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Creative Writing Mystery And Crime 12 min2023-06-06 00:00

5 Key Elements of a Good Horror Story

horror story elements

Welcome, brave writer, to the chilling realm of horror stories.

This is the place where nightmares come alive, and where our deepest, darkest fears are confronted head-on. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re anything like me, you can’t resist the thrilling allure of a well-crafted horror story.

But what exactly constitutes a horror story? In essence, a horror story is a narrative that seeks to inspire one, or all, of these emotions:

  • Fear

  • Shock

  • Disgust

It’s a dance with the macabre and a journey into the bleakest corners of our psyche.

The genre comes in many flavors, from psychological horror that messes with your mind to serial killer slashers that make you jump out of your skin. But regardless of the sub-genre, a horror story’s main goal is the same: to scare the living daylights out of you.

Now, you might wonder, as a writer, how do you craft a tale chilling enough to make a reader check under their bed at night or jump at the slightest creak of their old house? It’s not just about ghouls and gore, my friends. It’s an art that requires a solid understanding of human fears, a dash of suspense, and a liberal sprinkling of dread.

In this article, we’re going to delve into the five key story elements that make a horror tale truly unforgettable. Buckle up, because we’re about to embark on a thrilling journey into the heart of darkness.

And remember, it’s only a story. Or is it?

The 5 Elements to Include in Your Horror Story

1. Instill a Sense of Fear in Your Reader

If you’re writing a horror story, and your readers are sipping tea and feeling as cozy as a kitten in a sunbeam, you’re not doing it right. Instilling a sense of fear is the bread and butter of horror, the secret sauce that makes your reader’s heart race like a jackrabbit on caffeine.

Now, the real trick is to not just scare your readers but to make them scare themselves.

But how?

Ah, there’s the rub!

To accomplish this, you must master the art of suspense. Don’t show your readers the monster right away. Instead, hint at its presence, leaving enough room for their imagination to run wild. Let them hear the monster’s growl, see its large, misshapen footprints, feel the chill in the air that its presence brings, but hold off on the full reveal.

Remember, fear is a deeply personal emotion. What scares one person might not scare another.

Your job as a writer is to tap into universal fears and craft a story that lets your readers’ minds fill in the terrifying blanks. In the immortal words of Stephen King, “Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door.”

So keep that door closed for as long as you can, and let your readers tremble in anticipation of what lies behind it.

2. Introduce an Aspect of the Unknown

Let me tell you something: nothing keeps a reader glued to the pages of a horror story like a good old mystery with that tantalizing aspect of the unknown. It’s like a surprise party, only you might get a blood-curdling monster instead of cake and balloons.

The unknown serves as the dark, uncharted territory where our deepest fears and anxieties reside.

It’s a place where the regular rules of life don’t apply, and anything, no matter how grotesque or terrifying, is possible. As a horror writer, you need to embrace the unknown and make it your best friend.

Incorporate elements in your story that leave your readers guessing, uncertain of what’s to come. A shadowy figure that’s never fully seen, a haunting sound with an untraceable source, a bizarre event that defies logical explanation.

These unknown elements will make your readers’ imaginations run wild with fear.

Here’s the takeaway: When you leave things unexplained, you’re inviting your reader’s mind to fill in the gaps with their own worst nightmares.

And believe me, there’s nothing scarier than the horrors we can conjure up in our own minds. So go ahead, embrace the unknown. Your readers will thank you, probably with a sleepless night or two.

But hey, that’s the cost of a good horror story, right?

3. Use Cliffhanger Exit Hooks

Oh, the cliffhanger, which is the suspense novelist’s pièce de résistance and the horror writer’s sneakiest trick. It’s like that surprise pop quiz in school, only this time, the stakes are a little more life-and-death.

A cliffhanger exit hook at the end of a scene or chapter does two things:

  • It slams the door shut on a current predicament

  • It simultaneously flings open a window to let in a new, even more sinister problem

An exit hook that ends on a cliffhanger is the narrative equivalent of pulling the rug from under your readers—and horror readers will love you for it.

For example, imagine a character who has spent the entire chapter running from a nameless terror. Just as they find a safe spot, they breathe a sigh of relief, thinking they’ve escaped. But as the readers turn the page, they find a single line that flips the narrative:

“But then, as silence filled the room, she heard a low growl behind her...”

Voila!

