Secrets of the Horror Genre

Download the Horror Genre Cheatsheet

Do you want to wedge your Horror idea into the nightmares of readers but don’t yet know how to structure your story? Got some scattershot scary scenes that don’t really work together or entertain? Want to slice moments of heightened danger, plot twists, and reversals into your writing? You’re in the right place. Here, you’ll learn the basics of the Horror Genre so you can provoke terror and a sense of dread within your readers.

But how?

By far, Horror is the most difficult genre I’ve studied in my Genre Secrets blog series.

It turns out that you can’t just sling a bucket of intestines around and expect the reader to feel anything other than revulsion.

So what does it take to create a Horror story?

As a Story Grid Editor, I recommend writers study the masterworks in the genre to inform their work. For the purpose of illustrating the elements of Horror, I’ll use the 1987 Horror classic Evil Dead II. (Battle me in the comments if you like, but Evil Dead II was better than Evil Dead)

Let’s investigate.

Horror Genre Secrets

What Exactly is a Horror Story?

According to Shawn Coyne, “The Horror Story is an allegory for the horrific world we presently or could soon inhabit. It serves as a prescriptive or cautionary tale about how to best metabolize our darkest fears and survive. The power gap between the monster and the victim is immense, and thus the victim who raises the courage to confront the force with all of their inner genius to their last breath inspires us to do the same. To win is to survive.”

Uh oh. That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s look at another way Shawn explains the genre:

The Horror story is an arch-plot (single protagonist) or mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre. It puts a single victim (even if there are multiple characters) against impossible odds and a monster (antagonist) possessed by evil and intent on annihilation. The monster can be supernatural, scientifically explainable, or ambiguous–see the subgenres for more on this.

Are we there yet?

We’ll see how Horror is unique from other genres in several ways and how it stands up to rigorous analysis as a genre all its own. Sure, critics may deride the genre, but a working Horror story uses all the tools of exemplary fiction. Horror incorporates relevant setting, evocative description, multi-faceted characters, and a terrifying antagonist. While the guts of the Horror story are subversion, admonition, and your audience’s fear of the unknown, the bones are the obligatory events and conventions, global value shifts, core emotions, general controlling ideas, and the boundaries of specific subgenres.

What is the Core Emotion?

The core emotion of a story is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.

In Horror, the core emotion is fear. Or, more specifically, terror.

Audiences choose Horror stories to experience the thrill of courage against terror in a life and death situation, without the actual real-life danger. Horror stories ask which will win in the end: hope or hell? Horror stories serve as a metaphor for the underlying brutality of our lives, allowing us to feel like we are fighting back.

Neil Marshall told the LA Times, “We need to feel afraid to remind us we’re alive.”

Editor Tip: You’ll create the terrifying experience by crafting tension between what the reader wants for the protagonist (to live, gain their want, mend their flaw) and the what-if horrors that could happen to the protagonist (the gore you show the monster inflicting on secondary characters). This pumps blood into the undead heart of your story and drags readers through the violent acts, all the way to the end.

What is the Global Value at Stake in the Horror Genre?

Horror Genre Global Value

The global value at stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end.

In Horror, that change runs along the spectrum of life, unconsciousness, death, and the point where death would be a mercy.

Yes, there is something worse than death. In a Horror story, the “negation of the negation” is “death would be a mercy.” That means that the protagonist living under the terrible conditions created by the antagonist/monster is worse than dying. It’s the Horror equivalent of damnation.

Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need

As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Horror story arises from the need for safety; sustaining life and the belief that life is worth living. The Horror protagonist’s primary goal isn’t love, self-esteem, or third-party validation. It’s meeting their internal objects desire of staying alive AND avoiding a fate worse than death (damnation, such a miserable existence that death would be mercy, torture, purgatory, living in Hell) so that they can go back to normal life despite the evil in the world.

Here’s a real dilemma I had in studying the genre: It seems like “life” is on a bit of a tightrope between being an internal and external object of desire. We don’t want to live if we must do so in misery. The body can take a backseat to the mind.

The main thread here? Horror isn’t always focused on the why or how but it’s always concerned with the what.

What is the Horror Genre’s Controlling Idea?

A controlling idea/theme is a simple statement that combines the story value at stake with the cause of moving it from one state to another, often its opposite. It’s the lesson you want your reader to come away with, usually unconsciously. A controlling idea can be stated in a single sentence that distills the argument your story attempts to make.

The controlling idea of your Horror story will be:

  • Positive (prescriptive tale): Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the monster.
  • Negative (cautionary tale): Death or a “fate worse than death” results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit the monster.

Editor Tip: Use this formula to develop your controlling idea:

(Human Value) prevails when x occurs.

