4 Things That Every Horror Story Needs
I’ve written over 100 stories, and it’s impossible to do that without noticing trends about what works and what doesn’t. Whether you’re new to writing horror or just burnt out and need a framework to help construct your next idea, I recommend writing down these four steps before you start every story.
1) Mystery. The internet is a big place and ain’t nobody got time for that.
You want to grip your reader within the first paragraph, and I think the best (easiest) way to do that is by putting a burning question in their mind that begs an answer.
“Is this real?” “What happened next?” “Why would someone write a story about that?” “How could someone survive to write about it?”
These are the kind of questions that force people to read all the way to the end. I love whimsical language and character exploration as much as the next, but if you read the beginning of your story in isolation without needing to know something that will come next, then it’s time to edit.
2) Suspense. What happens when you put the suspense before the mystery? A lot of boring, out of context exposition.
Once you’ve given your reader a taste of what they want, experiment with how long you can avoid giving it to them. Now that you have their attention, you can slow down to develop your characters and give background information on the scenario. Suspense is the anticipation of what will happen next, and the excitement of that anticipation can be just as good or better than the reveal itself.
(For example: one of my stories spends the entire time making the reader wonder what the scariest imaginable drawing could be without ever revealing it, as nothing explicit could be as scary as the infinite potential of the unknown).
Slow down too much however, and suddenly you’re Naruto’s 4th cousin having an elaborate love affair (filler much?) and readers will get bored. You want to continue to develop your main plot and reference the mystery as you explore the other elements of your story.
Your suspense will increase in effect the closer you draw to your climax as the reader’s need for resolution grows. Dedicating a paragraph to a guy walking home can get tedious, but when the reader knows a monster is waiting for him the second he walks in the door, every step of the exact same paragraph will be an adventure. His hand on the doorknob. His baited breath. The creak of the wood. These are all boring without the anticipation (suspense) of what’s inside.
3) Climax. Urgency. Action. The big reveal.
Here’s where you find out what the monster is or see the serial killer take another life. You’ve used up all your pondering and fancy getting here, and now you want the reader on the edge of their seat. Short, fast, action-packed sentences are ideal for this. Add more action to your descriptions and dialogue as well. If you want to tell readers there’s an apple on the table, have someone pick it up or toss it from hand to hand instead of just noticing it. Add action to dialogue, making characters advance or retreat or exchange blows between words.
Present tense adds the most immediacy to the situation. Cut down all filer words, unnecessary descriptions, and even excess grammar that slows you down.
Instead of “I noticed the cat stand up“, say “The cat is standing”. Instead of “I immediately decided to turn around and sprint back through the hallways until I got back outside,” say “I turn, sprinting. The hallway, the door, and finally the clear night air.”
4) Twist. And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.
Readers are smarter than you give them credit for. Remember they want their question answered so bad that they’re trying to cheat by guessing what will happen the whole way through. A clue as small as a shifty-eyed glance can turn the big reveal into a “huh, I figured.” See if you can’t throw a little twist in at the end that gives context to the rest of the piece.
Maybe the narrator is actually the killer all along, or maybe the killer has a secret benevolent motivation. A twist doesn’t even need to change the main plot. It can be something as simple as a coward dying with dignity. The goal is to simply give the reader a feeling of satisfaction, making him glad that he read all the way to the end to see something he hasn’t already anticipated.
I use these four phases of the story as bullet points when I’m outlining, then I begin writing once I have a little blurb for each. Some stories will put the mystery in the title, build suspense the whole time, and then have the climax and the twist together in one sentence. Some will be all climax, action-action-action, with the twist another amazing actiony-action. There are infinite variations to allow the same structure to produce endless unique stories, but however you decide to break the rules, keeping these in mind will always help putting your ideas on paper
As you continue to practice, you’ll notice this structure can apply to smaller increments like paragraphs or even sentences. Hook the character on the first sentence (or word!) and repeat the rise and fall of suspense/resolution, each little cycle adding another puzzle piece to the main situation at stake.
An Example in Action:
I want to write a horror story.
1) Pick a topic. How about a good old-fashioned zombie story?
2) Write down the steps: Mystery, Suspense, Climax, Twist.
3) Ask yourself questions until you can fill in each step.
What could be mysterious about a zombie story? How about their origin? I’m going to start writing about these zombies showing up, but there haven’t been any undisturbed graves or missing bodies to produce them. Who are these guys anyway?
What suspense can I have? How about a little boy trying to get people to believe him? He keeps seeing these things, but he’s an unreliable witness so no-one takes him seriously. Suspense builds as the zombies keep getting closer/do worse things, and anticipation builds as the reader can’t wait for people to find out the truth.
Climax? Well someone has to find out eventually. Maybe the boy catches a zombie and lures it into his basement. His mom sees it and finally believes him. Then the zombie breaks out and they follow it back to a secret government lab. No wonder the police never reported any missing bodies!
Twist? What if the zombies were helpless victims just trying to get away from the experiment? And the little boy made friends with one and helps it escape to live in the woods?
4) Write that story!
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Why does your reflection smile more than you do?
The Grim Reaper’s scythe isn’t to harvest you. He’s there to protect you from what’s waiting on the other side.
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