You’ve just thrown your character (and your reader) back into the thick of things. Cliffhanger exit hooks are the ultimate tool to keep readers flipping pages well past their bedtime, and in the horror genre, that’s the ultimate win.

So go ahead, leave them hanging.

4. Add Thrilling Plot Twists

You know that feeling when you think you’ve got it all figured out, and then WHAM! A curveball comes flying out of left field? That, my friends, is the deliciously deceptive power of a plot twist. And in horror, these aren’t just fun… they’re compulsory.

A plot twist in a horror story is like that hidden trapdoor in a haunted house.

It catapults both your character and your reader into a whole new level of terror. It’s the narrative equivalent of switching the lights off when you’re just about to reach the safety of the door.

For instance, let’s concoct a tale where our protagonist is trapped in an isolated, creepy old mansion. Eerie occurrences and ghostly sightings have convinced him that the mansion is haunted by a malevolent spirit. The protagonist spends the story trying to uncover the spirit’s identity, with all signs pointing towards a previous occupant who met a tragic end. The tension builds until the unexpected twist: it’s not the spirit of the deceased occupant causing havoc, but rather his seemingly innocent best friend who is alive and well, orchestrating the horror out of a twisted thirst for revenge.

Now, that’s a twist sharper than a vampire’s fang!

A well-executed plot twist can not only ramp up the suspense but also deepen your character development and narrative complexity.

But remember, with great plot twists come great responsibility. They should always serve the story rather than being there for shock value. Otherwise, you’re just leading your reader down a dark alley with no monster at the end. And where’s the fun in that?

5. Write an Ending That Contains Hope

At the end of a dark, winding tunnel of terror, what’s the one thing we need? That’s right, a glimmer of hope. Even in the murkiest depths of a horror story, a ray of hope can be as refreshing as that first gulp of air when you resurface from the shadowy deep end of the pool.

Why is hope important, you ask?

Well, horror isn’t just about making your readers jump out of their skin. It’s about taking them on a journey where they confront their fears and emerge stronger. An ending that contains hope tells your readers, “Hey, it’s been a rough ride, but we made it out alive.”

Let’s illustrate this. Imagine a story where a group of friends are trapped in a haunted house. They fight their way through unspeakable horrors, and in the end, they escape, albeit scarred and changed. They’ve lost much, but they’ve survived. Their resilience serves as a beacon of hope that even in the face of extreme horror, the human spirit can prevail.

Without this dash of hope, a horror story can feel relentlessly bleak.

But remember, we’re not talking rainbows and unicorns here. The hope can be as small and as hard-won as surviving the night. That’s the beauty of horror. Even in the direst situations, hope can still flicker, however faintly.

Think of Every Scene as a Short Story

Editing each scene in your horror novel as if it were a short story is vital.

What do I mean by this?

You can take the key elements of your story arc and apply those at the scene level. Just as every story has a shape and structure, so does a scene.

Follow this scene structure, and you’ll craft a winning story readers are bound to love.

Open With an Entry Hook

The entry hook is the opening line of your scene. It should hook readers in by raising a question they can only answer by reading on.

Include a POV Goal

Give your point of view character a logical goal they’re pursuing for the scene, and make it clear what the goal is early in the scene.

The Scene Middle

Much like the midpoint of your story, the middle of a scene exists to shift the emotional tone and increase the stakes should the POV character not achieve their goal.

The Scene Climax

When you are near the end of your story, you need a satisfying story climax. As you near the end of the scene, you need to build in a satisfactory scene climax as well. Does the point of view character succeed or fail in their goal? Answer this question, and you’ll satisfy readers.

Close With an Exit Hook

The exit hook is the last line of your scene. Its purpose is to raise another question in the reader’s mind they can only answer by reading the next scene.

You should keep your reader engaged and desperate to find out whether the protagonist will survive. Every scene must contain an entry and exit hook. They must also contain stakes and tension.

And the best way to engage horror readers around stakes and tension is…

You got it!

Fear.

Specifically, the fear of what might happen if your protagonist fails. When you’re writing horror, life is on the line, and your reader needs to feel this in every scene.

Scene-by-scene editing helps you increase tension in your horror novels. You can use book editing software to help you track each of the elements that a good scene needs. 

3 Examples of Great Horror Stories

To write a great horror story, you need to read great horror stories. Here are three of the best, but be warned, there are some spoilers up ahead. If The Shining, The Rats, or Dracula are on your TBR, you might want to skip ahead. 