How is a Horror Story Structured?

Beginning Hook of the Horror Genre

You’ll begin by introducing the ordinary world where the protagonist is shown doing something normal.

Demonstrate their flaw and/or fear to establish empathy in readers. Before the protagonist is in jeopardy, we need to want them to live.

Demonstrate the protagonist’s want. This can be internal or external. This is also used to encourage empathy. Make the want blatantly clear.

Create a setting that isolates the protagonist(s). The dark mood is critical. The inability to obtain outside help is paramount.

Introduce supporting characters as rich and interesting.

Editor Tip: Give them distinctive names, appearances, mannerisms, emotions, and actions. Use descriptions to evoke a sense of their broader culture or background. Don’t allow them to be a meaningless victim or a flawless hero.

Foreshadow the dangers to come by teasing the audience; make them jump at scenes that appear scary but turn out to be benevolent. (An example is the trope of a cat jumping out of the closet).

Make the stakes clear. Stakes in Horror are not for subtext. What can the protagonist gain? What can they lose?

You’ll want to get to the inciting incident of the global story (in Hero’s Journey terminology, the “call to adventure”) as soon as possible. There is an initial problem. The monster attacks or makes itself known as a threat. This is a warning that would give a reasonable person misgiving about moving forward or investigating. The protagonist registers this new information but chooses not to act (perhaps choosing to delay making a decision). In other genres, the protagonist accepts the quest at the beginning of the middle build. In Horror, by ignoring the warning, the protagonist inadvertently accepts the quest in the beginning hook.

Middle Build of the Horror Genre

Your story’s middle build will contain your second major progressive complication of the global story (crossing the threshold, monster attacks), your third progressive complication (test, allies, enemies, monster attacks), the turning point complication (the ordeal, monster attacks), and the crisis (apotheosis, monster is about to attack the protagonist).

You will slowly expose your protagonist to greater and greater danger due to the bad choices they make (and hate making). Rising action.

In other genres, the protagonist’s initial problem changes before they accept the quest. In Horror, the protagonist ignores the warning and then fulfills their initial goal, or else the initial goal changes. Typically, the protagonist decides to investigate the problem and discover the truth of the horror. The protagonist is forced to act in order to survive or save others.

Editor Tip: The protagonist decides to confront danger but you’ll give them a damn good reason to risk their lives. Whether it be selfish or altruistic, make it a decision most readers can relate to, a decision made directly from their character flaws rather than sheer stupidity. They don’t go in the attic just because they are curious.

The monster keeps attacking until the protagonist’s situation appears hopeless in the All-Is-Lost Scene at the end of the Middle Build.

There is a false ending. Your protagonist may mistakenly think they’ve solved the problem (as in Alien, where Ripley believes she has outwitted the alien by making it to the escape pod), or that other more skilled and competent characters will solve it for them (as in Evil Dead II, when Annie performs an incantation), only to discover that it’s still up to the protagonist.

Editor Tip: You could use the false villain trope where there is a fake solution and the protagonist (with the help of the real monster) suspects a friend or ally is the monster. When the fake threat is contained, the protagonist relaxes, and the real monster reveals itself (usually accidentally).

Ending Payoff of the Horror Genre

Here, you will include your climax (the resurrection, the protagonist fights the monster) and the resolution of the global story. The protagonist demonstrates how they rise to the challenge (confronts their fear or flaw) and survives or fails to rise to the challenge and dies.

Usually, the protagonist outsmarts the monster, rather than using their inferior brawn, and lives (prescriptive tale). But sometimes a Horror story is a cautionary tale. Not only does the protagonist lose but their fate is worse than death.

Editor Tip: Just as the protagonist is about to be killed by the monster, enable them to win. Give them sudden courage, ingenuity, a tool, or a revelation (Ideally, this won’t be a deus ex machina, but will have been foreshadowed–i.e., set up–very early in the story).

In a prescriptive tale, you can conclude the story there or you can circle back around to the norm of the beginning, with the protagonist now having expressed their gift or confronted their fear.

In the end, leave us with information that proves or implies that evil still lurks. The monster will return. Where and when? You’ll leave that unknown. The takeaway you leave the audience with is that evil is never entirely conquered. They could be next.

Eternal vigilance is the price of peace.

What are the Horror Genre Conventions?

Shawn explains Conventions as elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored. Without them, your story won’t work. Conventions, unlike obligatory scenes, are specific requirements for a story’s cast or methods of advancing the plot. They can be turning points and do not have to be used in any certain order.

There is a huge power divide between the protagonist and the monster.

The protagonist is the underdog whose chance of surviving is close to zero. In Evil Dead II, an all-powerful and evil force is pitted against mere mortals, our befuddled protagonist is seemingly the least qualified to evade death.

