Home » Writing Advice » Core Elements of a Horror Story

Core Elements of a Horror Story

Strip away events, characters, and settings in all horror stories to compare the bare bones. See a pattern? The structural bones in these stories are the same. All horror stories are composed of five core elements, which must be utilized to develop an effective tale that induces terror in a reader. Other elements can enhance a horror story (e.g.; gore, porn, etc.). However, those are all secondary elements.

I believe the other TSM resident horror author, Chris, will agree with these. If he doesn’t then the dungeon may have a new tenant . . .

1. Foreshadowing is the sprinkling of bread crumbs throughout a book to prepare a reader for the impact of the climax or conclusion. Foreshadowing does not have to be direct “tell-all.” It can be small, slipped in where the reader thinks a reference or description is unintentional, leading up to an epic ending. 

Example: Something will happen to a main character that involves Chinchillas.  Little references of foreshadowing can be added to the story indicating that

Fear the Fluff (c) xandert
Fear the Fluff (c) xandert

the character (let’s name her Mary) is terrified of the adorable balls of fluff. Descriptions or situations can be added where she refuses to go into pet stores or runs away screaming when she sees a gray fur coat (even if it is faux fur). Have a special report news bulletin air on TV that warns of rabies rampaging Mary’s town. Spread these “hints” throughout the story. These “hints” will lead up to the climax of the story when a horde of rabid Chinchillas escapes a local animal shelter, happen upon Mary, and tear apart her body with their vicious little Chinchilla teeth.

Foreshadowing is an indication of future events and builds anticipation. When a reader pieces together all the foreshadowed parts, they become invested in the story. 

2. Fear is the driving force behind any horror story.  Your story has to scare the ever-livin’ giblets out of a reader (yes, I made up a word, but go with it). If a story does not elicit fear in a reader, then it cannot fall into the horror genre. Fear is the element that sets apart horror from other genres because it evokes a human emotion.

Leverage the fear in your story by making it relatable to your reader. This is difficult because a readership is vast.  However, if you can take a topic and hone it to where it is terrifying to the greater audience, then you have expertly harnessed the fear element. 

Think about what Stephen King did with Pennywise in It.  Clowns do not terrify most people, but King took the element of a clown, typically a safe and jovial character, and turned it into something diabolically sinister. Spin the element of fear into everyday, ordinary things.

3. Suspense plays off of fear and is what keeps your reader’s adrenaline heightened. Fear spikes the adrenaline while suspense keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat.  Without any suspense in a story, your reader is on a roller coaster that spikes with fear and then immediately lulls to mediocrity until the next spike of fear. Suspense is what keeps the reader hooked and interested in the story.

Example:  Using the Mary and the Attack of the Rabid Chinchillas storydraw out the events that happen to Mary before the big, furry attack. Create a setting that is foreboding. Maybe she breaks into an abandoned pet store to hide from a growing thunder storm. The reader knows she avoids pet stores, so something really bad is forcing her to step out of her comfort zone. The reader also know that there is an outbreak of rabies in Mary’s town, and she just broke into a place that is infested with mammals. Show how she breaks into the store and then tentatively walks about. Maybe she is scoping out the place to make sure she is alone (or at least that there are no Chinchillas). Use onomatopoeia and other sound tactics to drive and show Mary’s fear.

If the character is scared, the reader will be scared. Drag out the character’s fear with suspense, and you will drag the reader right along with it.

4. Mystery adds reliable and believable surprise** to a story. You can show some of your story’s cards with foreshadowing, but don’t give everything away. Use mystery, like suspense, as a hook so the reader knows that something surprising will happen during or after the climax. Make your reader question how the story will end.

5. Imagination is my favorite element (next to fear). Like mystery, do not show all of your cards. Leave events, situations, and character descriptions up to your readers’ imagination. Their minds can conjure visions that are more terrifying than anything that you write. Mystery and imagination play heavily with the fear element. Get your readers’ hearts pumping, palms sweating, and bodies shivering in terror by making them use their minds.

