Elements of Writing Horror: Something Must Die

(c) hotblack

(c) hotblack

The goal of horror is to elicit an intense fear, and there nothing that humans fear more than death. Death is the last curtain call, the ending to the show. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has some level of terror about the final end. Fear of death is universal. Horror stories feed off this trepidation. Every single tale of the macabre contains a death, which is essential to amp up the panic in a character.

The purpose of a story is show the growth of a central character. In order to grow, there needs to be a triggering event that transports the character in a positive or negative direction. Yes, characters can grow negatively and fall from where they originated. Typically in the genre of horror, the main character does descend. Eternal loss is a plot tactic for this catalyst. The build up to death is what generates the character’s (and essentially the reader’s) fear — the intrinsic element of horror.  The key to utilizing the tactic of death is to create the eternal loss of the one thing that the main character holds most dear. The event of the death will be the crux of growth for the character: the moment of his / her turning point.

Fear is an aid to the warrior. It is a small fire burning. It heats the muscles, making us stronger. Panic comes when the fire is out of control, consuming all courage and pride.

— David Gemmell, Lord of the Silver Bow

The principal death in a story may not always happen to a human. Death can be existential, relating to non-human, inanimate, or intangible things.  The death may be of a beloved pet, favorite notebook, or prized vehicle. Think about how Louis reacted to the hit-and-run of Church in Pet Semetary, and the horror that developed out of that death… and disturbing “funeral”.  Then look at what happened with the death of Gauge. Stephen King really upped the fear factor by viciously killing off Louis’ cat and kid! A death can also be the demise of hope, happiness, or dreams. There is nothing more horrific in the world than watching the hope in someone wither away and die (think Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).

Sometimes the best death to play up is the “death of oneself”. Fear of one’s own mortality is experience by every human. We are all afraid of when we will die. Add to that, there is also the fear of how we will experience that final moment. I think everyone hopes that they will go peacefully in their sleep. Yet, in most cases, that can’t be further from truth. In brutal honesty, most of us will go with some amount of pain from this world. Detaching from a body that has carried us through the years is not something that I can believe to be easy (or painless). Sending your main character on the downward, negative spiral through the stages of their own death, and fighting to come to terms that they are about to be snuffed out, will hold the reader in suspense and fear until the inevitable end.

If you are looking to include horror in your story, death must be a component. Your character, within the realm of this genre, cannot evolve (or depending on your plot, “de-evolve”) without it. Deduce what type of loss your main character dreads the most. Lead up to the final moments with accelerated heart beats, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. Make them question or go through the seven stages of grief. Continue to evoke apprehension in the protagonist that they may one day lose this “thing” that they treasure, and then make them suffer in agony as you brutally tear it away. Your character’s anxiety and despair will transfer to your reader, pulling him / her deeper into your story and rouse their empathy. You will make them resonate with the loss and tremble in fear. And that is the ultimate goal of horror: to make your readers scared.

If you want to be successful in writing horror, something must die in your story.


If you are interested in enhancing horror in your writing, check out these other Elements of Horror posts by The Sarcastic Muse
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Invoking Fear with the Horror Genre

Want to hear the truth about the horror genre? It’s going to scare you. Did you really think it wouldn’t? No one in their right mind should ever open a horror story without the intent of being scared. If you go into the text blindly, well then dearie, you are in for one wild ride. Yet, those who are naive about this genre are my favorite kind of readers. I love watching them become afraid because their fear is unexpected.  Am I sadistic? Well, maybe a little. It is a compliment to see terror spread across their faces and light their eyes. Please don’t have me committed for saying that. I would never do anything to anyone–except give them nightmares.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft

(c) wintersixfour

(c) wintersixfour

Fear allows a person to see and understand their most inner thoughts and feelings. One truly learns about themselves when they analyze their deepest terrors. Authors of the horror genre know this well and use it to their advantage. They take the most innate, natural of things and twist them into an alternate reality that riles up terror in a reader. It is an art. To be a horror writer, you must love fear. You must get in touch with your own fears and expose them, become one with them, accept them. Once you have accomplished this, then you will know how to craft your words to bring out the fear in others.

Integrating your own understanding of fear (and acceptance) into your work is a good tactic to produce a well received (and frightening) story. Horror writing has to be strong and your voice unique. There are also several core elements that need to be kept in check while drafting your tale of the macabre. If you want to know more about these elements, check out my article Core Elements of a Horror Story

Horror is an ultimate fear and terror that inhibits a person’s body, mind, or soul.  It is the knowing and foreboding feeling that a situation will not end with a positive outcome.  It is the darkness trying to overcome the light, and the epic battle that ensues.  Horror can be strictly psychological or it can be wholly physical.  It can be blood, guts, and mutilations or a strict torture of the mind.