The protagonist is unable to escape due to their isolated location or situation.

The settings are generally dark, claustrophobic, and conceal danger via labyrinth-like effects. If the protagonist could easily get help, what would make the antagonist the protagonist’s life or death problem? In Evil Dead II, the bridge is destroyed and Ash (protagonist) is trapped in the woods.

Editor Tip: The atmosphere is often portrayed in considerable detail, becoming alive and immediately threatening. The dark atmosphere is as important (maybe more important) than the plot.

The protagonist is active.

They can’t just sit around waiting to be killed, perhaps pondering the afterlife. The protagonist investigates and finds out the truth behind the horror. Make them scared as hell and doing everything they can to survive. In Evil Dead II, the protagonist is going to cut his own hand off to survive. You name it, he plans to live or go down fighting the monster.

The story premise is improbable.

The progressive complications and climactic action, especially notable in inciting incident scenes, are highly unlikely to happen. In Evil Dead II, the evil force is unleashed by playing recorded passages from the ancient Book of the Dead. The evil then possesses people, animates murderous trees and body parts, and turns a woman into a long neck monster. Oi.

Lives depend on the protagonist’s defeat of the monster.

In Evil Dead II, “the evil force” will take over the world, killing countless others, if it’s not extinguished. In the end, Ash is expected to save the beings of an entire second world.

The story contains elements of suspense.

Suspense is a form of the narrative drive where the audience and the character know the same amount at the same time. The audience is kept in perpetual discomfort because the monster attacks randomly and never rests. The audience never has a chance to settle. In Evil Dead II, the monster is out of view. The limits of its power are unknown. What the Hell is Ash even fighting? And the monster is in constant pursuit of annihilating anyone not willing to “join us.”

Editor Tip: Mask the power of the monster. Keep the monster “off-screen” as long as possible and progressively reveal greater levels of its power.

The sequences of events are surprising.

They usually begin in ordinary situations (conventional settings) and involve supernatural and fantastical elements.

The fantasy of a horror story is grounded in the familiar. Evil Dead II begins with a couple on a romantic getaway to a cabin in the woods. The entire middle build is Ash fighting off a fantastical force. In the end, an incantation opens up a whirling temporal vortex and transports Ash to 1300 A.D.

The protagonist, even if they’re haunted or estranged, has characteristics or goals, with which the audience can identify.

They are trying to save those less vulnerable than themselves or have shown a clear want before the inciting incident. Somewhere in the action of the story, the audience is reminded of that want. It’s why we want our protagonists to survive instead of becoming a victim in a violent and gratuitous scene. In Evil Dead II, Affable Ash begins in love and in pursuit of a good time. Later, he’s grief-stricken and horrified at his girlfriend’s death.

The monster can’t be reasoned with. It is possessed by evil and intent on devastation and annihilation.

The monster in Evil Dead II isn’t even identifiable. It creates raping trees, a decapitated head that attacks, and is in pursuit of world domination. It doesn’t want to sit down and chat.

Editor Tip:  Let the audience experience the power of the monster while empathizing with the victims. Shawn calls this a “sadomasochistic flip flop.” What does that mean? We’re supposed to both feel for the protagonist and enjoy watching them suffer. We relate to both the victim and the villain. You can encourage the audience’s identification with the monster by giving all your malevolent characters credible motivations for their behavior. The writers of Evil Dead II chose not to do this, and they lost the respect of a large number of Horror viewers who blew the movie off as parody.

There is a speech in praise of the monster.

A character expresses their belief that the monster is unbeatable. In Evil Dead II, for instance, the narrator begins the story with this speech. Alternatively, the unbeatable nature of the monster may be revealed to the audience without a speech but this approach may rob the writer of the opportunity to increase characterization for supporting character or the monster itself.

The protagonist is the final victim.

In Evil Dead II, Ash is the last person standing in the forest for the entire middle build. In the end, he’s falling to his knees and screaming because he’s reached what he believes is damnation. He is expected to fight the monster alone, again.

The writer leaves us with information that proves or implies that evil still lurks.

The monster may return but where and when is left unknown. In Evil Dead II, the knights inform Ash they believe he is there to save them from the monster lurking in his new world.

What are the Horror Genre Obligatory Events?

Coyne describes obligatory events as “must-have moments for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out an obligatory event, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.

The inciting incident of the global story is an attack by the monster/antagonist.

A single (traditionally non-heroic) protagonist is thrown out of stasis and is forced to save their own life. Evil Dead II begins with the possession and murder of Ash’s girlfriend.

There is an All-Is-Lost moment in which the protagonist sees the monster as unbeatable.

