Secrets of the Horror Genre
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 Horror stories so you can provoke terror and a sense of dread within your readers.
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)
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 scenes 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 that 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?
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.
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) 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’s the 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 something like this:
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?
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.
Introduce supporting characters as rich and interesting.
Editor Tip: Give them distinctive names, appearances, mannerisms, emotions, and actions. Use description 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 misgivings 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 hero accepts the quest at the beginning of the middle build. In horror, by ignoring the warning, the hero inadvertently accepts the quest in the beginning hook.
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.
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 them.
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).
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 is that evil is never entirely conquered. They could be next. Eternal vigilance is the price of peace.
What are the 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 the 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 hero 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.
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 it 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 power.
The sequences of events are surprising, usually beginning 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 movie, the viewer 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 reader experience the power of the Monster while empathizing with the victims. Shawn calls this a “sadomasochistic flip flop.” I’ll interpret that the best I can. We’re supposed to both feel for the protagonist and enjoy watching them suffer. We relate to both victim and villain. You can encourage the reader’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 in which 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.
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.
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 Obligatory Scenes?
Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out an obligatory scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.
The inciting incident of the global story is an attack by the monster/antagonist in which 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 scene 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 (body count varies by publishing house), at the end of which 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 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.”
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 readers’ 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:
Secrets of the Performance Genre, Secrets of the Morality Genre, Secrets of the Status Genre, Secrets of the Society Genre, Secrets of Writing Memoir, Secrets of the Crime Genre, Secrets of the Worldview Genre, Secrets of the War Genre, Secrets of the Action Genre, Secrets of the Thriller, Part One and Two, Secrets of the Western Genre, and Secrets of the Love Genre, Secrets of the Big Idea Book, Part One, and Part Two.
I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.
Secrets of the Worldview Genre
Images credits for the Gas Gauge and Horror Slider infographics to Anne Hawley.
Special thanks to Anne Hawley for editing this post.
Author Rachelle Ramirez
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