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.

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 Sarcastic Muse 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?

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