The speech in praise of the monster (or its alternative, the revelation of the monster’s inability to be beaten) may appear here.

There is a series of “kill-off” scenes of minor characters.

The body count varies by publishing house. In the end, the protagonist is the final remaining victim (a convention). The characters killed can be agents of the monster (the protagonist kills them) or the allies of the protagonist (monster kills them). Evil Dead II incorporates both.

The core event is the victim at the mercy of the monster scene.

It’s the All is Lost moment when the protagonist (final victim) unleashes their gift. They may or may not stay alive. In the first Evil Dead movie, the protagonist is murdered in the final scene. Maybe that’s why audiences preferred Evil Dead II in which the protagonist lives.

Editor Tip: Ultimately, tell the story you want to tell and don’t worry about markets. If your monster kills your protagonist, don’t expect universal kudos for your writing. There are readers for that type of work, but less so than those with protagonists that succeed in their journey to stay alive.

There is a false ending.

There must be two endings. In Evil Dead II, Annie’s incantation sends the monster back to its origin. But the incantation opens a vortex that transports Ash to another world in which he is expected to, again, eradicate the monster.

What are the Horror Subgenres?


The Force of Evil is rational and explainable; psychopaths, Frankenstein monsters, aliens, etc. Examples of this genre are Alien, Frankenstein, and Get Out.


The Force of Evil is from the spirit world and cannot be explained by conventional rational thought. Examples of this subgenre are the Evil Dead movies, The Conjuring, Amityville Horror, and Blair Witch Project.


The monster is a spirit or undead being that feeds on the living; vampires, zombies, etc. Examples of this subgenre are The Exorcist, Child’s Play, and The Vampire Chronicles.


The monster could be possessed by a devil or just plain crazy. We never really know. Examples of this subgenre are Friday the Thirteenth, Saw, and Carrie. The “slasher” films also fall in this category, where gratuitous, meaningless, and horrific violence is exploited for the sadomasochistic half of the “sadomasochistic flip-flop.”

Final Thoughts on the Horror Genre


Horror requires the leanest scene count and the most efficient scene turns within all the genres…but you must strike a balance somewhere between writing like Hemingway and Tolstoy. Write the descriptions of setting, emotions, and thoughts as sparse as possible in action scenes.


In poorly crafted Horror stories, sensational violence substitutes for imagination. Unless you are writing Horror parody, you must write with the aim of believability to allow the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief in the dark and fantastical realm of the unreal. Walk the line between the explicit and suggestive. Allow audiences’ imaginations to fill in some of the gore. The best writers collaborate with the minds of their readers (true in every genre).


Beneath the plot is the subtextual pacing; tension arising from dread and revulsion. Dread is a grim certainty that bad things are coming. Revulsion is seeing how bad things unfold. A good Horror story cycles from dread to revulsion to dread to revulsion.


Don’t be afraid to use humor. If your reader alternates between laughing and screaming, you’re probably on the mark.

Ripping Your Guts Out

Because Horror is personal, you gotta be stirred by your own writing. Mine your fears for the material. Truth resonates with readers. Think; the dentist, dolls, clowns, antiques. But don’t be afraid to create new monsters.


If the story theme is old, the payoff must be fresh and new. This is especially true in Horror, where it can be tough to innovate. Allow your raw ideas and bold thinking to take your writing where other writers are afraid to go.

You must convey fear rather than tell your reader something is scary. Your primary goal is to entertain. In order to do so, a Horror writer sometimes has to dig the grave deeper than any writer before them and write some really psychologically twisted stories.

Whatever you do, the genre requires you don’t “pull your punches.” We’re focusing on a dark subject and that focus needs a crinkle in the whip. Make us confront the truth that bad things happen to good people.

Moving to the Next Level in Your Writing:

Read thoroughly in the Horror Genre and compare your work to the masterworks and the guidelines here. The best way to move toward innovation is knowing what others have already done.

Now, you have the basics of the Horror Genre and are ready to finish that story.

Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals.

Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:

I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.

Images credits for the Gas Gauge and Horror Slider infographics to Anne Hawley.

Special thanks to Anne Hawley for editing this post.

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About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez is a developmental editor for award-winning and bestselling authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and narrative nonfiction writers. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family, ridiculous dogs, and a few too many urban chickens. You can see more at her website
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mckinley says:

I think the classic essay on what Shawn calls “sadomasochistic flip-flop” is “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” by Carol Clover (found in Men, Women, and Chain Saws). This is actually where the term final girl originated.

