The Basics In Writing Your First Horror Story
And Why The Basics Of General Writing Can Be The Kiss Of Death To A Horror Story
3 Tips On How To Plot Out Your Next Horror Book
When it comes to writing a short story, novella, or a full-fledged book series, there is usually a story structure you follow to make sure you hit the proper highs and lows your reader deserves. In this article, we’re going to discuss how, in order to write horror, you need to quite literally flip everything you know about plot development.
All Your ‘W’s Need To Become ‘M’s
Speaking of flipping everything upside-down, here’s a great place to start. In most cases, the art of storytelling follows a simple ‘W’ structure. This references the ‘highs and lows’ of a journey your hero takes. From High Fantasy to an 80’s inspired romance, starting on a high note, followed by a ‘world-changing’ negative effect that sets the story in motion all follows the same design. That is, except for horror. That’s right, the genre you chose to submerge yourself in requires you to reverse every rule you were taught. And simply put, this means you need to flip your ‘W’ layout into an ‘M’ layout.
A more detailed way to say this is that there needs to be more low points than high points to be considered horror. Have only two or three genuine moments where you fill your reader with hope, only to yank the rug out from under them, as well as the hero. Did they find a gun while the murderer is stalking them? Yes. But oh no, there’s no bullets! See how bitter such an ending could be in a ‘high-low’ structure? The best way to see this storyboard laid out is by watching anything created by Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a reason he’s known as ‘The Master of Suspense.’ The way he toys with hope, constantly at a give and take with you could give anyone an anxiety attack.
One of the best examples of a suspenseful give-and-take by Alfred Hitchcock is in his episodal series. The episode is called ‘Revenge.’ It is about a woman who’s home is burglarized while she is home, The situation was so horrific, she was found unconscious by her husband, returning from work. After the event, her husband plans a vacation to ease his wife’s troubled mind. During their departure, his wife claims to have seen the man who burglarized their home, on the street. Fueled by rage, the husband pulls over, stalks this man, then kills him. He returns to the car, promising his wife the man will never bother them again. They then continue their car trip to the sunny beach. Things appear well until the wife falls into another anxiety attack. When her husband asks what’s wrong, the woman claims to have seen the man who burglarized their home…again. It is in this moment, the husband realizes he never killed the actual burglar, and that his wife had actually gone insane, seeing the robber everywhere she went.
The stress, relief, and stress again is the perfect way to observe how Alfred can get you invested in a story, and the characters, only to make you squirm in agony as you continue to enjoy traveling through the suspenseful tale. Use his films and series as tools to help show you how to balance building/easing anxiety while story building.
In The End, It’s All About Dread
I know that sounds bleak, but we are discussing a writing genre called Horror, so yeah, not really expecting happy endings are you? That being said, you can always leave your story on a cliff -hanger if you really feel you owe the reader a chance your characters were saved. But ultimately, we need to leave your readers with dread. Leave them dazed, when they finish your story.
If you want to write horror, but wish there wouldn’t need things to end in such bleakness, remember that a lot of people come to horror for the psychological aspect of this genre, so feel free to play with your reader's mind to help them think about the scenario your characters have been placed in. Win, lose, or draw, making your reader think could help turn a bleak ending into an understanding one. Remember The Road? Not a great ending, but one that’s more than understanding (that is, if you’re rooting for the boy to live).
It’s very typical for stories to reflect the times it is being written in, even if it is a historical fiction, horror is no different. As I’ve mentioned above, this often leads to monsters and other scary aspects of horror to stand as representations of the real world we all deal with and the genuine fears we think of, but never talk about.
I’m often a big fan of shock value; getting people to believe they know how the future of the story will unfold, then take the ending to a darker place than your reader ever expected! This level of nerve-rattling storytelling often causes people to walk away from my short stories, to remain quiet and alone for a time. By this point, I’m sure you’ve read my story Valhalla’s Wulver, also here on Medium which is my attempt at the ‘give and take’ with hope its ending also represents the sensation of dread we’ve been discussing.
(**Warning Spoilers Alert** If you haven’t read it, I recommend you go do so now)
By constantly giving the raiders a new room to escape in upon their longboat, I am feeding a constant line of hope to you, the reader, keeping you in dreaded wonder until the end. But each new attack between the raiders and the monster needed to be fresh and exciting, which is where the delicate balance of not turning my monster into a one-trick pony came into play.
A Final Note
Remember that horror doesn’t need to be about scares around every corner, people get bored with that old hat trick. Consider simply building the anxiety of when will the person jump out. Many times in a horror, it isn’t about the reveal, it’s about setting up for the reveal. The emotional state of the protagonist (or next victim), where they are, or why they are being hunted, all set a level of anxiety within your reader, drawing them in deeper as they are surrounded by the darkness your world brings to them. Ultimately, if you’re not sure how to prolong a creepy scene in your story, ask yourself: what would scare you in this scene? Why? Who knows, you might just tap into a vein of fear that people come back for over and over again!