A good horror story is subjective. According to Goodreads, horror is “fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience.”
If your story’s not scary, is it still horror? People label Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles as horror. It’s a great series but I didn’t find the books scary. I had a similar thought about Dracula. It’s an amazing story but I didn’t find it scary. Carpathia is another good vampire book. What makes some vampire books horror and others paranormal?
I read the above books well after I started inhaling all things horror. By then, it took a lot to scare me. All those books have fairly unsettling scenes.
I listen to one horror story podcast that described someone taking out their eye with a spoon. I’ve sat through Saw movies without flinching but cringed my way through that scene. What made that story so unsettling? The later Saw movies relied too heavily on gore instead of the story to scare readers. Gore is not scary.
The best way to learn how to infuse your story with fear and dread is to read/listen to good horror stories. Poe is great at creepy atmospheric descriptions. M.S. Found in a Bottle is one of my favorites. Junji Ito’s manga has the kind of imagery that’ll keep you up at night. Bently Little is another master at disturbing imagery. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is thoroughly unsettling. So are a lot of the stories read on the NoSleep podcast.
Horror stories have a tendency to put all the work into the scares while making the characters as flat as possible. Readers don’t care what happens to them. We don’t get to know them. Having a terrifying concept will fall flat if your characters are one-dimensional.
When the all white cast runs into trouble, they consult the only minority in the story. That person’s usually a housekeeper, janitor or some kind of occult expert. Their only purpose is to help the white people. They either die afterward or disappear. Sound familiar? Don’t do that. Diverse doesn’t mean throwing in one token and calling it a day.
Many classic horror tales front-load the story with a lot of exposition. It’s pretty boring but I put up with it because the story gets good farther in. You won’t get away with that now. People have shorter attention spans. I usually open the story with a creepy scene or get to the scares as quickly as possible. Study books, movies, podcasts and even manga to get a handle on good pacing.
An Interesting and Coherent Plot
The Nun had some good scares but the plot wasn’t great. It seemed the writers were more focused on the horror and less on creating a story that made sense. The Women in Black 2 had a similar issue. The story appeared okay on the surface but it broke apart when you examined it too closely.
For shorter stories, you can get away with flat characters if the plot is tight. But, I’d suggest not doing that.
Can you have a good horror story with a monster or villain that’s evil for the sake of it? The ghost is terrorizing people just because. Maybe. But, at least for me, in order to write the scares, I need to know the villain’s motive. Why is the town or house haunted? Maybe it’s never mentioned in the story. But you, at least, should know it.
In Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, I don’t know if they explained why the town was haunted by spirals. Maybe they did and I don’t remember it. But for that story, I didn’t need to know why. The story had relatable characters, some unsettling visuals, and an amazing plot.
What do you think makes a good horror story?