You have “kill off” in quotes. There are horror stories without significant body count. (Poltergeist, for one if I remember correctly.) Does something stand in for the deaths in these cases, or is this a case of not every story has every convention?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello McKinley, Excellent question. One of the “deaths” I was thinking of is in the movie Get Out where the victims aren’t actually killed but rendered in a death-like state of trapped in the dark space of their mind while another person inhabits and controls their body. That’s a fate worse than death. In vampire stories, a person is often “turned” into a vampire rather than dying. The fate is worse than death to made a blood sucking monster for eternity. So death would be a mercy compared to what they will have to endure if the monster wins. You have to show what the monster is capable of doing to others by having others suffer the fate meant for the protagonist.

mckinley says:

I’ve been thinking about the series of deaths and I think if the convention is rephrased as “a series of progressive complications resulting from or creating destructive chaos” then it removes some of the temptation to try to force every horror story into a dwindling party/slasher mold. Ghost stories then fit in without exceptions. And the language makes an excellent bridge to sync up story grid ideas with psychoanalysis-rooted literary theories about horror.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Ooooh. I like it. Gonna use that in the Story Grid book of genres I’m pitching. Thanks.

Leftie says:

Story Grid Book Of Genres?! I’m pre-ordering right now XD Seriously, you HAVE to write this book! I’m printing all of your Secrets of… blog posts and they are helping me so much! I want more 🙂

Rachelle Ramirez says:

That’s great. Yeah, I’m working on the Genre Book proposal for Shawn now. I’d love to hear what you find missing in the posts that you would like to see answered in the book. I’m open to feedback as I look to both bulk and streamline these posts. What I’d like to do is create a book that is a reference for writers and editors to help determine genre for individual stories.

mckinley says:

Yes, trying to write a hard-ish SF horror story for a graphic novel. Using first contact with alien intelligence in place of he supernatural. So right now I’m constructing it around a possession narrative. I’ve got a foolscap that needs a little more revision, but this post (and the Alien podcast) have been very helpful.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

I wish you the best with the story. I know it’s tough. A lot of critics deride the genre but it’s every bit as hard to write as any other. Maybe even more so if you’re trying to follow the traditional story template. Horror changes some of the rules and the pacing and the hero’s journey are not the same as an action story. I’ll do a study of the Crime, Action, and Thriller Genres in coming months for the blog. Hang in there and, if you get stuck, connect with me at and we can get on the phone and chat for a free half hour consultation.

Rosie Pink says:

Rachelle this post is really excellent – thanks to Shawn for getting his head around genre in this way and to you for explaining it so clearly. I’m currently writing a novel with a sub-plot about someone who develops a life-threatening illness and it looks as though the horror genre is going to help me write it. Although the illness is not supernatural, its effects feel that way to those who experience it; and I’m thinking that it might get to the stage where living with its effects is a fate worse than death.

What do you think? Have you thought about/ have others used the horror genre in this way?

thanks again – great post

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thanks, Rosie. Most of the info in that post did not come from Shawn and I don’t yet know what he thinks of it. I did a lot of research outside the Story Grid book and feel pretty confident that it gels with the all the principles of the Story Grid. Having said that, I’m not sure if others have used illness in the Horror Genre much. I’m thinking an illness is much like a possession. An illness could be a monster. It’s certainly threatening. The series of kill off scenes would be other people dying or being ravaged by the illness. What would the fate worse than death be? Living with a terrible illness (pain, mental illness, etc) that prevents one from engaging in life? Something like Alzheimers where one is scared and confused but mostly able bodied? Something like muscular dystrophy where your mind stays in tact and your body slowly stops working, leaving you trapped but cognizant? It could work. In Get Out they play with that by threatening the protagonist will have to live in the dark places of his mind while someone else inhabits and controls his body. In Alien, a trauma/attack essentially leads to the total takeover of one’s body and death. That’s Horrific. If you’d like to get on a call for a free half-hour chat about your work, you can reach me through Best of luck on your story.

Jerome Koch says:

Hi Rachelle,
Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been looking for SG ideas on the horror genre for awhile. I have a 75,000 word amateur first draft sitting on my desk. It is a vampire novel that takes place in Russia. The story centers around a small German patrol that became lost during a blizzard, and they take shelter in a forest, which is filled with vampires.

The idea for the story was one of those strange moments that occur out of the blue. I read a lot of European history. And while I read an account of the Russian Winter Counter Offensive against the Germans in January 1941, I suddenly remembered the vampire movie, Thirty Days of Night (that also occurred in the winter in Northern Alaska). The inspiration for the story was instant. In any event, I changed a few conventions. The vampires are not led by a Dracula type character, but by a demon who possesses a Black Wolf and shows herself as a young girl; the vampires would not be Gothic, but more feral, much stronger, and more viscous. I also introduced a secondary character, a female Soviet officer, who also finds herself alone in the forest and hunted by the vampires. However, I broke with convention (vampire story convention) by downplaying the erotica that seems to have become one of the genre’s conventions (see Stoker’s Dracula, La Fanu’s Carmillia, and Coleidge’s poem Cristobol.). There is an attraction between the German squad leader and the Russian. But, it is sublimated in their desire to survive. In the end, one of them gives their live for the other.

