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The Horror Skeleton

Last week, we explored horror subgenres. This week, we dissect the story skeleton.

No story makes your skin crawl more than the horror story. It takes suspense to a higher, usually more explicit, level and generally contains more graphic material than the Thriller.

The overall story problem in this genre is a mortal threat to an individual or group. There can be a mystery at the heart of it, but it is separate from the mystery genre.

The reader expects to be not only thrilled and anxious, but horrified and you need to start from page one. You can start slow and build on the horror, but true fans won’t appreciate a slow, horror-free build-up to a final horrible truth.

The point of the Horror story is to make the readers squirm, scream, and confront their fears either individually or as a group. The fears can be everyday things such as fear of being alone, the dead, the unknown, or the dark. The horror genre magnifies our fears so we can examine them safely.

There must a sense of being trapped in a room, a house, a town, or on a planet you can’t escape and therefore must turn and face the threat. 
It’s scariest if the reader doesn’t know where the threat is hiding or where it will strike next. Tension rises when the reader thinks, “There’s something in the dark, I can’t see it, how can I protect myself from it?” Horror threats prey on our elemental fear of being alone and defenseless.

Horror sometimes follows the “who will die next” plot, knocking off secondary or tertiary characters. I am turned off by mindless body count plots, but they are certainly utilized.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that tension deflates after the "bang." I would add tension deflates after the "Boo." A good horror story throttles between "gotcha" moments, keeping a firm foot on the plot gas pedal.

The reader asks: What brought the danger near and how will they get away from it?

External Conflict scenes follow the effects of the evil on the entire cast or story world. The intent of these scenes is to scare the pants off of your readers. You have to confine them and torture them. Tension is created when the threat is something suspected but just out of sight. The menace has to be believable and constitute a mortal threat to one, some, or all. Panic rises. Suspicion shifts. Reality blurs.

In these scenes, the protagonist and/or victims are chased down a dark corridor, find the journal with the ghost’s picture, or search the library for who used to own the creepy house. They get locked in the cellar by the demon as the house goes up in flames.

In the final external scenes, the threat is removed, unless it is banished to return in the sequel.

Antagonist Conflict scenes depend on what kind of antagonist you have chosen. There can be a person or an entity that embodies the horror.  Antagonists include the abnormal and paranormal: ghosts, zombies, vampires, serial murderers, killer sharks, giant spiders, viruses, vampires, werewolves, or clowns. The antagonist must be nearly impossible to beat and to fail means death.

A dire threat like a virus is better if there is someone who wants the virus to run its course. I am reminded of a film that I saw called The Happening. Even though it was directed by one of my favorites, M. Night Shyamalan, the antagonist was a breeze that killed people and wasn’t really menacing enough. There were no clear stakes in the game either. The horror was caused by spores from trees carried on the wind. The deaths were random. Random targets aren't as effective as intentional targets the audience cares about.

In these scenes, the evil and the protagonist face off with each other. The protagonist comes into contact with the ghost and asks the ghost why it is haunting the house. The evil entity attempts to kill but misses the hero.

The object of horror’s motivation is rarely examined. You see the vampire creeping toward the sleeping girl because you know vampires suck blood. The sea monster slithers down a city street from the manhole and eats people, because that is what monsters do. The serial killer kills because he must. We rarely follow the swamp monster as he goes about his swampy day. That’s not to say you can’t. If the antagonist is a person or represented by a person, you can follow their POV in these scenes and explore their agenda.

If you don't follow the antagonist's POV, these scenes show near misses with the antagonist or the results of his machinations between external conflict scenes. These are complications caused by the antagonist.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes are where the protagonist consults a priest about banishing the demon. The hero finds someone to let him into the witch’s castle. He learns from the librarian that all ghosts have unfinished business. His buddy tells him he is crazy for believing in ghosts in the first place. People encourage him to stay and fight and some beg him to flee. Some people act for him, others against him. If secondary characters have subplots, they fit here.

This is usually where they learn the monster’s Achilles' heel.

Internal Conflict scenes are where the protagonist debates his belief in ghosts or wrestles with his depression over the death of his mother. The scientist wonders if he should finally ask his co-researcher out for a date. He struggles with whatever force is driving him to kill the monster or prove that aliens are out there. 

These scenes are sometimes missing in the horror story, unless it is psychological horror. Personal stakes and character change enrich any story.

Next week, we will take a look at Literary subgenres.

Check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Horror Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

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