Seven Elements of Horror

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Make it dark, make it murky

Whether you want to set your book in the horror genre, or just bring in a few scary scenes to tweak the reader’s thrill strings, here are some tips to help you .

  1. The Fantastic Factor

Start with the normal and make it fantastic. Make it horrifying. Shatter your character’s world by bringing in something outside their everyday experience. Something life-threatening (survival horror), a ghost or demon (supernatural horror), a serial killer (splatter punk) or something deadly to everyone (apocalyptic horror). With your character outside their comfort zone, their purpose becomes not only survival, but getting things back to (a new) normal.

  1. The Un-factor

When darkness falls, or the virus is spreading, or the predator reveals supernatural powers, the dread begins. This is the Un-Factor. The Unseen, The Unknown, The Unstoppable, The Unnatural, The Undead. No one can be ready for what they can’t see, or have a strategy when they don’t know what they’re up against. No one can defeat the unstoppable, fight the unnatural or kill the undead. Yet your characters must. Somehow.

  1. The Lethal Factor

There has to be death. Depending on the type of horror, there might be mass deaths, or a only a few, but deaths there must be. Make those deaths significant to the main character(s), and the reader will be rooting for them. Make the death threaten the main character and it will be all the more terrifying. The more you can get your reader to identify with the central characters, the more they will feel the sense of dread as the death-toll rises.

  1. The Story Factor

So many horror novels fail because the writer is more interested in developing the horror/monster/threat than creating a story to fit it in. You have to have more than a great idea – that won’t sell, even to the most forgiving reader. However brilliant your idea, your story has to be believable. This means, first, it should be rooted in normality. Disrupting the normal is how it starts, but it must be about more than that. What is at stake? Your character has to want to save the day, or yearn for a return to what they’ve lost. If not, they’ll have no motive to confront the horror face-to-face, at risk of their life. The final conflict should return the situation back to normal – or at least a new version of normal – and that might involve accepting the horror and getting on with life anyway.

5 The Primal Factor

Fear of death, fear of the dark, fear of drowning, being buried alive, pain, the unknown. When we experience such primal, instinctive fears – that which lurks behind our reasoning, logical brain – we can rarely control it. If a book focuses on a fear we can’t control, it will scare us. It’s bound to. Tap into this dark space to generate truly chilling horror.

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Excuse me, Miss. Could you point the way to the bathroom?

6         The Idiot Factor

Our characters must have a stupid streak. That’s why they will go down into the cellar with only a flashlight, or go into the woods without waiting for help, or go into a zombie-infested city to look for the lost girl. Their reasons might be understandable – they don’t know what’s waiting for them, they have no choice, they don’t believe the warnings. Our readers will know, of course, because we’ve told them – but the characters haven’t been told, so they act according to what they know and what they believe. Thus, they act stupid.

7         The Sombre Factor

Settings are important. Bring in the macabre, the sullen, the surreal. Make things dark, or murky, or turgid. Make the landscape desolate, the corridors grimy. The environment can be a character in and of itself. Use it. Make it present limitations, such as dark or fog, which obscures a character’s vision. Let it create mood, let it be unsettling. This will add to the overall sense of horror you’re trying to evoke.

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9 thoughts on “Seven Elements of Horror

  1. Pingback: Writing Horror Isn’t so Scary | Writers Anon - Taunton's Writing Group

  2. I have but one story in the horror style, but I think it has most of these… *ponders* It might be more of a thriller, actually. I always assumed the difference was that thrillers are generally not outright terrifying. ^-^ Is there a more distinct difference between a horror story and a thriller? Neither is really my genre for reading OR writing.

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    • Hmm, that’s an interesting question Jennifer L. What is the key difference between a thriller and a horror? I’m not an expert on either genre, especially as a reader. I enjoy both as films. I suppose horror is more visceral. Something or someone always dies in horror and we get a good pay-off. There’s always a reveal. A thriller is about suspense, but doesn’t have to have a death, just a threat, which may or may not be a threat of death of some sort (social, political etc).

      Thanks for that.

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    • The difference between horror and thriller stories, to my mind, is that horror (usually) involves something supernatural. Be it a super-intelligent rat, or a demon, or even a super-clever serial killer, there will be a tinge of the paranormal to make things that much more horrifying.

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