The Four Elements of a Horror Story

BOO!

frightDid I scare you? Probably not. It’s pretty hard to take someone by surprise when you tell them in advance (in my case, by this blog’s title) you’re about to discuss horror and fright.

Or is it?

If that were true, horror legends like H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King wouldn’t be household names.

So how do writers, working with only words on a page, manage to raise heart rates and goosebumps in their readers? They can’t rely on camera angles and creepy music to build suspense.

But that’s what the horror genre is all about, isn’t it? The buildup of suspense.

Because of Halloween, October is the month we focus on the macabre. Ghost stories, slasher movies, psychological thrillers. I’ve long been a student of the craft of writing, and this is the perfect time to analyze the components of a successful horror work.

The Setting

A stereotypical setting for a horror story is a dilapidated, abandoned house on a dark, rainy night. The reason this setting has become the standard is because picturing that atmosphere is frightening in and of itself, without considering the genre for fiction. Any of us would be uncomfortable stuck in a condemned structure on a stormy evening. When we work our writers’ magic on that setting for a fictional character? It can be downright terrifying.

But is that the only fear-inducing setting? Not at all.

I’ve read terrifying stories set in amusement parks, private homes, out in nature. The most innocuous settings can become frightening with the right treatment.

Setting needs to become a character in the story. The friendly and fun amusement park by day would become scary at night if the protagonist needs to try to escape without being chased by errant clowns or lost in a house of mirrors. The safety of the protagonist’s home becomes a perilous journey through darkened rooms booby-trapped to ensnare and torture. An invigorating hike through the woods can become a horrific race to civilization due to snapping twigs, stretching shadows, and the sounds (or lack thereof) of animals. Using all five senses to bring any setting to life will impart a feeling of dread in a reader.

The Protagonist

There are two elements that have to be achieved when writing a horror story protagonist—likeability and poor decision-making.

Time needs to be spent in the beginning of the story making the protagonist someone readers will root for. Establish relatable characteristics, but don’t make the hero perfect. Readers need to be able to picture themselves as this person (or this person’s friend), get behind him or her, and wish a good outcome for the character. That won’t happen if we’re dumped into the middle of the fright without getting to know the person first, or if we have a hero without flaws who we can’t relate to.

Once the writer has created a bond between the reader and the character, the next step is to introduce the peril. When the character is in danger, he or she has to make terrible decisions. The reason for this is because if the character made good decisions, the story would immediately end. It’s the college student running up the stairs rather than out the door that advances the plot and extends the suspense.

The Villain

This is where the story really defines itself. Is the subgenre an old-fashioned ghost story? A mindless slasher piece? A psychological thriller? The villain determines the way the story will play out.

A ghost who inhabits a dwelling or is attached to a “cursed” object will create that spooky campfire tale. A mythological creature or a demented human bent on the destruction of a group of people (or all people) will become slasher fiction. Someone who plays on the fears of the protagonist, torturing them mentally before ever attacking physically will result in a psychological thriller. (Keep in mind phobias here. Something that incites fear in the real world can be magnified into a terrifying villain in fiction.)

Yes, there can be some crossover, and yes, there are infinite permutations to those categories which will result in subgenres and fresh takes on established constructions. But ultimately, the villain (and his/her/its method of torment) will determine the type of story.

The Plot and the Pace

Some say there are five, or seven, or fifteen basic plots in the world, and no other story can ever be written. That said, there are infinite details to put in those five, seven, or fifteen plots so no two stories will ever be the same.

No matter how many stories you believe are possible to write, one fact remains true for horror stories—a reader won’t be frightened if they don’t first believe they are safe.

In other words, you must build suspense.

If the entire story is attack after attack after attack, the reader grows desensitized to the fear. The pacing is off because it’s constantly up-tempo.

But what happens when the protagonist gets away and has (a false sense of) security? The pace slows, the tension builds, and the next fright has bigger impact. Take the reader—and the protagonist—by surprise.

