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The 6 Scenes Every Horror Novel Needs

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.

 

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.

Long story short, if you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work.

So, what are the obligatory scenes of the horror genre?

Let’s take a look at our three case studies (warning–spoilers ahead):

The Obligatory Scenes of Horror are: 

#1: The Monster Attacks Scene 

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. 

Case Studies:

  • In Halloween, Michael Myers escapes the asylum in Smith's Grove, steals Dr. Loomis' car, and returns home to a small town in Illinois.
  • In Alien, the crew of the Nostromos, receives a mysterious transmission. They decide to extend their trip to investigate possible intelligent alien life.
  • In The Shining, Jack gets a job at the Outlook Hotel. When he calls to tell his wife and son, Danny has disturbing visions that represent the first attack (by the haunted hotel) on the Torrance family. Also, Wendy tells the doctor about the first time Jack hurt Danny.

 

#2: The Protagonist Ignores the Warning Scene

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.

Case Studies:

  • In Halloween, Michael starts stalking Laurie Strode. He appears outside her classroom window at school, drives past her on the street, and watches her from behind bushes. When Laurie tries to warn her friends, Annie and Lynda, they dismiss her concerns, and she temporarily shakes it off.
  • In Alien, Ripley realizes the incoming transmission was not an S.O.S for help--it was a warning. She wants to call the search team back from investigating, but Ash stops her. 
  • In The Shining, Ullman says that the hotel was built on an Indian Burial ground. During the two years of construction, the workers had to deal with multiple attacks from the native people. That, coupled with Danny's visions, and what Ullman told Jack during the interview, are all warning signs. The Torrance family moves into the Overlook Hotel anyway.

 

#3. The True Nature of the Monster is Revealed Scene

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.

Case Studies:

  • In Halloween, Michael makes his first kill (Laurie's friend, Annie). He has officially gone from stalker to killer, and now the clock is ticking. It's only a matter of time before Laurie and the rest of the people she cares about are next.
  • In Alien, the matured baby alien bursts out of Kane’s chest and escapes somewhere into the ship. The clock is ticking. Ripley and crew shift from reactive to proactive by making a plan to catch and kill the baby alien.
  • In The Shining, Danny shows up with bruises on his face and neck. Wendy blames Jack, but a little bit later, Danny says that a woman in room 237 hurt him. It's the first time the hotel has physically hurt a member of the Torrance family. This starts the ticking clock. Wendy says that she wants the family to leave because Danny needs medical attention. Jack doesn't agree and says he wants to stay at the hotel. Both parties are being proactive about what they want, and the haunted hotel is being proactive with its attacks.

 

#4. The Protagonist Becomes the Victim Scene

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.

Case Studies:

  • In Halloween, Lynda makes a distressed call to Laurie after Michael murders her boyfriend, Bob. Laurie heads over to the Wallace's house to find the bodies of Annie, Lynda, and Bob. Michael attacks Laurie, but she escapes back to the Doyle's house. Michael follows.
  • In Alien, Ash reveals that the mission all along was to capture the alien and that the alien is unable to be killed. In other words, nobody cares if the crew dies, it's all about bringing the alien home.
  • In The Shining, Grady tells Jack that Danny is bringing in Dick Hallorann to help the family escape the Overlook Hotel. Grady suggests that Jack stop his family from interfering in the hotel's affairs by "correcting them." Grady tells Jack that Jack has “always been the caretaker” of the Overlook, and Grady knows as he’s always been here as well. Meanwhile, Wendy discovers reams of paper with the words, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," and realizes that Jack has lost his mind.

 

#5. The Protagonist at the Monster's Mercy Scene

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).

Case Studies:

  • In Halloween, Michael follows Laurie back to the Doyle's house where she manages to stab him in the neck with her knitting needle. He drops behind the couch, apparently dead (version 1). Laurie heads upstairs to take care of the kids, and Michael attacks again. Laurie stabs Michael in the eye with a coat hanger and plunges his own knife into his stomach (version 2). Thinking he's dead, Laurie slumps against the wall, but surprise... Michael's still not dead!
  • In Alien, Ripley is left to defend herself against the alien now that everyone else is dead. Ripley outruns the alien and gets to the escape pod before the Nostromo self-destructs (version 1). Once she escapes and realizes the alien is aboard the escape pod with her, she has to face it again (version 2). 
  • In The Shining, Jack confronts Wendy, and she hits him over the head with a baseball bat (version 1). She drags unconscious Jack into the food pantry and locks the door behind him. Jack tells Wendy that he sabotaged the CB radio and the snowcat, so there's no hope of survival. Wendy runs upstairs and helps Danny escape out of a bathroom window. Jack cuts down the bathroom door with an ax, and Wendy escapes by slashing Jack's hand with a knife (version 2). The hotel shows off all of its horrors to Wendy as she runs through the halls. Shortly after, Jack chases Danny through the hedge maze. 

 

#6. The Protagonist Escapes the Monster Scene

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.

Case Studies:

  • In Halloween, Dr. Loomis arrives just in time to shoot Michael and send him falling out the bedroom window. Laurie and the kids are safe (for now). Before heading downstairs, Dr. Loomis looks over the balcony to discover that Michael's body isn't there. In the final image, we see Michael limping back to his childhood home.
  • In Alien, Ripley defeats the alien on the escape pod. Before going into hibernation, she records her final report on the ships recording device. In the end, it's unclear what the aliens wanted or why they chose to attack the Nostromo. We also don't know how many more aliens are out there or what they might be planning.
  • In The Shining, you can look at the resolution in two ways. One, Wendy and Danny escape. Two, Jack freezes to death after losing Danny's trail in the 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 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?

 

Final Thoughts

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!

The Obligatory Scenes of the Horror Genre: The 6 Key Scenes Every Horror Novel Needs | Savannah Gilbo - Are you writing a horror novel? Looking for some horror writing tips? Learn how to write a horror novel (and which key scenes you need to include in your story) in this post! #amwriting #writingtips #writingcommunity

👉 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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