Full disclosure: I’m not much of a horror writer. I tend to focus on writing action and adventure. Those are probably the two elements that draw me into a story more than any other. That being said, knowing how to throw in elements of romance, mystery, and, yes, horror can really spice any story up, even if they aren’t part of the main plot line.
The following are a list of elements that I think make for a good horror story. These aren’t explicit writing tips, but I think these are the primary elements that comprise a really great horror story or even horror scene, so if you’re worried that something you’ve written doesn’t jump out of the page enough (or make your reader jump out of the chair enough), you may want to see if you’ve included these ideas.
Fear of the Unknown
I know you’ve had the feeling of being stressed out right before doing something important. Maybe it’s heading to that big job interview, prepping to give a keystone speech, or even just figuring out how you’re going to ask someone out. When the outcome is uncertain, we are afraid because we have high aspirations for these moments and don’t know how they will turn out.
Horror plays off of this fear, and it does so on an extreme level. When we don’t know what the monster is or where the murderer has hidden that the tension is highest. It’s the moment that the protagonist walks into the darkened room, the moment right before something leaps from the shadows, that is scariest. Everything is scarier before it resolves, and I think good horror tends to play its cards close to its chest, keeping the suspense high until the very last moments of a scene or even the whole story.
Lack of Control
The protagonists of the story need to be put in a situation where they do not have control. While some people handle this better than others, losing control is, I think, a fear everyone has. An invader in one’s home, whether human or supernatural, is a popular horror trope because it represents such a total loss of control. Homes are supposed to be our sanctums, a small part of the world that we have total control over, but once something uninvited gets inside that control is gone any sense of safety begins to unravel.
Horror is a high stakes genre. It’s also a genre that requires the stakes to be obvious. We need to know that the situation is life or death, or something similar. Perhaps loss of sanity or the potential loss of a loved one. For the audience to be invested, they have to see that something hugely important can be permanently destroyed, which will ratchet up the fear factor. When any wrong move by the protagonist could end in death, the tension of the story will remain high.
Tragedy or a Comedy of Errors
Horror is very often about characters you like making painful decisions. We know that there is a monster behind the door, and yet the curiosity of the protagonist forces him to open it. Depending on the story, your characters may be more or less competent about how they go about confronting the horror they’re experiencing, but the audience needs to be invested in them, and you need to put them in danger.
Every little mistake they make along the way is sort of a micro-tragedy that could put them or their loved ones in danger. Things will have to go wrong for the story to keep going and remain interesting. The poor choices the characters make, whether they are panicked reactions or just ill informed, will lead to the inevitable encounter (good or bad) with the villain.
This may not be an obvious element, but I think that every horror movie has to have hope, no matter the outcome of the story. The protagonist has to believe she can get out of this situation. There has to be a solution to the problem that is attainable and worth fighting for. Without that, I don’t think horror really works. The story would move from high tension to sort of an existential malaise where nothing we do matters. Stories like that can work, but I wouldn’t really call them horrific.
I think these are the primary elements that build a great horror story. Like I said, I’m not really an expert, but if you’re planning on writing a horror story or to up the suspense in part of your novel, I would consider these conditions.
But what do you think? Are there other elements that make good horror that I haven’t discussed here? Or do you think not all of these pieces are necessary to make a good horror story? Share your thoughts in the comments!
And thanks for reading!