Otherwise, I think I’ve abided by the SG conventions you outlined: One by one the members of the patrol die. A few even become vampires. There’s a major inciting incident in the 3rd scene where the German Squad Leader is attacked before dawn and barely survives; the weather itself is one long progressive complication, as well as the Russian Offensive which occurs outside the forest (the Germans have 2 choices: stay in the forest or surrender to the Russians). There is a short period where the Germans discover what they’re up against. This happens early on. Finally, the Germans discover the Russian Officer in the forest. She reluctantly teams with them if only to survive. She introduces another convention of the vampire genre- the vampires have the held of humans (See Dracula, and King’s Salem’s Lot). The Russian says there’s a small forest in the village, and the inhabitants there are evil. How evil she cannot say. Much of the Middle Build is occupied uncovering that mystery, and leads to a direct confrontation the Demon who is responsible for the vampires.

What concerns me is that I mixed to sub-genres: Supernatural and Possession. I also tried to get into the heads of the 3 main characters (The German Squad Leader, The Soviet officer, and a German assistant squad leader). I attempted to illustrate how their own lives, desires, and choices actually are used against them by the demon in order for the demon to defeat them or worse. My fear is that the reader may lose interest with all of that navel gazing. This is essentially an action genre. But, I also fear I will exhaust the reader with too much terror and gore. I want to give the readers a reason to want these characters to survive. And when the characters don’t survive, I want it to be heart-wrenching.

As an aside, I re-read Blatty’s Exorcist, and I was amazed how well he wrote about the inner-lives of the three main protagonists (The 2 Jesuit priests and the mother of the possessed). He did it in part through their actions and not their words or his own narrative. You are correct, this genre is very difficult to write well. The balance between a boring or predictable one, and one that keeps you up turning the page is a fine one.

Speaking of the Exorcist, the movie, Rob Age expertly explains how Friedken expertly foreshadows the entire movie in the 10 minute opening scene. Only 12 lines of dialogue were spoken. I think you might appreciate his analysis:

I’m sorry I went on too long. But, as you can see, I really enjoy this genre.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thanks for the response. You have hit the primary concern of many Horror writers: “My fear is that the reader may lose interest with all of that navel gazing. This is essentially an action genre. But, I also fear I will exhaust the reader with too much terror and gore.” Yes. That’s exactly the balance you need to strike. As far as the eroticism, I think what we’ve come to see in the vampire movies full of sexuality is actually a subgenre of Thriller, the Erotic Thriller. I know Shawn doesn’t have the Erotic Thriller listed as a subgenre of Thriller yet but I can make a strong argument that is and I suspect he will incorporate it. I’m actually working on the blog past now that dies just that. If you remove the eroticism and you have a series of kill offs, you are probably actually going back to a more pure version of Horror. So this is probably a good thing. At this point, a vampire book without eroticism maybe an innovation. OR it may be a serious disappointment to the expectations of the subgenre. It really depends on how the book is written and marketed. If readers expect eroticism and you don’t deliver, they’ll hate the book. If they love vampire horror and don’t like the “evolution” of the subgenre to Erotic Thriller, they’ll love you for it. I’d love to chat about your story. I do free half-hour consultations for prospective clients, no strings attached. You can reach me directly at Also, I’m deep in the mix of distinguishing between the genres (Horror and Thriller) so it would be interesting to discuss. Sounds like you have an interesting story and you’ve started with a masterwork, so you’re ahead of the game.

saraeblack says:

Thank you so much for this post! I’m a huge fan of horror – of a very specific type. 🙂 I love it when it is well done “psychological” horror.

And to that end – I also wonder about the “kill off” obligatory scenes. For an example, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting on Hill House — as far as I’m aware it’s considered “horror” but no minor or side characters die. A lot of stories called “psychological” seem to work that way — The Shining, Jacob’s Ladder. Do you think that convention is fulfilled by people being gradually made aware of the uncanny things happening/the main characters madness? Or do you think these stories are actually a different genre with horror as a secondary genre?

(I’m also thinking of The Sixth Sense. Also called horror by many people, but actually Worldview Revelation as it’s main genre with maybe horror as the secondary?)

