In today's post, I'm covering the obligatory scenes of the horror genre. If you want to scare (and satisfy) fans of the genre AND write a horror story that works, you need to nail these six key scenes in your novel.
I’m also going to show you how these key scenes 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 these movies, you’ll watch them after reading this post to help cement these key scenes in your mind.
But, before we get into what those six key scenes are, let’s go over some basics.
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.
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.
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 obligatory scenes of the horror genre?
Let’s take a look at our three case studies (warning–spoilers ahead):
This is the first attack by the monster or antagonist that sets off the whole story. The protagonist’s world (or the world) is thrown out of balance because evil’s on the loose.
Usually, there’s some kind of warning that would give a reasonable person some misgivings about moving forward. The protagonist registers this new information but chooses not to act on it. By ignoring the warning, the protagonist is (unknowingly) committing to the journey ahead.
In this scene, the reader (and sometimes the protagonist) starts to understand the true nature of the monster. The stakes are raised, and the clock starts ticking. The protagonist will either survive, or they won’t. Usually, this realization pushes the protagonist from a reactive state to a more proactive one. In other words, they go on the offense instead of constantly being on the defense.
The protagonist learns or realizes something that puts them on a direct path to a confrontation with the monster. In other words, the protagonist sets themselves up to be the final victim. The stakes are raised, again, and the time on the ticking clock is running out.
This is the core event of the horror story. The moment readers have been waiting for since page one. In this scene, the protagonist becomes the monster's final victim after a series of minor character “kill offs.” To survive, the protagonist has to unleash their special gift, talent, or skill. Usually, this key scene shows up in two different forms (the false ending convention).
At the end of the story, the reader or viewer should have a clear sense of whether the protagonist survives the monster or not. Does evil win or lose? Was the monster defeated? It's also typical to have a final moment that shows the reader or viewer that evil still lurks. In other words, there's evidence that the monster may return somewhere, somehow, in the future.
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 key moments.
These are the scenes that readers come to horror novels for.
Everyone wants to see the moment where the protagonist faces off with the monster, right? Can you imagine a horror novel without that scene?
(I bet you can't. If you have read a book that was missing that key scene, you probably stopped reading it somewhere in the first 50 pages.)
So, don't leave these key scenes out!
Find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways, and you'll gain fans for life. Many great horror stories scare us because they include these key scenes in an innovative way. You can do this, too!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing a horror novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver the obligatory scenes of the genre?
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