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No Bones About It: How to Write Today's Horror
Part IV: Horror Novel Checklist

by David Taylor


Like any literary form, the horror novel has its conventions—ones which the apprentice learns, the professional masters and the greats soar beyond as they shatter the boundaries of genre, whether it be Elizabethan revenge tragedy (Hamlet), pact-with-the devil tales (Faust), or the end-of-days novel (The Stand).

At Moravian College, as part of a workshop in writing the horror novel, we analyzed 30 mass market paperbacks from among the latest releases. Not surprisingly, we found that the basic elements of fiction—an opening that hooks readers, exposition of characters and their situation, complications, climax and resolution—still provided the underlying structure of horror novels, but these elements had been altered to fit the special conventions of a literature of fear and the bizarre. Here's the checklist we devised for writing our horror novels:

The Grabber. Have you opened with a prologue or short chapter which provides a brief but tantalizing (and usually violent) glimpse of the secret horror which will propel the story forward?

Backfill. Within chapters 1-5, have you introduced the main characters and their problems, then isolated them in one locale (a town, resort, swamp, etc.) along with the horror?

Turn Up the Heat. Do your middle chapters show increasingly weird/violent events which threaten the protagonists and force them to investigate and eventually confront the horror (usually ancient or occult) that has been triggered?

Flash Slash. If the pace slows, have you flashed to a violent scene to show the horror at its gruesome work?

Final Jeopardy. Does your final climax scene contain sufficient pay-off for the reader? When things have gotten as bad as they can get for the protags, with seemingly no way out, just as they are about to be overpowered by the superior horrific force, something enables them to triumph—courage, ingenuity, imagination, a tool or piece of information previously planted.

It Lives!  A short final chapter or epilogue shows the main characters at peace, resuming their normal lives but changed forever by their encounter with evil. But have you also hinted that the victory is a temporary one, and that the horror has merely gone back into hiding and could rise again someday—possibly in a sequel?

Other conventions to keep in mind:

Cupid Strikes refers to the romantic subplot in horror novels wherein the hero and heroine meet and join together (spiritually and physically) to fight the evil besetting them.

Bang for the Buck means that readers expect the horror novelist to offer well-researched information on a legend or myth, occult or psychic fore, exotic geographical location, sport, profession, etc.

Body Count and overall levels of violence vary greatly from publisher to publisher; be sure to analyze a particular house's recent releases before submitting. Doing so could save a great deal of postage, waiting and grief. More importantly, such study and preparation is the real "secret" to writing a horror novel.


Copyright by David Taylor. All Rights Reserved.


David Taylor's horror and dark suspense fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Masques, Pulphouse and Scare Care; and in magazines like Cemetery Dance, Sci-Fi Channel Magazine and Gorezone. His 1990 short story "Lessons in Wildlife" earned an honorable mention in that year's "Best Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy" awards. Author and coauthor of five horror novels, David's latest works are a collection of short stories, Hell is for Children, and a guide to nonfiction writing, The Freelance Success Book. Both are available at http://www.peakwriting.com

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