Conclusion

Horror fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. But if a writer wants to craft a successful scary story, he or she can do so with a:

  • frightening setting
  • relatable protagonist who makes dreadful decisions
  • villain single-mindedly focused on devastation
  • suspense-driven pace

Macabre Sanctuary shows a creepy old house at night, light shining through the windowsThis October, if you’re interested in reading a variety of horror stories, we invite you to download a free anthology of frightening tales—Macabre Sanctuary. In it you will find human, animal, and supernatural villains terrorizing relatable protagonists in various fear-inducing settings, paced to build suspense before scaring the reader. Ten stories in all, designed to raise the reader’s heart rate.

It won’t be long before we’re singing carols and waxing poetic about snowy weather and peace on earth. Enjoy the thrill of fear before settling in for a nice winter’s

BOO!

Did I scare you that time? Eh, probably not. I’m no villain. But I bet you weren’t expecting me to interrupt myself with an exclamation, so if nothing else, I had a better chance this time than at the beginning of the post. After all, scary stories work best when the writer takes the reader by surprise.


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24 thoughts on “The Four Elements of a Horror Story

  1. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 6…1/30/17 – Where Genres Collide

  2. Pingback: 9 Ways To Build Suspense ~ Fiction Writing - Crime Writer Sue Coletta

  3. Horror is not a genre I typically consider. Yet, in my youth, I attended an all-night Edgar Allan Poe film extravaganza…so I guess I need to channel that younger horror fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like an amazing event! I’d love to do something like that. An author friend of mine (Velda Brotherton) has a series that’s a spin-off of Poe’s work. Her stories lean away from the macabre and more toward crime fiction. Maybe you need to find lighter horror to wet your feet.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent advice, Staci. May I add a tip? We can also build the suspense by playing with sentence rhythm — long, drawn out sentences, then fragments — and by playing with MRUs (Motivation Reaction Units for those unfamiliar with the term), making sure to nail the correct order of emotions and actions for a slow, gripping build. Hmmm…you’ve inspired me to write a blog post about this. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved this post! And so perfect for this time of year, Staci.

    Setting is one of the key elements for me when I read horror. An old dilapidated house, as standard as it might be, is still one of my favorites. It never fails to induce shivers. I also love a carnival setting and a creepy cemetery. And finally, the one that totally freaks me out—an abandoned asylum. I’ve got chills even thinking about that one!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, it’s an oldie and a goodie for a reason. And anything associated with clowns. (I probably have Stephen King to thank for that.)

      I’m probably a little weird, but I don’t find cemeteries scary. More tranquil. But then again, most of the time when I write a cemetery scene, it’s for a character to heal. I’ve only written one scary cemetery scene.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Cemeteries are very restful. I actually like exploring the old ones and looking at the tombstones, reading the dates.

        But take that same setting and put it behind a barred fence during the dark of night and you won’t catch me anywhere near the vicinity! shudder

        And yeah, clowns are a total creepfest too. I’ll toss in dolls and ventriloquist dummies in the same mix 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    In the spirit of Halloween, enjoy this post on the elements that combine to make a good horror story…there’s some goodies in the mix, too 🙂

    P.S…Marcia is having computer woes at the moment but will be back up to speed soon and back to blogging. Keep your eye on this spot for her return! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Excellent post!
    Horror stories are, alongside crime stories and paranormal, my favorites.
    An element I should add, not compulsory though, is humor. Some contemporary horror stories include elements of humor, giving readers a break from the gruesome and allowing the writer to build suspense.
    One of my favorite horror stories, a psychological horror, is IT by S. King.
    I agree with Harmony – Macabre Sanctuary is a GREAT book. I am just reading it. A review will follow, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think that can be said for all serious genres—a light scene once in a while breaks up tension and gives the reader a breather. It also makes a nice juxtaposition with the scary stuff. If you’re always on the edge of your seat, you almost grow desensitized to it. With a break in between serious scenes, you have the benefit of relaxing so the drama becomes more noticeable and poignant. Great point.

      And thanks for the kind words about Macabre Sanctuary, Carmen. Much appreciated.

      Liked by 2 people

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