I wrote this one a long time ago on my old author website. It was one of the most popular posts in the old Forbidden Blog and was often cited on various writing websites, as well as Ask.com.
I'm not too sure how it holds up (younger me sure sounds pretentious), but it seemed to help a lot of people in the past, so I thought I'd leave it here - warts & all. Let me know what you think in the comments.
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.
Foreshadowing is your friend. 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.
Here are some of the original comments:
Jessica 7/9/2013 10:01:28 pm Hello, this page was very helpful for writing my school a horror story- I never would have guessed about the spoilers! Reply
emoni.fort 10/31/2013 02:20:35 am i have a scary story to write for school ......plz help me Reply
Markus 10/10/2016 07:12:40 pm i had the same problem Reply
Thea 9/21/2013 04:08:43 pm Hey this was a really awesome page to help me start writing my very own fiction horror! I love writing stories but I've never came across writing a horror and these tips are sure helping me so thanks!!😃😛😋 Reply
Pugh1234 2/4/2018 02:13:20 pm :-) :-)
C.M. Humphries link 10/20/2013 03:38:20 am When I wrote this, it was actually kind my way of considering what it takes to construct a good horror story. Now I'm thrilled to see it's useful for others like yourself! Reply
tyalalala 3/15/2016 05:55:46 pm really great. #loveit
Mia dyson 10/16/2013 04:25:34 am I love this site lol Reply
Julia 10/19/2013 09:02:23 pm Great website, I love the points you made and I just had to leave a comment! With these ideas, I can soon see a novel of yours at my local book store Reply
jasmyne 10/31/2013 02:31:09 am im so happy to write a scary story Reply
yoi 11/20/2013 11:45:39 am lol Reply
C.M. Humphries link 3/2/2014 11:43:01 am Hey guys, I did a follow-up to this entry in which I focus on the concept of false antagonists and allies. It's a sure way to spice up any story. Make sure to check it out! http://www.cmhumphries.com/1/post/2012/08/5-elements-of-a-good-horror-story.html Reply
Amy Pond 3/7/2016 12:10:15 am I read it! Thanks! Reply
jordan 3/16/2014 12:53:06 pm i totally want to use this as a references for my culminating assignment any way you could cite it for me? Reply
Ted 10/9/2014 03:14:22 am Hey - I was wondering who the publisher or sponsor of the article is - I'm writing a paper on horror and if I use this information in my essay, I'm probably going to need the name of the publisher for it to be credible Reply
darkocean 12/31/2014 08:02:01 pm This helped me finish chapter 26 in my book, thanks much! <3 Reply
dave 1/24/2015 05:47:45 am Thx very nice analogie Reply
Peli_676 5/17/2015 09:25:36 pm Thank you very much! :) Reply
Kj 6/23/2015 10:18:18 am I love this! Reply
Amy Pond 3/7/2016 12:03:06 am Yay! Thanks a lot! This helped a lot with my language arts homework...writing a short horror story. Reply
Basia 3/22/2016 03:58:32 pm How about the concept of transformation? I thought that was the most classic element. Not sure if it applies to Poe but definitely to some famous tales - Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc. Reply
Barnacles 6/7/2016 11:52:57 am Thanks for the great article. I would like to read more about the elements of horror and how to implement them in my writing; especially in sentence structure and descriptive phrases build fear, tension, and, suspense. Could you elaborate on use of Spoilers? Or recommend further reading? Reply
PC 9/21/2016 06:28:44 am I believe Stephen King's 'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft' book is exactly what you're looking for, regarding sentence structure and descriptive phrases. I've listened to it as an audio book narrated by the great man himself and it's brilliant. Reply
pewdiepie 9/15/2016 01:55:29 am it was an amazing help Reply
CASEY 10/18/2016 06:41:54 pm Thank you! Such a clear image, too! Very useful Reply
ash 1/18/2017 02:01:46 pm This really helped with my writing and got me to write with the different elements together or apart. Reply
Jack Strait 6/7/2017 01:54:59 am This article was super interesting to me. I'm making a simple horror game. My hopes are that a fantastic storyline will make up for the simple gameplay. Here's the general idea of what the game's about: At the beginning of the game, players have to read through three short articles describing an occurence that happened every decade or so. In it, at midnight, a blinding light would appear over a building. At exactly 1:00 AM it would disappear. The next morning the building is gone. When the player clicks on the final date to read a supposed final article and the game begins, implying that it's about to happen again. Except it's made clear that something is inside the building with them. The story continues as the player has to frantically escape. Reply
Alexis S link 7/24/2017 07:22:18 am Hi, my name is Alexis. I am a big fan of the horror genre - horror games, horror books, horror movies, telling horror stories, you name it. I am the horror QUEEN at my school, enough so that these two fourth graders are currently trying to convince everyone I'm secretly a demon. I dunno how to react to this, so I just agree.... This list helped me a lot, thank you. I can't wait to start writing a new story with this to help me! 😃 Reply
blakey320 link 11/13/2017 12:07:00 pm hi i dont think you sound like a demon cause its your choice to read horror an stuff like that because we all have a choice. i love tory writing too sso this influenced me for school. Reply
JB 12/18/2017 10:57:33 am Great post! I really want to write a horror story but always feel too uneducated regarding the genre itself. Anyway, I was wondering if you could give me examples on where the author has used spoilers. I'm not quite sure I understood that part of the post... Reply
avery t 10/30/2018 02:51:35 pm this helped me so much on my school project Reply