Some people think they know what makes a great horror story, but they really don't. If you're anything like me, you've been hyped up by a horror movie or book trailer only to feel like you should've waited for the DVD or 99-cent eBook download.
With such let-downs in mind, I've decided to construct what I think makes a strong horror story. I've mentioned why fear works, how horror has changed andwhy we love horror, but I've never broken it down into categories before. Without further ado, I believe a good horror story is broken down into fear, surprise, suspense, mystery, and spoiler. This is how:
At the risk of pointing out the elephant in the room, fear is by far the most important factor of a great horror story. The real trick to constructing a story based on fear is making sure you can scare people with fears they may not have.
Think about it: Not everyone is afraid of spiders. In fact, I sometimes I spare their lives upon discovery and relocate them to a home next to ants. Why do you ask? Because I f'ing hate ants way more than spiders, and spiders love to kill ants. However, if written or depicted correctly, I could join the group of people who spontaneously combust at the sight of a spider.
The story/TV miniseries It by Stephen King exemplifies what I mean. The antagonist reflects the protagonists' fears, and by the end of the tale some characters are even frightened by each others' fears. For instance, the most famous part of this tale is probably the depiction of Pennywise by Tim Curry. Not everyone fears clowns, but Pennywise could still scare the daylights out of a lot of readers/viewers.
Another good example is the story Endless Night by Richard Laymon. The story starts off with a teenage sleepover (probably the only enjoyable use of this horror cliché ) that's interrupted by a group of killers. One friend is "spitted on a spear", while the main character escapes with the speared character's brother. The chase is ensues.
What's beautiful about the beginning to Endless Night isn't so much the fear of intruders, but it's the fear of failing someone. The protagonist has to protect her friend's brother and is more afraid of letting him die than the gang of killers. Even more intriguing is the way Laymon uses conflicting voices. In 2012, people don't appreciate a second voice as much as they used to, but I love them and here's why: With this example, the second voice is one of the killers, and although he's the creepiest man we've ever met, he fears a lot too.
Along with establishing fears and connecting them with audiences, it's important to keep an element of surprise.
Getting someone to fear what you've created isn't the hardest part; making the fear surprising is. I used the example of spiders earlier and I'd like to come back to it again. Once you can make someone fear spiders, you have to keep the surprises going.
How many ways can a spider story go? If you try to jot them down, you might end up with a page of ideas or so. Right off the bat, I scribbled down about 49 ways.
This is where an imaginitative mind is useful. The cool thing about horror novels versus movies is that you can toy with someone's imagination a lot further. You paint a picture in such a way that the reader's mind can become lost in thought the same way we might think there's a ghost in the house during the thirteenth hour.
Likewise, suspense is mostly created through the reader's imagination. It's a well that must be tapped to work. In Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box , a collector of all things macabre buys a ghost. Oh no, not a ghost story! But it works. I won't spoil too much here, but what's clever about this story is it's element of surprise. At worst, a ghost means a bunch of strange sounds, cabinets opening, and light-bulbs blowing out. But not here. Hill starts his readers off with the usual ghost trappings, but then stabs them with a twist on the usual haunting.
Expanding on a fear often contributes to surprise. Establish fears from the usual tropes, then soil the audience's pants with an expansion that will echo throughout their nightterrors. Of course, surprise after surprise can grow tiresome. Sometimes you must make the reader want more scares, and this is the beauty of suspense in horror stories.
Some of the greatest stories are also the most suspenseful. Psycho, American Psycho, The Sixth Sense, Drag Me to Hell, Pet Semetary, Odd Thomas, Harry Potter, The Devil's Labyrinth, etc.
Some surprises come at the end of a long suspense. The best scenario consists of someone waiting for something to happen, and when it does it's completely unexpected. An expansion on the same scenario includes fear. We might even know what will happen to character based on their fears, but there's still the anxiety of waiting.
If things are constantly popping out in order to scare or surprise, we'll eventually grow wise to the act and find it less appealing. While King is credited as the Master of Horror, both the book and mini-series Bag of Bones let me down. Both the written story and TV movie series relied on POP-OUTS too heavily and too often in the form of a dream. We've all had terrifying nightmares before, so to live someone else's is a bit passé.
A better horror story is one that builds up the suspense. We don't just want minor chords and POP-OUT scary faces, we emotional connection with the characters and we want to live out their stress rather than face obstacles akin to a garden snake popping out from behind some vegetables.
Of course, a nice touch to suspense is a good mystery.
Unless it's in the form of whodunnit, many readers have strayed away from mystery within different genres of literature. Rather than let it go, I embrace a strong element of mystery in an eerie tale. Actually, my personal taste is to process as many unknowns in a story as possible. I enjoy understanding a story during one moment and realizing I know nothing the next. A good example of this can be found in Invisible Monsters.
However, more simplex mysteries seem to be the breaking point. Whether small or large, we like not knowing a few things about a character. In general, horror stories featuring a group of innocents will wait until the mid-point or even the end to tell you what the main character - the leader in this case - fears. It will surprise you by the way they encounter their fears. And it will keep the suspense until the very end, at which point to mystery is solved.
Now preferred over mystery, spoilers have always been an important part to every horror element.
You may or may have not realized this, but you love spoilers.
The main character freaks out at the sight of a spider, so you know they're gonna face one at some point. This can be positive anticipation with surprise and suspense.
You might realize there's a false sense of identity in a novel. Therefore, you suspect the narrator might be a little unreliable. This adds to every element, especially mystery.
But spoilers are the little nothings authors give away at the very start of the tale. Batman is Bruce Wayne. Freddy Krueger can kill you in your dreams. Fears, anxieties, dislikes, etc.
This study reveals people like spoilers more than anything else in a good story. When a reader or viewer knows something about the story from the beginning - a something that would traditionally be in the climax of the story - they are unable to look deeper into the story itself. Their eyes will be open to detail. This is like rereading a novel, only without rereading it.
I like stories that force us to pay attention to every word written or said. When you notice a focus item, you might expect what's to come, but there can still be elements of fear, surprise, mystery, and suspense.
My ideal story spoils how it's constructed, still holds several mysteries, keeps my suspense based on fears, and surprises me by going beyond tradition to create new views on horror and the way it can scare someone.
What Do You Like In A Horror Story?
It's been awhile since I wrote the popular "5 Elements of a Good Horror Story", which made me wonder if there was anything more I could add to the list. As I worked a bit more on Ashland's Asylum, I realized there is a great concept I completely missed - the concept of false antagonists and allies. After all, shouldn't any good horror story keep you guessing who's the bad guy and who's the hero?
Check it out here.
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Fear, focus, and the future. C.M. Humphries talks about writing, horror, and whatever.