Thank you again!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Excellent question.
I think I’ll alter that “kill off” description to reflect that it can be an emotional death, damnation, or a literal death. The point is that we see the damage the monster can inflict on the protagonist before it happens to the protagonist and they get way (usually get away). We need to see the power of the monster. So, in ghost stories, one might make someone lose their mind or cause permanent trauma. The death could be some sort of serious physical injury like in Get Out when they are replacing the brains of people instead of killing them. Sorry. I took the words for that line too literally from Shawn’s notes and should have clarified.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

I would categorize The Sixth Sense (best I can pull from my memory) as a Revelation Story with a Thriller secondary.

Adrian Bräysy says:

Great post! Just curious, in which subgenre would you place films such as Jacob’s Ladder, as well as the videogame Silent Hill 2? In both stories, the source of the horror is one’s own repression.

For example, in Silent Hill 2, the protagonist James, is feeling guilty about his wife’s death, and that guilt manifests in the form of monsters, and they can only be defeated by James coming to terms with what has happened in the past. During his journey, he meets Maria. Maria is almost identical to his wife, but clearly an idealised image (she has, among other things, more sexually suggestive mannerisms) to represent his longing for his now dead wife. She is killed/taken away by the monsters repeatedly, which forces James to witness the death of his wife (or the idealised image of her) again and again.

It would be easy to place this type of story in any of the subgenres, but it seems to me that we almost need one more genre for this: Existential Horror, where the source of horror is one’s own subconscious. Also, pure fear is not the only emotion in focus here, but also depression.

So my question is: how would we go about categorizing these types of stories, and do the genre conventions still apply (watched through Jacob’s Ladder yesterday, and it seems to meet all the requirements you list in the article)?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Maybe neither story is actually a Horror story. It’s been 30 years since I’ve seen Jacob’s Ladder (remake due out in 2019) but, based on my memory of it and the summaries I just read, I’d say it looks like a Psychological/Thriller subgenre which combines the aspects of Horror (can’t argue there isn’t some seriously horrific images in there), Crime (mystery), and Action with a Worldview/Revelation subplot (the answer to the mystery is revealed to him at the climax). Though Jacob’s Ladder pretty much defines the idea of “death would be a mercy,” doesn’t it? I’m wondering if we could see his fate as living in “damnation?” As for Silent Hill, that’s more difficult as there are 5 different endings so the arc is unclear to me. It seems to focus all the action around navigating the Action/Labyrinth of the town to get to the girl. The monsters are obstacles but there doesn’t seem to be a series of victims from what I can tell. The notion of hero (dad), victim (daughter?), and villain (monster cult?) could also fall into Person In Jeopardy/Thriller if the goal is really to save the child. There doesn’t seem to be an internal genre in Silent Hill. I hope this helps rather than confuses. Check out Secrets of the Thriller Genre, Secrets of the Worldview Genre, and Secrets of the Action Genre on this site. Are you using these as masterworks to help determine the genre for your story?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

I love the idea of an existential horror subgenre. That would be The Shining as well, wouldn’t it? Hard to say. There were a number of Horror stories that I could see making a case for in multiple genres. Jacob’s Ladder was an incredibly disturbing movie, one with a large internal genre of Worldview, if I remember correctly.

kittycity1 says:

Terrific post, Rachelle, and filled with undeniable insights. I am working a lot in this field, and can recommend also H.
P. Lovecraft’s long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” A link is here: and I’d like to get reaction to some of my works at and at Captivating, the Android app. It contains classics adapted to chat story format, as well as my scribblings.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Glad you found the article useful. I love the idea of adapting classics to chat format. That’s great.

Peaslepuff says:

Super useful article. I am working on a series of short horror stories and this will certainly help me craft a clear, structured outline!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Heel, I’m so glad the article was helpful. I’m working on a blog post on crafting a series. A Horror short story series sounds like a good idea. Like campfire scary. Keep us updated on your work?

hevhooper says:

How would you work out the scenes if there were no deaths? All my deaths took place BEFORE the events of the book. I am writing a Gothic Horror and have read many similar books where no deaths occur. Would flashbacks or learning about previous death count? They are technically sub characters written into the back story of the book.

hevhooper says:

I should have read the previous questions. I see you have already addressed this. Thank you.

Vilma Kaikkonen says:

Hi! I know it’s an older post and I’m not sure if anyone’s reading these anymore, but I’m writing my thesis on horror genre and I was wondering that when you quote Shawn Coyle in the first chapter, where can I find the original quote? Btw loved the post!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

The quote most likely came from The Story Grid; What Good Editors Know. In the e-book, you can search the term Horror.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Let me know if I can clear anything up for you for your thesis project. I’d be happy to discuss and learn about what you;re working on. You can reach me directly at or [email protected]

Larry Pass says:

Hi, Vilma. The quote isn’t in the book, or anywhere on the SG site, except as a quote. It may be something Shawn said in answer to a question that then was written down and quoted.

