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?

To the dearly departed darlings…

Ah, the perpetual love between a writer and their words.  The prose is scripted, and the story comes to life.  Once the first draft is completed, the tale is ushered off to an editor for light review, minor edits are made by the author, and then the final draft is sent for publication.  Yet, somewhere between the submission of the story to the editor and the fruition of publication, something horrible happens.  The story is returned to the writer, red-lined by the editor worse than a rambunctious murderer making knife-sliced blood splatter all over a nearby wall.

Those carefully crafted words that poured from the writers mind onto paper have been torn to shreds by the editor.  Oh, how the heart of the writer falls into turmoil as they cry themselves to sleep.  Their precious, precious words crossed out into oblivion.

Those chosen words – characters, dialogue, scenes, and settings – that the writer ingrained deep in their soul just don’t quite jive when they all join together on paper.  Though the story has depth and an astounding message to tell, the complexities built out of all those bits of writing create a cesspool in the mind of the reader.  The reader is muddled about what is going on in the story:  The scene starts out with the sun is shining and birds flying on a warm breeze, but your main character is running around in jeans and a sweatshirt.  Is he cold?  No reason is given.  You as the writer did not join your character with the scene.  Your love of sweatshirts and jeans has muddied the waters.  “I am confused” is the would-be statement from the reader.  The true message of the story is lost in the murk, because of the writer’s inability to let go or change those “bad bits”.

That is when said writer needs to come to the conclusion, as so eloquently stated by William Faulkner, “In writing, you must kill your darlings”.

This notion was not new at the time when Faulkner uttered those brilliant words to would-be published authors everywhere.  In the 1916 publication, On the Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch stated, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly– and delete it before sending your manuscript to the press.  Murder your darlings.”

For face value, it seems what both are alluding to are to kill off favorite characters, but that is not entirely true.  Both quotes suggest that the writer not fall in love with their written words to the extent that they cannot bring themselves to delete any of the “bad bits”.  A writer must look at their story as a whole and delete the pieces that don’t fit or muck up the message, whether that is scene, dialogue, or a character.  Not one ounce of remorse should be shed for those who are dearly departed.  Allowing this heartfelt attachment between the writer and words can and will obscure the message to the audience.  In story crafting, the written words are not for the writer, but are for the characters, dialogues, scenes, message, and audience.

Become that first impartial view before sending your manuscript off to an editor.  Have no qualms about eviscerating your darlings.

©2013, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative – visit Amanda Headlee — It is Always Darkest Before the Dawn for the original source of this content.

The Hook

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This is the epic first sentence from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford.  The opening line to a novel that is remembered by all, even though the author who wrote those words usually is not.  This is mostly attributed to the fact that the rest of the novel fails to stand up to that memorable line.  The first sentence of any book, short story, essay, etc. is the first relationship that a writer has with their readers.  If a writer does not “wow” their readers with the first line, the writer will struggle to mesmerize the reader through the rest of the text.

I find this especially to be true with Horror writing.  Unless you can creep the dickens out of your reader in the first sentence or completely pique their interest, they will put the book down and walk away uninterested because you did not rile that sense of dread or fear that they were looking for in selecting a work of Horror.

Make your first sentence be like a punch to their guts.  Get them sick to their stomach, gasp in horror, or tremor their hands in terror.  Stir up your reader’s fight or flight instinct.  Cause their adrenaline to surge.  They will be hooked and then devour every word that comes after that first sentence.  Keep their fear ramped up throughout the rest of your tale so that their fear high never dies.  Humans love to be scared.  We love to be terrified long after we close the cover of a book and place it back on the shelf.  Cause a terror in them that will last long into their nightmares.

Make your story be the most memorable.  Kill them with your first line.

©2012, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative – visit  Amanda Headlee — It is Always Darkest Before the Dawn for the original source of this content.

Horror of the eyes or Horror of the mind?

:: Movie & Book Spoiler Alert ::

Horror movies today are becoming more visually grotesque than their counter parts of the black and white film days. In order to entice our growing appetite for more blood and guts mixed with heart stopping terrors, the Horror film industry today has taken on the attitude of “seeing is believing”.   So, if we do not witness the horror first hand with our eyes, does it really exist?

A little over a week ago, I saw Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe (I will try to stay away from the details of the movie so not to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it).  In my opinion, it was an okay Horror movie.  Daniel Radcliffe did a great job of acting scared, I was convinced, but I couldn’t help to get annoyed at the whole “horror” of the movie.  There was very little suspense, and it absolutely left nothing up to the imagination.  Every little bump or squeak that was sounded was quickly accompanied by the image of what was making that sound.  And to top it all off, it was very loosely based on Susan Hill’s novel.  This production pulled all the flashy imagery that made her book scary, and threw it up on the screen.  The plot barely reflected the original text.

So I went home, and had a peaceful night’s sleep.

