Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 08-04-2003, 12:09 AM
Ranchoth is offline
Join Date: Jul 1999
Location: The Brink
Posts: 11,399

Keys to a successful horror story?

Maybe this better belongs in "Cafe Society," or even "Great Debates" And heck, I even considered writing the question as "...a successful horror story/movie." But I'd like to ask...well, just what the title says.

I mean, as an aspiring writer, I know the basic tenets of "if the audience has a good time reading or watching the story, you've done something right." And "if the audience starts screaming the equivalent of 'She's in the attic!', you've screwed up." But...are there any particular "guidelines" to the genre of Horror that are useful to know?

Or, at least, are there any common cliches that I should try and avoid?

Well, thanks for your time,

Old 08-04-2003, 12:14 AM
Violet is offline
Join Date: Oct 2001
Location: USA
Posts: 3,231

Re: Keys to a successful horror story?

As a consumer, I like surprise endings.
Old 08-04-2003, 12:32 AM
Doomtrain is offline
Join Date: Mar 2003
Location: "Oh, Sir Walter, Really!"
Posts: 6,497
Monster rules: Either don't let us SEE the monster, so our imagination draws something very scary in, or let us see it, but have it be really cool and scary.

Read Stephen King's On Writing and Danse Macabre. There's also a book edited by Castle called "Writing Horror" that is very good.

Read the classics. Frankenstein. Dracula. Etc. And read lots and lots, not just horror, but everything.

Gore, used in moderation, can be scary. Splatterfests usually aren't.

Know the rules before you decide to break them.

Like a good restaurant, great atmosphere can make up for a lot.

Good luck in a very hard genre.
"Sir, we'd like permission to search your pie."--Captain Stottlemeyer, Monk
Playing City of Heroes? Find the Dopers you know and love here. In one of life's great ironies, we play on Virtue.
GMRyujin is now known as Doomtrain. Now with 30% more doom. Doom! DOOM!
Old 08-04-2003, 01:43 AM
elfkin477 is offline
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: NH
Posts: 22,805
Originally posted by GMRyujin
Like a good restaurant, great atmosphere can make up for a lot.
This, think is a biggie. While I tend not to find horror novels scary (and I giggle a people who avoid SK because they think the stories will be "too scary." Please.) I love creepy books. A tense creepy atmosphere is worth a lot more than a high body count. Anything that leaves your pulse racing while thinking "this doesn't feel right/good" or better yet " Oh no, what's going to happen next" has hit its mark.

Another thing is a lot of horror novelists seem to shy away from sprinkling in a few comic scenes. This is a bad thing, because face it, characters are human(or a facsimile thereof), and they're going to find certain things funny- at least until they're too scared to think. True, too many comic moments might shift the focus of the story, but passing up those two or three great opportunities might make a story seem sterile.

Cliches to avoid? Let's start with a-crisis-forced-strangers-together-and-they-both-survive-to-live-happily-ever-after-together-in-love. Maybe that's how things really would happen sometimes to people in those situations, but must most horror novels end that way? No one ever gives the guy/gal a hardy handshake and wishes them well
Old 08-04-2003, 02:07 AM
guitarmax_99 is offline
Join Date: Mar 2000
Location: MA, USA
Posts: 100
Check out Orson Scott Card's Introductory Essay to The Hanged Man. His descriptions of the three types of fear (dread, terror and horror) is excellent. He also touches on the necessity of strong character development in order to engender reader involvement (and ultimately sympathy) for the characters in the story. A short, yet enlightening essay overall that I think you'll find quite helpful.
Old 08-05-2003, 08:35 PM
picunurse is offline
Join Date: Mar 2003
Location: Seattle
Posts: 11,625
Pick up "On Writing" By Stephen King.
Old 08-06-2003, 05:27 AM
DougC is offline
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: IL, USA
Posts: 5,209
- - - I have no aspirations of writing, but I tend to think that the best horror lies in the familiar. Jason, Freddie and all the rest of that pretend crap is for twelve-year olds; these are not the things that keep adults from sleep. It isn't necessary to invent monsters, there are enough of them walking the planet right now already.
Old 08-06-2003, 09:44 AM
NinjaChick is offline
Join Date: Jan 2003
Location: N/A
Posts: 5,368
Absolute most important thing (to quote my freshman english teacher), is read. Everything. Don't limit yourself to the genre you want to write, read everything you can. Science fiction, fantasy, historical, non-fiction, poetry, essays, newspapers, magazines: the more you expose yourself to, the easier it is to pick up bits and pieces of various styles, to create your own. You see what works and what doesn't work.