Jasper Burch says:

“The protagonist is the final victim.
In Evil Dead II, Ash is the last person standing in the forest for the entire middle build….In the end, the protagonist is the final remaining victim (a convention).”

I don’t quite understand this. There are plenty of horror stories where the protagonist is not alone at the end. Take IT for instance, Richie, Beverly, Ben, etc. all come through in the end. Are they treated as one protagonist overcoming the monster, or are you saying that the threat is defeated after their final confrontation?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thanks for this great question. The protagonist does not have to be alone in the end. The story world is likely populated with many characters who survive. “The protagonist is the final victim” means that the protagonist is the last to fight the antagonist. The protagonist must be attacked in the end. They are the hero or the last to die. In the case of a mini-plot (multiple protagonists), one protagonist is still the main focus. They are the primary hero or final victim.

Jason Lewis says:

Just wanted to say thank you! Your articles are always wonderfully crafted and the insight they offer abundant!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thank you, Jason. There is so much to learn and share. I’m happy to help in any way I can. Keep writing.

BB says:

During the past year, I took a break from working on my horror series. My own world was too dark to go there. Recently, however, I resumed work on the fourth book in the series. Now I almost have the rough draft pounded out. These tips are the best I’ve ever seen about writing horror! Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Lena says:

Hello, Rachelle. I am confused by the obligatory scenes and conventions listed here. I don’t think they belong to horror as a whole but to a set of horror stories. I’ve tried identifying them in Dagon by Lovecraft and Autopsy room number 4 by King and I can’t.
Both are consider horror, unless you’d consider them something else?


“The story premise is improbable” That applies to the entirely of the speculative/fantasy genre and cuts of more realistic horror (psycological horror).

“Lives depend on the protagonist’s defeat of the monster” Other’s lives? Because Dagon is not out killing people, it is just after the protagonist. And in autopsy room number 4 only the prota is in danger.

“The protagonist, even if they’re haunted or estranged, has characteristics or goals, with which the audience can identify.” Not the prota in Dagon, except being a poor innocent that pissed of a god by accidentaly being in the wrong place.

“The monster can’t be reasoned with” agree. “It is possessed by evil and intent on devastation and annihilation.” Only if you have a monster, but Autopsy room number 4 doesn’t have one, it has an antagonistic force that has no desires or intent.

“There is a speech in praise of the monster” I can’t understand this one. Maybe the word speech is confusing? Any other way to phrase this? A concrete example of a non-speech speech?

“The protagonist is the final victim” or the only victim? In Dagon we have no indication of past victims, in Autopsy room number 4 neither.

“The writer leaves us with information that proves or implies that evil still lurks.” Dagon? Yes. Autopsy room number 4? I don’t see it. And to add here, IT gets destroyed, no chance of it coming back, it is very clear in the book.


I would rename the first obligatory scene “The inciting incident of the global story is an attack by the monster/antagonist.” To something along the lines of “coming into contact with the antagonist/monster or its domain”, which would help include haunted places stories where entering the place is what sets everything in motion. If you never move into the haunted house…

“There is a series of “kill-off” scenes of minor characters.” Could it be phrase as “escalation of the threat the monster/antagonist presents”?

“There is a false ending” or just your regular real ending or an open one?

It seems to me that both this obligatory things are mixing beats like the Inciting Incident and the All is lost moment with specific characteristics of a genre like the power divide and the isolation (which are “legit”) with more general things that apply not only to horror (active protagonist that wants something, improbablility of events in spec fiction, suspense) with cliches/tropes like the speech, the false ending, the evil still lurks.

Horror is a very difficult genre to make general claims on because it is so versatile.

1. Wouldn’t psycological also be a subgenre of horror? Where we know it is in the character’s head? Which would make ambiguous a psycological/uncanny or psycological/supernatural blend.
2. Where do you put humans with powers like Carrie or an empath? Carrie is explainable although not proven or disaproven in our reality as of yet (that theory that we can develop telequinisia by using more of our brains).
3. Any occult practitioner and the like would count as uncanny if they can actually cast spells (not Harry Potter style) like say causing an illness or attracting good luck? Or would they be consider supernatural?
4. A religious healer, those people that cure by the power of god would be consider uncanny or supernatural?

I guess the question is more about what counts as a rational explanation and if said explanation has to have been proven in our reality.
Because, for example, the psycological branch of magical practitioners have rational explanations about how magic works (placebo effect, hypnosis/suggestion) and aliens stand at the same level of people with parapsycological powers. Some believe it, some don’t.

I’m sorry for any mistake, english is my second language. Sorry if any of the comment sounds rude I am just trying to be as detail as possible to understand.

Hedin Daubenspeck says:

This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.


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