Genre 101: Characteristics of A Horror Novel



When you think of horror, what comes to mind? Probably violence, gore, terror, and a group of people being chased by a masked man with a knife. But underneath the visual devices common in both novels and movies are the tips and tricks that masters of the genre employ to keep readers and viewers up at night hours after they're done experiencing the story. Today we'll be breaking down the Horror genre and going in-depth to find out exactly what makes horror...well, horrifying.


What is the Horror Genre?


Horror is used to define a literary genre that is designed to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. It is a piece of work that produces feelings of repulsion or loathing through the use of an eerie or frightening atmosphere. It can contain elements of the supernatural, but doesn't have to. This type explores the broad base of "fears" within a society and often acts as a "what if" metaphor for those fears. It allows us to experience the darker side of the unknown and experience the consequences from the safety of our couch.


What are the subgenre types?



For an in-depth explanation of each of these subgenres, see my article Genre 101: The Complete List of Genres and Subgenres for Fiction Writing Part 1. There you will learn what makes each of these subgenres differ from each other and see examples.


Where did Horror Get It's Start?


Horror has been popular since the dawn of civilization. Believe it or not, it actually originated in Ancient Rome and Greece with roots in folklore and religious traditions. In those days stories were taken at face-value as truth, and the horror stories of those days contained themes of death, demons, evil spirits, and the afterlife. Stories featuring demons, witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts were common. Famous examples from this era include the story of Hippolytus and the plays based off this story written by Euripides, Plutarch's Parallel Lives, and Pliny the Younger's story of Athenodorus Cananites.


European horror stories were influenced by those of these ancient civilizations, and horror as a genre gained momentum within the eighteenth century with the creation of the gothic novel, a genre of horror that focuses primarily on death. An excellent example of a horror writer of this time is Edgar Allan Poe. Horror further developed in the nineteenth century with works focused on the occult such as the Brothers Grimm's Hansel and Gretel (1812), Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). In the twentieth century we started seeing stories about serial murderers such as the infamous Jack the Ripper.


Today, modern horror hosts a wide variety of scare tactics. New elements and contemporary themes such as psychological horror, body horror, gore, and slasher stories help inspire horror writers and enthusiasts everywhere. It has also opened the door to horror mixing with other genres such as fantasy to create new subgenres like paranormal horror. One must only look to horror god Stephen King for the perfect example of what modern horror looks like.


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What are the elements/characteristics that define the horror genre?


Below is a list of the common elements and characteristics of the horror genre:



What are some tips for writing a horror novel?


1) Use your experience


Pull from your own experiences and from real life. You can do this in several ways. Think back to your childhood and find what used to scare you, take your current phobias and explore them, draw inspiration from a real world or historical event, or take something you love and give it a creepy makeover.


2) Brainstorm the title first


Typically stories are crafted before titles, but try the opposite. With horror stories, so much of what the story is about is referenced in the title. It can help you find what the purpose of your story is if you brainstorm this before anything else.


3) Write the ending first


Another way to generate ideas is to plan your ending first. If you know what your end goal is, it's easier to work backwards to figure out what happened that led your characters there. This is particularly true for this genre, as typically you know that certain characters need to die, leaving a sole survivor (s) to be irreparably changed.


4) Hook the reader immediately


You want to grip a reader's attention from the first sentence. Start with a shocking first chapter to set the tone and quickly introduce the who, what, when, and where of the story. Keep in mind that horror novels are typically fast-paced and build momentum quickly, so write accordingly.


5) Use cliffhangers


Try to end your chapters with cliffhangers. The goal is to keep your readers asking questions, so every time you wrap up or answer a question, another one should be introduced. This will compel readers to keep reading till the end of the book. Make sure not to use one at the end of the story though. Give your readers a well-rounded, satisfying payoff.


6) Add plot twists


Use unexpected plot twists to keep things exciting. The last thing anyone wants to read is a horror story that is predictable or boring. Keep things interesting by throwing in plot twists whenever you can. Think of what your readers won't expect in that moment and use one of those ideas instead of the predictable outcome.


7) Plant a false lead/red herring


Another way to keep readers guessing is by tossing in a false lead or red herring. This means you're sprinkling bread crumbs in the hopes of fooling or leading your readers to draw conclusions that are not correct. It must be done subtly. You want readers to draw their own conclusions, but have it be the wrong assumption.


8) Look to the experts


There's no better way to learn then by referring back to the experts in the genre. These can be famous authors, or authors you personally admire, or movies/TV shows. Study the way they use the elements and characteristics of horror. Pay attention to things like transitions, plot twists, cliffhangers, and identify what elements help build anticipation and suspense. Now apply them to your own writing.


9) Draw inspiration from craft books


Last but not least, utilize your resources. Craft books are an excellent way to pick up tips and improve your writing overall. Here are some great ones for horror writing:


Writing Dark Stories

Writing Scary Scenes: Professional Techniques for Thrillers, Horror and Other Exciting Fiction

Horror Writing Prompts

The Scream Writer's Handbook

Writing The Paranormal Novel

1001 Horror Writing Prompts

The Horror Writer: A Study of Craft and Identity in the Horror Genre


Each of these books has something great to offer whether it's advice, tips, inspiration, or ways to help you get started. Click the links to get your copy today!


What are some examples within the Horror genre?


Below is a list of excellent resources to help you along your horror writing journey:


Frankenstein (1823)

Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

The Woman In Black (1983)

Dracula (1897)

Psycho (1959)

The Exorcist (1971)

The Shining (1977)

The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011)

Goosebumps (1992–1997)


The Horror genre features all the unsettling truths we try to hide, the fears we have within our societies, and everything that goes "bump" in the middle of the night. Unique because it allows us to safely explore our fears, readers of this genre are looking for the adrenaline and excitement reading it brings. Knowing how best to deliver this type of thrilling delight will ensure your place on bookshelves everywhere as a ghoulish writer.


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