King hooks in readers by portraying an innocuous-seeming paper boat as the unlikely source of decades of terror.

👻 Spoopy example: Emily looked hungrily at her dinner, and he looked happily back at her.

Explanation: In just a few short words, this opener sparks some big questions: who is “he,” and why is he “happily” being eaten alive?!

Looking for some creative brainstorming energy? Reel in this guide on how to write a great hook.

3. Follow the general conventions of the horror genre.

Haunted houses and dark alleys, grotesque monsters and blood-sucking vampires, supernatural and paranormal events—whether on the page or screen, horror is marked by a variety of places, characters, and plots.

But they all have some things in common. Your opening must stick to the themes, characteristics, and spirit of horror: speculative fiction dealing with matters that create fear, shock, or revulsion.

That said, that doesn’t mean horror can’t have a sense of humor or is all dark and gloomy. We welcome openings with elements based in horror but are still funny, comedic, even cute—or maybe downright turn the genre on its head.

💀  Spooky example:  If you make any noise in Walker’s Woods, it will find you. And if it finds you, nobody else ever will.

Explanation: This opening line warns of some ghastly horror lurking in the woods. It challenges you, the reader, to test your mettle by reading on.

👻 Spoopy example: The skeletons, ghouls, and zombies gathered slowly, methodically around me. If we had any hope of winning the dance competition, we were going to need to learn some new routines.

Explanation: This opener introduces some classic baddies, but immediately subverts expectations by placing them in a surprising, decidedly un-terrifying scene.

Not sure how to approach horror? Learn more about the horror genre in our spine-tingling article about terror vs. horror.

4. Establish a spooky—or spoopy—atmosphere or mood.

This is where you give Stephen King or Shirley Jackson a run for their money. The winning opening will be the evil marriage of #2 and #3. In just a few short words, it will create a perfectly spooky—or spoopy—ambience. This can be achieved by crafting that captivating hook (#2) through the elements of horror (#3).

A “spooky atmosphere or mood” is one that creates a strong sense of dread, mystery, fear, or related sinister feelings through its language and narrative techniques. Remember, the goal isn’t to write an entire story in 50 words. Just set the scene, establish the tone, and make the reader want—need—to know what happens next. Draw them into the story’s world—even if it’s a terrifying one.

Because the horror genre isn’t always about sheer terror, a “spooky atmosphere” can be one that distinctly draws from the horror genre for comedic, endearing, or otherwise playful effect.

💀  Spooky example:  “A low howl filled the two-story house, bleeding from the cracks in the knotty Dade County pinewood walls. There were intervals of peace, then the sound rose two octaves into a scream that splintered Jessica Jacobs-Wolde’s sleep.” — My Soul to Keep, Tananarive Due (1997)

Explanation: A low howl that turns into a scream (yikes!) doesn’t just wake a woman up—it splinters her sleep. It’s the first thing that happens, and it makes it feel like it’s happening to you, the reader. The subtle details of the setting make it even eerier: the sound bleeds through the cracked, knotty walls of what sure sounds like a haunted house.

👻 Spoopy example:  The eyes in the walls never stopped watching Benny despite how boring his life was. It was rather rude, really. He desperately hoped they would find a new hobby.

Explanation: This opener sets up a world where creepy things are so commonplace that they are felt to be a mild annoyance.

OK, we know we’re no masters of horror. Don’t worry: we can’t submit.

::shines flashlight to face:: So, so you have what it takes?! Mwahaha.

Don’t worry, you won’t have long to wait to learn how to set the mood and the scene with our forthcoming tips on effectively creating ambience in writing.

For a complete explanation of contest rules, please visit here.