A few years ago on one sunny day, the tome The Woman in Black by Hill happened to fall into my hands.  That night after a long day of Literature classes, I curled up in bed under the roof of my tiny house off the Appalachian Trail and fell into a nightmare of pure terror.  Hill’s words delicately conjured the horrific images of Arthur Kipp’s journey to Eel Marsh House in my mind that I don’t think I will ever forget my first read of this tale.  I honestly could not put the text down, even into the wee hours of the following morning.  To be honest, I don’t know whether that was from fear or intrigue, but I continued reading until the end.  Typically I read at a rather fast pace, but the terror that Hill spewed made my eyes crawl across each word, letter by letter.  She devoured my imagination with her sound devices and imagery that danced like gossamer on the periphery of the eyes.  She played with my mind.  Her way of telling this tale was to give a little tidbit of the unknown and then allow your mind to form the rest.  How long did I wonder, page after page, what was the “Bump bump” noise that our dear protagonist heard coming from behind that locked door without the keyhole.  My stomach knotted in anticipation as the sound would start and stop.  As I read Arthur’s mind reeling of what the sound could possibly be, my mind was screaming at him “Get Out! Get Out!”.  When at last, the sound is finally revealed… my heart skipped a beat.  I had stop reading for a moment because I thought I was hearing the same sounds in my tiny home.  Quickly, I ran to my living room to check on my own rocking chair.

So I finished the book, and I didn’t sleep for four nights.

Now, in no way do I want this to come across that I am bashing this movie.  If you want a quick fright and have never read the book, then this is a film for you.  Yet, those few, fast pace seconds in the film where Arthur first hears the “rocking” noise then soon finds the nursery room door open with a rocking chair violently rocking inside does not compare of the several pages of terror of trying to figure out what in the hades is creating that creepy “Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Pause” noise.   Modern day movies have lost the fear factor that brews within our imaginations.  It is all about show the ghost, show the creepy little kid with the big black eyes, show the abdominal evisceration, but where is the lasting fear in that.  Sure we may get squeamish over the thought of Jeff Goldblum being turned into a slimy, bumpy fly-human morph in The Fly or that idiot lawyer getting “cross sectioned” in Thir13een Ghosts.  But it is only a temporary terror fix.  I have found that the Horror entombed in the written word has a lasting impression on the mind.  The imagery that forms in our imagination from when we read these tales of terror burns a living picture in our minds.  That is the ultimate Horror movie.

©2012, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative – visit  Amanda Headlee — It is Always Darkest Before the Dawn for the original source of this content.

Old-school or Technology?

eBooks are a fascinating, convenient way to read literature nowadays, yet I am at a crossroad on whether to love or hate them.  I, being an owner of an eReader, cannot help to feel like a hypocrite.  The main reason for purchasing an eReader is because I have completely run out of room in my house for another bookshelf.  Within the first month of owning the device, I have downloaded and read 9 books.  Yes, I am a book-a-holic.  Before I divulge in what has me all riled about this new technology, I just want to list what I view as “Pros” for eBooks:

#1 – It saves trees!

#2 – It saves space (don’t have to buy anymore bookshelves!)

#3 – For travel, it is a fantastic feeling not having a carry-on loaded down with 20 books.

#4 – Text can be highlighted and notes legibly made.

#5 – Easier on the eyes because brightness and text size can be adjusted.

#6 – Angry Birds!

Even though these are some commendable “Pros”, I cannot help to feel guilty about reading eBooks.  Here I am, losing myself in the wonderful words that some author poured their heart into writing, and because I have either purchased an eBook at a heavily discounted price (or for free) that author is losing out on income.  I hate the guilt in knowing that I am harming another writer’s livelihood.  Let me give you a prime example of what has irked me into this rant.  A friend of mine wrote a fantastic novel that has only been distributed in hardback, and his book would typically sell in the $35.00 range.  I happened across the eBook for $.99.  Now how is he to make money off of that?  Without going into the details of what exactly the $.99 goes towards, he has pretty much deduced that he makes a few pennies off a sold electronic copy.  Luckily, he is well liked enough that he is usually healthily paid in advance.

Another element that irritates me about eReaders is that devices do not give off that warm, antique, humbling smell of a real book.   When I read, I love to smell the pages.  I also enjoy rubbing my fingers over the text to feel the words printed on the pages.  It makes the story feel alive.  I am truly holding another world in the palm of my hand.

A final “Con” to eBooks is seeing young kids reading their story books off an eReader.  Yes, the portability and colorful illustrations are wonderful, but children are going to be bombarded to electronic devices for the rest of their lives.  Why are we over exposing children to electronics at such a young age?  It’s bad enough that they get plopped in front of the TV or a video game.  Now we are taking a way a final touch of reality by giving them an “electronic book”?   I remember my childhood books best from the experience I have had while reading books:  Hiding under the covers and reading by flashlight, sitting in a tree house and trying to hold the pages down as they flutter in the breeze, coming home from a long beach trip and the pages from a beach read smells like the ocean.  Every time that book is cracked open, the wonderful memories flood in from a time when my eyes first graced the pages of Chapter 1.  An eReader cannot provide any of these nostalgic feelings and memories.

So in the end, I have a love-hate relationship with eBooks and eReaders.   I am filled with sadness and guilt because of what is being lost due to the technology, but I cannot help to enjoy the convenience.  In the end, I do not think I will ever truly turn to the electronic side.  Remember those 9 eBooks I bought this past month?  Well, I also happened to purchase and read 5 paperbacks… 

Please feel free to comment and discuss.  I would love to read your opinion.

©2012, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative – visit  Amanda Headlee — It is Always Darkest Before the Dawn for the original source of this content.