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No Bones About It: How to Write
Part IV: Horror Novel Checklist
by David Taylor
Like any literary form, the horror novel has its
conventionsones 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 fictionan opening that
hooks readers, exposition of characters and their
situation, complications, climax and
resolutionstill 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
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 triumphcourage, ingenuity,
imagination, a tool or piece of information previously
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 somedaypossibly 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
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.
© by David Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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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