The 10 Things Every Horror Novel Needs
In today's post, I'm covering the must-have conventions of the horror genre. If you want to satisfy fans of the genre and write a horror story that works, you need to include these things in your novel.
I’m also going to show you how these conventions manifest in three popular movies—Halloween, Alien, and The Shining.
Why movies? Why not books?
Well, the simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen any of these movies, you’ll watch them after reading this post to help cement these conventions in your mind.
But, before we get into what those conventions are, let’s go over some basics.
What makes a horror story?
Psychopaths, aliens, ghosts, creatures with glowing eyes, sharp teeth, and a dripping maw. The possibilities for creating a terrifying monster are literally endless.
But a terrifying monster does not a horror novel make...
The beating heart of the horror genre is the knowledge that bad things can happen to good people.
In horror novels, there’s usually an ordinary, everyday type of character who gets dragged into some kind of life or death situation. In order to escape with his or her life, they need to defeat the monster or evil force that's intent on death and destruction.
Generally speaking, the power gap between the monster and the protagonist is wide and deep. Because of that, the protagonist has to work extra hard to muster up the courage needed to confront the monster with everything they’ve got. Sometimes that means fighting to their very last breath, if necessary.
The main action of a horror story tends to take place in isolated or claustrophobic settings. It’s this tight focus, plus the life and death stakes, plus the scary monster, that creates nail-biting tension and evokes fear in the reader.
Beyond that, horror stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, adventure, mystery, or magic. They can include different subplots as long as the protagonist’s fight for survival remains the focus of the story.
Why do people read horror stories?
People read horror novels to feel the thrill and terror of being in a life and death situation without actually being in danger in real life.
They want to experience what it’s like to confront their nightmares, face their darkest fears, and defeat scary monsters from the comfort of home.
By picking up a horror novel, the reader is essentially saying, “Hi, here’s my money. I’m ready to be terrified so, do your worst!”
And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the emotional experience readers are looking for in order for your story to work. To deliver this emotional experience, you need to include the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in your novel.
What are obligatory scenes and conventions?
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what help to evoke emotional reactions in the reader. And, when coupled with your genre’s conventions, will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.
So, what are the must-have conventions of the horror genre? Let’s take a look at our three case studies (warning–spoilers ahead):
The Conventions of the Horror Genre are:
#1. A monster that can’t be reasoned with.
The first thing you’ll want to include in your horror story is a monster or an antagonist that can’t be reasoned with. So, in other words, they function and are driven by motivations outside the realm of normal human behavior. They can’t be reasoned with as a “normal” human being would. The monster in your story can be a psychopath, something or someone possessed by an evil spirit, or just a misunderstood creature who’s trying to survive.
- In Halloween, Michael is described as the embodiment of evil with no reason, conscience, or understanding. He also hasn’t spoken a word in 15 years. Who knows what’s been brewing in his mind all that time?
- In Alien, Ash tells the crew that the alien is a perfect organism because it’s not clouded by conscience or delusions of morality. The crew doesn’t speak the alien’s language, so it literally can’t be reasoned with either.
- In The Shining, Jack can’t be reasoned with because he’s going crazy. The Overlook Hotel or the supernatural beings that inhabit the hotel can’t be reasoned with either.
#2. The monster is VERY strong or powerful.
The second convention of the horror genre is that the monster or antagonist is very strong or powerful. In other words, the power divide between your antagonist and protagonist is pretty large. And this power divide could be one of strength, intelligence, magical ability, or anything like that. The reason this is important is because we want readers to feel like it’s going to be nearly impossible for your protagonist to survive any kind of encounter with the monster or antagonist.
- In Halloween, Michael is not only creepy, but he also seems to possess superhuman strength. Even when he gets stabbed with a knife and a coat hanger, he pops right back up and keeps on going.
- In Alien, Ripley and crew are up against a giant alien whose blood is basically made of acid.
- In The Shining, the hotel is haunted and has the ability to drive a person crazy. When Jack falls off the deep end, he’s essentially driven by one goal--to kill his family. This gives him strength because nothing else matters.
#3. There’s some kind of sin or past mistake.
The third convention you’ll want to include in your story is some kind of sin or past mistake that the protagonist (or the world) is being punished for. Sometimes there’s one person who’s directly responsible for unleashing the monster or the antagonist on the world. Other times, there might be corruption in a small town, or past crimes repeating themselves. There could also be something like a parent's sin that's being visited on the children. More often than not, the retelling of this sin or mistake serves as the warning sign that the protagonist either willingly or unwillingly ignores thus putting them on a direct path toward the monster or antagonist.