Horror is the element that turns sweet dreams into heart-ripping nightmares.

What “horror” is not:  Happy endings

True horror will never have a happy ending.  Even if by the end of a book or movie the evil is vanquished, there will always be a cliffhanger that shows a seed of the evil still exists.  The evil is left in hiding to wait for and plan the optimal moment to reveal itself and wreak havoc on a new batch of characters.

Within the realm of literature and film, horror is a simple genre.  It is the genre that instills terror within the audience by any means necessary. However, a book or film does not have to be one straightforward fear fest.  The work’s genre can be of a hybrid-genre with horror and another means:

Dark Fiction:  This usually consists of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, and / or speculative that have a heavy element of horror ingrained.
Gothic:  This is a Horror genre classic that has influences of mystery and / or romance.
Comedy-Horror:  This hybrid pretty much explains itself as the work contains a mix of horror and comedic elements.
Weird West: A Western themed work that highlights the elements of horror, sci-fi, and / or the speculative.

Horror, as a secluded genre in of itself, can be broken down into the following sub-genres:

Psychological:  The focus of this sub-genre takes place more in a character’s head, playing heavily on his or her fears and morals.  There may or may not be an element of blood.

Slasher:  This is your classic Freddy Krueger / Jason / Michael Myers villain, where the antagonist murders characters through violent and visceral methods.  The murder weapon of choice is always a sharp object used to maim or dismember.  This sub-genre typically mixes with the splatter sub-genre, but if the actual act of the murder occurs off scene (not visual), then the splatter element is not viable.

Splatter:  With this genre, I do not personally consider it to always be hand in hand with the Slasher sub-genre.  You can have a Splatter film without having the Slasher element.  A good example (and the most disgusting movie in existence) is The Human Centipede… and all of its subsequent segments.  Splatter is a horribly gruesome and visceral sub-genre, but the antagonist goal is not to kill the main character(s), but to merely affect the a character’s physical body.  This sub-genre relies more heavily on the visual effects of the blood and guts rather than the action of expelling the gore.

Supernatural:  This sub-genre highlights the elements that are not of the “natural / human” world.  Typically the sub-genre highlights entities from a heaven or hell realm.  Such fodder are ghosts, demons, angels, etc.

Monster:  This sub-genre focuses on those beings that are from the “natural / human” world, but are either not human or genetically altered humans.  Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-man, Toxie, and Kaijus are all considered monsters.  The monster may or may not be bent on the destruction of the human world, but the actions of the monster (whether good or evil) do instill the element of fear within humanity.

Extraterrestrial:  Any life form that comes from “outer space” that is not considered a human.  The extraterrestrial may take on a humanoid form, but genetically they are not a pure human.

Weird:  This is a mashup of any non-human entity / life-form that the human mind cannot comprehend or extends to a forbidden knowledge.  This sub-genre typically uses a mix of elements of the supernatural, monsters, and extraterrestrial.  It can also sprinkle in some of the splatter and psychological sub-genres.  Every story that H.P Lovecraft wrote would fall into this category.  The Call of Cthulhu is a prime example that contains a mixture of the horror sub-genres: monster, extraterrestrial, and psychological.

When thinking of these genres / sub-genres, keep in mind the horror industry cycle. The horror genre is currently in flux.  On my personal blog, I mention several times my interpretation of the horror industry cycle. With this new year, we have come full circle back to the age of monsters. The slasher movies and stories of the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s have been buried.  The ride of the Zombie-Vampire-Werewolf craze is on a downhill trend since its rebirth in the early 2000’s.  Ghosts and demons are about to hit a mid-life crisis before fading back into the Earth.  However, a new egg was laid about 5 years ago and has hatched.  Monsters are in full force this year.

Horror can embody a large element in almost every genre within literature and film.  Hybrid and sub-genres of horror can be mixed and mashed to create one story of complete and utter terror.  And to think, the information in this post is only related to fiction!  There is a whole other side to horror within the non-fiction realm through biographies, memoirs, and documentaries.  To think of the gruesome memoir that could have been written by the hands of Elizabeth Bathory!

Tap into your own fears and show them to the world. Understand the horror industry’s cycle use it to your advantage to strengthen your work. Pick a horror genre that well suits your goals. Follow the core elements of horror.

Integrate these tips into your writing and one day you will become a Master of Horror.

 

 

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?