By using the imagination element, a reader is 100% a part of the story.  If you can get readers to (fearfully) imagine themselves as a character in the book, then you have completely succeeded as a horror author.

** The crux of the mystery has to be 100% believable in line with the characters and plot of the story.  Do not introduce a new character or create up a new situation on a whim to close out a mystery.

Want to help your horror story’s structure?  Check out the post Invoking Fear with the Horror Genre to help mold your story to the right horror sub-genre.

What core elements in a horror story are your favorites?  What non-core elements within a horror story excite you?


24 thoughts on “Core Elements of a Horror Story

  1. Whoa, wait a minute, clowns are not terrifying? I’ll take the chinchillas any day over the jovial ax-murders (I’m sure of it). Thanks for sharing some very good advice. Much of it can be adapted to other writing as well, especially the last tip – no magic dust – no previously unknown superheroes. Well, unless they show up to off the clown. Great post!

    • (don’t tell anyone, but clowns and furries absolutely terrify me… I just don’t want certain people to know… *cough* Chris Musgraves *cough*).

      I don’t know… these chinchillas seem all cute and cuddly at first, but then they turn and go for the jugular! Their teeth are vicious.

      Completely agree, these elements can be used in any story in any genre.

  2. To be honest, I enjoy including all of these elements (except for fear) in a non-horror story. Or maybe this is just a sign that I should be focusing my stories in a different genre 😉 I think my favorite element of any story, however, is a combination of foreshadowing and mystery. Sprinkling bread crumbs along the way that may seem insignificant, but are not. The mysterious and unexpected plot twist near the climax of the story takes all that foreshadowing and provides an a-ha moment to the reader. When I am able to make a reader think, but still provide an unexpected yet realistic ending, that’s when the endorphins flow for me as a writer 🙂 Thanks for sharing, these insights have definitely provided some new tools and ideas in my box!

    • These are great elements to include in any genre. I absolutely love that combination of foreshadowing and mystery. Great description of your feelings for the combined usage. Long live the fear! 😉

    • Hmmm… maybe if I ever write Mary’s story, I will be sure to stick several handfuls of raisins in her pockets. That should sure drive the chinchillas crazy!

      I think Chinchillas are the most adorable fur babies (please don’t tell my puppies that). Wish I could have two of my own.

  3. I think these elements are all important in most any story. You’re AFRAID the hero and heroine won’t get together…you worry that the detective won’t find the bad guy. Horror just takes all these elements to the EXTREME. Thanks, Amanda.

    • Thanks, Marcy 🙂 Very true, these are all elements that can make up stories in other genres. And leveraging them makes for a thrilling ride. However, an author cannot write a horror story without these specific 5 elements. If one of them is missing, it falls out of the horror genre.

      Happy Wednesday!!

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  5. I love fear, the mystery and suspense. I’m still working on the imagination part. Usually, I just go glaringly gross-out. The subtlety that provokes the readers imagination still evades me. I’m working on it.
    I also love the element of surprise/shock. When a character does something completely unthinkable, an out-of-this-world sort of thing. Like the girl’s head going 180 deg in The Exorcist. Or John Coffey releasing cancer things into Percy Wetmore’s mouth in The Green Mile.

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  9. Well, me, as a horror writer and reader, havent been scared by reading a horror book (but once, in “La casa infernal” or “Infernal house” maybe, i dont know the actual name in english, in which a chair started moving by itself) and i’m sure that the books i’ve read do scare other people.
    Maybe because some people like me are harder to scare than others, but those elements you point here are really good.
    Imagination and suspense are my favorite. Not describing something at 100% makes the reader fill the % reamaining, which ends up making the reader’s unconscious fill the gaps with things he’s familiar and would end up being more scared. In my case i barely describe characters, i want the reader to discover them as the book goes on, but making clear the key details of the character that i want the reader not to change, such as hair color. Same applies to environments and objects. 🙂

  10. Well,I as a reader of most of the horror stories in the world,do not think that a laughing clown or a moving chair can scare me or the other people,especially when we are in the 21st century………And yes I’m from India.

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