- In Halloween, there are a few sins. First, Michael killed his sister when he was about six years old. Second, the asylum lets Michael escape and isn’t able to catch him. Third, Laurie’s friends have fun in the way of drinking, drugs, and premarital sex and are essentially punished for it.
- In Alien, Ash lies about the purpose of the mission and hides the truth from the rest of the crew. There’s also something to be said about the reason why the crew's coworkers back home want to capture and study the alien in the first place. Plus, the whole sacrificing the crew for the alien thing...
- In The Shining, Jack is a recovering alcoholic with anger management problems. During Jack’s interview, Ullman tells Jack about the old hotel caretaker who went crazy and murdered his wife and daughters. We also learn that the Overlook Hotel was built on an Indian burial ground.
#4. The setting feels claustrophobic.
The fourth convention you’ll want to include in your horror story is some kind of claustrophobic setting. The best settings for horror stories are isolated, confined, or claustrophobic areas that make the protagonist feel trapped and conceal the presence of the monster. This intensifies the pressure and makes it difficult for the protagonist to escape. More often than not, the settings in horror stories are pretty ordinary -- until, of course, they’re not.
- In Halloween, the story takes place in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. But more specifically, the story events unfold in homes throughout Laurie’s (and Michael’s) neighborhood.
- In Alien, most of the story takes place aboard the Nostromo spaceship. The crew is literally trapped in outer space with a rogue, murdering alien.
- In The Shining, the majority of the story takes place in the Overlook Hotel. The Torrance family can’t escape partially due to a giant snowstorm and partially because Jack sabotages all escape routes.
#5. Lives are at stake.
The fifth convention you’ll want to include in your story is that there needs to be multiple lives at stake. In other words, more than one life (including your protagonist’s life) depends on the protagonist defeating the monster or antagonist. Usually, there is a set of “kill off scenes” in which side characters die and, as a result, the protagonist is the only one left to face the monster or antagonist.
- In Halloween, a lot of people die. The mechanic, a few dogs, Laurie's friends and neighbors. Then, in the end, Laurie becomes the last in line to face Michael.
- In Alien, everyone on the crew dies and Ripley is left alone to fight the alien and journey back home.
- In The Shining, Jack and his family's lives are at stake throughout the whole movie. First, because of small attacks on Danny by the hotel. And then, because Jack decides that he wants to kill his wife and son. Ultimately, Jack loses his life when he freezes to death in the hedge maze, but Wendy and Danny survive.
#6. The monster stays hidden as long as possible.
The sixth convention you’ll want to include in your horror story is that the monster stays hidden as long as possible. So, in horror stories, we don’t always see the monster until the very end. Sometimes, all we get are flashes of part of the monster, or we experience random attacks at a distance or via technology or visions. However you want to do it, the goal is that this helps create suspense in the reader and/or your characters because they’re never really sure when the monster will attack or be fully revealed.
- In Halloween, Michael is usually seen for a few seconds, from a distance, until the last half of the movie. We also get to experience Michael killing Lynda from a distance through the phone. When Lynda calls Laurie, Laurie can hear Lynda's dying breaths as Michael strangles her with the phone cord. The sounds are cut out and all Laurie can hear is Michael breathing into the phone.
- In Alien, the alien monster is not fully shown until the end of the movie. We get to experience the alien from a distance when Ripley watches it attacks Dallas and Lambert on the tracking screen. We also get to hear the alien attack Lambert and Parker over the radio.
- In The Shining, no matter which character we’re following in a scene, we never know what the hotel has up its sleeve. We get to see the hotel "attack" Jack from a distance when Jack is thrashing around having a nightmare about murdering Wendy and Danny. We also get to see the hotel's horrors via Danny's ability to see things in the past and future.
The next convention you’ll want to include in your horror story is at least one shapeshifter. Shapeshifters are characters who say one thing and do another -- and usually, their behavior directly impacts the protagonist’s mission to defeat the monster or antagonist.
- In Halloween, Michael acts as the shapeshifter. Every now and then he disguises himself in order to get his victims. For example, when he poses as Bob in a ghost costume right before he kills Lynda.
- In Alien, Ash is the ultimate shapeshifter. The crew thinks he’s human (and on their side) until he reveals himself to be an android (and working against them).
- In The Shining, Jack acts as the primary shapeshifter changing from a mostly “normal” husband and father to a complete psychopath. You could also say the hotel is a bit of a shapeshifter too.
#8. A Ticking Clock
The next convention you’ll want to include in your horror story is some kind of ticking clock. So, this is some kind of deadline by which the protagonist has to figure out how to stop the monster or the antagonist. It’s essentially a kill or be killed situation for your protagonist.
