What Makes a Good Horror Story?

What Makes a Good Horror Story?


Let’s consider the vast catalog of dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales currently available. Now, add all of the works featuring zombies, vampires and other monsters – werewolves seem to be a perennial favorite. Top it all off with liberal splashes of gore, frightened screams and wide-eyed panic. 


And there, you have just a few elements that make up the horror genre.  


At its heart, horror intends to scare, shock or disgust its audience, but not so much that readers will turn away completely. The essential art of writing horror is creating enough of a visceral response to keep the reader hooked while reaching the outer limits of how far to go before you repel them entirely.

That’s what makes a horror story good. 


For a deeper understanding of the horror genre – as a reader or writer, here are a few points to consider. 


  1. Know Your Audience


Some horror fans go for graphic displays – lots of blood and gore and shrieking, while others prefer the slow burn of psychological terror and still others want nothing more than zombies duking it out. 


Some horror writers are skilled at incorporating disparate elements into a single tale; Stephen King is a prime example of such. He manages to blend evil with the supernatural and psychological to deliver tales that are only occasionally splashed with gore. 


On the whole, this level of intricate elements-weaving takes a lot of work and even the Master himself doesn’t hit the mark all the time. 


For your tale to go mainstream, it might be best to blend only a couple of elements; maybe the psychological with the apocalyptic or cannibalism and cults. 


And, if blood and gore – à la Saw is your thing, maybe something featuring serial killers and torture?


  1. Keep Reality Close


Think about the classic story that started the sci-fi/horror genre: Frankenstein. It’s remarkable in many ways, not the least being that it was written by an 18-year-old, essentially on a dare. 


What makes Frankenstein so compelling is not the electricity-induced awakening of a monster out of dead human flesh or its subsequent rampage but that there were elements of reality throughout. 


Frankenstein Castle is real. It was where, two centuries before Ms Shelley wrote her tale, an alchemist had conducted experiments. As she wrote, galvanism – trials with electricity were piquing the interest of occultists and scientists alike. 


All of these elements feature in Frankenstein, as do aspects of the Romantic movement, the era the tale was written in. 


For a horror story to be good, it should touch on reality. 


  1. Make it Personal


Another staple of the horror genre, The Raven, describes the unspeakable pain of lost love and the torture of being reminded of it evermore. Poe’s account of slipping into insanity is psychological horror disguised as classic poetry. 


Most everyone can relate to lost love and being taunted by thoughts of what could have been. Fortunately, we don’t generally have snarky ravens reminding us our hopes will never be fulfilled. Imagine if we did, though…


That’s the horror of The Raven. 


Human nature demands that we hope; that we continue and plod on and find the way out of our indescribable pain or untenable situation. Methodically eliminating every possible avenue of relief – the raven’s role, lays the ground for fertile imaginings.


What will your protagonist do when there’s nothing left to hope for? 


  1. Trusting The Readers


Writers paint pictures with words; much of their craft relies on trusting their readers to create their own visuals with the prompts the story provides. 


The fewer prompts provided, the more readers get to fill in the details. Beware, though, that if too few details are provided, readers might not get the whole picture the writer trying to paint for them. 


With this, as with everything else concerning good writing, striking a balance is the key. 


Some writers go for egregious and gratuitous displays of sex, blood and violence that, often, have little to do with the story itself. Such writers leave nothing to the imagination, loading sentences up with adjectives and adverbs and superlatives.        


Remember that horror is designed to shock the reader. 


Elaborate descriptions, wordy, run-on sentences and prolonging the scene beyond what’s necessary to move the story forward are all writing no-nos. The ‘BAM!’ writers look for lies in giving just as much information as is needed to create the right amount of effect before moving on. 


Writers must trust their readers to have the imagination to find that BAM! on their own. 


In Summary


Horror is a broad genre that covers everything from the supernatural to the mundane. In fact, it’s often the mundane that makes for the most fantastic horror. 


Take the story of Albert Fish. By all accounts, he was an ordinary man until the revelation that he liked to torture, kill and eat children. And then, he taunted his victims’ parents with graphic letters describing his acts. 


The case of Albert Fish is plenty gruesome; would adding shapeshifters make it better or trite? 


The best horror stories are grounded in reality; even popular zombie stories have a degree of reality to them. Consider today’s ever-more-virulent drugs that compel people to nothing more than shamble around, muttering nonsensically while looking for their next fix. 


Readers might not initially make such connections so writers have to draw parallels – but vaguely, trusting their readers to fill in the blanks.


Finally, writers have to understand the technical aspects of writing before their manuscript will see the light of day. We already mentioned run-on sentences; authors should also avoid overly-long paragraphs, poor punctuation and improper formatting. 


Making writing personal means creating an intimate environment, one wherein the reader feels like you are talking directly to them. Structuring a work like a long-winded monologue, with no well-timed chapter or paragraph breaks, won’t give your readers any buy-in. 


Readers shouldn’t fear getting lost in an unending parade of words. The horror is the story, not the way it’s written.  


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