As for horror: Don't try and make it scary, per se. Make it really, really, really suspenseful. The part that scares people shouldn't be the fact that the bad guy is undead/19 feet tall/an alien/etc, it should be that the good guys don't know what's going to happen. I'd recommend Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (originally published as Ten Little Indians) as an example of really, really good suspense.

Also - it's all about characterization. Make your good guy realistic, and that means give him flaws. No one is perfect, I think it makes a story a lot better if the good guy does need to fumble for his gun, or trips while running, blows the big romantic scene, etc.

Have fun, too. Writing is fun.
Old 08-06-2003, 10:38 AM
Knowed Out's Avatar
Knowed Out is offline
Join Date: Nov 2001
Location: North Kakkalakee
Posts: 14,976
Alfred Hitchcock made his movies with the primary intention of making his audiences jump. When he was filming Psycho, he thought about what he could put in the movie that would scare as many people as possible, regardless of their race, culture, etc. He finally narrowed it down to the one thing he was profoundly afraid of himself...the police.

That's why he had that one short scene of the policeman staring at Janet Leigh's character with his black sunglasses as he was asking her why she was asleep in her car. The menacing look of authority, just waiting to pounce on you for doing something wrong.

One thing I've noticed is the profound difference between American and British horror. American horror is more sensational, whereas British horror is just quaint and springs the thing that makes you really uncomfortable, possibly for the rest of your life.

For instance, American horror has a woman walking down an alleyway, then the audience sees the shadow behind her, stalking her. She starts to hear an extra set of steps, quickens her pace, runs around the corner, looks back, sees nothing, turns around, and the killer has somehow gotten in FRONT of her and starts stabbing away. Blood flies everywhere, and in the final scene, we see her lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood as the anonymous killer runs away.

In British horror, we see common life as the eccentric old lady of the tenement walks her lap dog every day and annoys the nieghbors occasionally with her harping. This goes on for weeks, until the neighbors notice she didn't walk her dog today, and breathe a sigh of relief. Then a week goes by. She still hasn't been out. She hasn't told anybody she was going anywhere, and the formerly annoyed neighbors are now starting to worry.

They get together, knock on her door, hear no answer, but do hear her dog yapping. They finally decide to break open her door. They come in, calling her name, but still no answer. Finally one of the neighbors enters her bedroom. He finds the old woman on her bed. Apparently she died in her sleep, but there's bloody patches of red around her eyes. The neighbor takes a closer look and sees that her eyes have been eaten out of their sockets! After the woman died, there was no one around to feed the dog, so the dog got so hungry, he ate her eyeballs.

stuff like that.
Old 08-06-2003, 10:56 AM
Janx is offline
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Posts: 786
You have to make sure my mother in law is involved.
Old 08-08-2003, 07:21 AM
elfkin477 is offline
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: NH
Posts: 22,805
Knowed Out I don't know that I would make such a black and white delineation between the two cultures. Your "British" example? They didn't show the gore, but that's what happened to a little old lady with a dog in a subplot to an X-Files episode. ("Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose") Some writers are simply more subtle than others, no matter which side of the pond they're from.
Old 08-08-2003, 09:57 AM
gonzoron is offline
Join Date: Aug 2000
Location: New Jersey
Posts: 3,244
I'm not a horror writer exactly, but I do run a horror based Dungeons and Dragons game. (set in D&D's horror-based world, Ravenloft.) I'm fairly certain that the skills overlap, since part of writing a good D&D adventure is writing a good backstory.

In the original Ravenloft set, there was a section entitled "Techniques of Terror" that I found very useful in learning how to set the mood. I haven't looked at them in a while, but I imaging these tips would be useful for fiction writing as well.

Since the set is now out of print, and this section hasn't be reprinted in the later editions, it's available on the web:

The best advice I can give, based on Ravenloft experience, and as a consumer of horror movies/books is:
1) Make the characters real, not faceless victims.
2) That goes double for the "Villian." Meglomanical "bwahaha" evil is boring. Evil should have motivation, and perhaps some pathos, even if the villian is beyond redemption.
3) details make the story come alive, and make it feel real.
4) Gore alone is not scary. (unless it's Tipper)


Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 12:21 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2019, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to:

Send comments about this website to:

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Copyright 2019 STM Reader, LLC.

Copyright © 2017