- In Halloween, the ticking clock starts when Laurie realizes someone is murdering her friends and wants to kill her, too.
- In Alien, the ticking clock starts when the baby alien escapes and runs off somewhere in the Nostromo. It’s only a matter of time until this alien is bigger, more powerful, and after the rest of the crew.
- In The Shining, the ticking clock starts when Jack realizes that Wendy and Danny want to leave the Overlook hotel. For Wendy, the ticking clock begins when she realizes someone (maybe Jack, maybe some mysterious force) is hurting her son, Danny.
#9. A speech in praise of the monster.
The next convention you’ll want to include in your horror story is some kind of speech in praise of the monster. So, there’s always a moment in horror stories where one or two characters talk about how strong, smart, and powerful the monster or antagonist is. This is what I mean by a speech in praise of the monster, but this speech could be shown through a conversation or through letters or newspaper articles, or even broadcast on TV. Sometimes it’s even just as simple as the protagonist piecing together bits of information that give him or her a real look at just how powerful the monster or antagonist really is.
- In Halloween, Dr. Loomis says that Michael isn't a mere man, but the embodiment of evil. He says that when he met Michael 15 years ago, "there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding of even the most rudimentary sense of life and death, good and evil, or right and wrong." Dr. Loomis says that Michael had a "blank, pale, emotionless face," and, "the blackest of eyes. The devils' eyes." He realized that "what was living behind that boy’s eyes was pure and simply evil."
- In Alien, the crew examines the alien and discovers that its “blood” is like acid and can eat through the hull of the ship. Ash tells Ripley that this alien is the "perfect organism." And that "its structural perfection is only matched by its hostility; it’s not clouded by conscience or delusions of morality."
- In The Shining, Ullman tells Jack about the previous caretaker, Grady, who murdered his wife and two little girls. He says that at some point during the winter, Grady suffered a "complete mental breakdown" and killed his family with an ax. He hacked them to bits and "stacked em neatly in one of the rooms in the West Wing" before shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. This is great because it shows the power of the hotel and what will happen to Jack if he can't resist the hotel's influence.
#10. A false ending
The last convention you’ll want to include in your horror story is some kind of false ending. So, in horror stories, there are usually two endings. First, there's an ending where it seems like the plot is about to wrap up. This is usually the first version of the "protagonist at the mercy of the monster" scene. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say the “protagonist at the mercy of the monster scene,” go listen to episode #17 where I talk about the key scenes of the horror genre. So, after that first ending, when everything seems to be done and over with, the monster or antagonist rebounds to challenge the protagonist one final time. This is the second version of the "protagonist at the mercy of the monster" scene. And, even then, there’s usually a sense that evil still lurks even though the story is officially over.
- In Halloween, Laurie stabs Michael in the neck with a knitting needle and he slumps behind the couch, appearing dead. She goes upstairs to check on the kids and Michal rebounds to challenge her a second time. This time, she stabs him with his own knife, and he falls to the floor again. He's still not dead, but Dr. Loomis saves the day by shooting Michael off the balcony. However, when Dr. Loomis looks over the balcony railing, Michael's body is gone.
- In Alien, Ripley escapes the Nostromo in an escape pod and starts to relax. Unfortunately, the alien is in the escape pod, too. Ripley outsmarts the alien and sends it through the window into outer space. It's not clear whether there are other aliens out there, waiting to attack Earth, or not.
- In The Shining, Wendy battles Jack a few times in the hotel (on the staircase and in the bathroom) before she and Danny escape. Jack freezes to death in the snow in the hedge maze. In the final scene, the camera zooms in on an old hotel photograph showing Jack standing amidst a crowd of party revelers from 1921. It seems that he was always the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. And if he's come back once, who knows how many more times he'll come back?
You're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But seriously, you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these conventions.
These roles, settings, and events are what readers come to horror novels for. Everyone wants to see a monster that can’t be reasoned with and feel fear as they turn the pages, right?
Can you imagine a horror novel without a monster that can't be reasoned with or without a ticking clock? Can you imagine a horror novel where nobody’s life is at stake or where it's not up to the protagonist to defeat the monster?
(I bet you can't. If you have read a book that was missing those conventions, you probably stopped reading it somewhere in the first 50 pages.)
So, make sure you include these conventions in your story!
Many great horror stories scare us precisely because they deliver these conventions in unexpected or surprising ways. If you can find a way to give the reader what they want, in your own unique way, you'll gain fans for life!
👉 Let’s discuss in the comments: Are you writing a horror novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver these conventions of the horror genre?