Stephen King’s The Shining

Stephen King is the veritable monarch of horror. And as for The Shining? Well, that’s his crowning jewel if you ask me.

This novel ticks all our boxes, folks, and then some.

First off, The Shining instills a sense of fear like no other. I mean, it’s not every day that you encounter a haunted hotel with murderous intentions, right? As for the aspect of the unknown, King weaves it in perfectly with the uncanny abilities of young Danny Torrance.

His shining lets him peek into the mysteries of the Overlook Hotel, giving us just enough glimpses of the unknown to keep us on the edge.

And let’s not forget those cliffhanger exit hooks.

King’s a master of suspense, and he knows just when to cut a scene for maximum tension. Remember when Jack finds the mysterious woman in Room 237? King ended that chapter on a note that gave my goosebumps goosebumps!

As for plot twists, oh boy! From Jack’s descent into madness to the true nature of the Overlook, King keeps us guessing right till the end.

And the ending contains hope. After all the terror and suspense, we see Danny and his mother escape, giving us that glimmer of light at the end of a very dark and twisted tunnel.

In The Shining, King displays a masterclass in horror writing, adeptly weaving in every element we’ve discussed.

It’s a chilling, thrilling ride that shows us exactly how it’s done.

James Herbert’s The Rats

Let’s talk about James Herbert’s The Rats.

If you thought you had a rat problem, well, let me tell you, you haven’t seen anything yet. This horror classic has all our key elements, making it a perfect specimen for our dissection today.

Fear?

The Rats has it by the bucket load. Imagine London overrun by giant, flesh-eating rats. Shivers down your spine yet? Herbert’s depiction of these critters is enough to make even the bravest of us check under our beds. And the unknown? He plays it like a maestro, with the origin of these monstrous rats remaining a mystery for much of the book.

Herbert’s a wizard with cliffhangers, too. Just when you think a character’s safe, bam! There’s a rat gnawing at their toes. Not the kind of exit you’d want, but it certainly makes for a gripping read.

Then we have those plot twists. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the rat situation, Herbert pulls the rug from under you, introducing a new layer of horror. And the ending holds a beacon of hope amidst the darkness. Our protagonist, Harris, manages to defeat the rat queen, giving us a glimmer of light in the otherwise dark narrative.

The Rats is a gruesome testament to Herbert’s prowess as a horror writer, incorporating each of the elements we’ve discussed in a horrifyingly entertaining way.

You’ll never look at a rat the same way again!

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s time to dust off that old leather-bound classic and delve into the world of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Now, don’t let the age of this book fool you. It’s still as chilling as it was when it first came out.

And guess what?

It’s packed with our five key elements.

The fear factor? It’s practically off the charts! A blood-sucking, immortal count from Transylvania is the kind of stuff that nightmares are made of. There’s nothing like a good old vampire story to make you pull your collar a little higher on a dark, windy night.

What about the unknown?

Dracula himself is an enigma wrapped in a bat-cape, shrouded in darkness. Stoker masterfully keeps us guessing about the Count’s origins and his ultimate plans, keeping the tension high and the pages turning.

Cliffhangers? Oh, we’ve got them! Every diary entry and letter in this epistolary novel ends with a nail-biting cliffhanger. And the plot twists? Stoker was ahead of his time, constantly catching us off guard with unexpected turns of events.

Lastly, despite all the horror, Dracula ends with a welcome ray of hope. Good overcomes evil, and our band of heroes manages to defeat Dracula, proving that even in the most terrifying circumstances, hope persists.

Dracula is a shining example of a horror novel that expertly weaves together all our key elements. It’s an oldie but a goodie and a must-read for any horror aficionado.

You might want to keep a garlic clove and wooden stake nearby, though, just in case!

Conclusion: 5 Key Elements of a Good Horror Story

There you have it, horror writers!

We’ve picked our way through the graveyard of horror writing, unearthing the elements that make a story spine-tingling.

From the eerie echoes of fear we instill in our readers to the unknown shadows we allow to linger in their minds. From those gasp-inducing cliffhangers to the thrilling plot twists that make readers question everything they thought they knew.

And finally, the glimmer of hope—the thin ray of moonlight in our dark tales.

We’ve seen how these elements come alive in the works of masters like King, Herbert, and Stoker.

So, now it’s your turn.

Weave these elements into your own horror masterpiece. And remember, in the realm of horror, it’s always darkest before dawn.

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