Let’s talk about what makes a good short horror story. Whether you want to write them or read them, this introduction should make you mindful of the key elements that make for a really well crafted short horror tale.
Of course, before I ever began writing short horror, I read a great many of them. All the greats and all the not-so-greats. And I began to notice certain elements that worked really well, as well as those that make a story flop.
The first element that makes a good short horror story really work is not provided by the author at all. It’s provided by the reader and it is what brings the eerie magic of a finely crafted short story to its full effect. It is imagination. I am not talking about a simple suspension of belief either. I am referring to the ability to put yourself into the story. It takes a very strong imagination to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist(s). I have, on numerous occasions, known of people reading a story that I thought was magnificent and they only found it so-so. Confused by this, I wondered how this could be. Typically, I have traced the problem to be a lack of imagination on their part.
One thing the reader can do to foster the right atmosphere and help fuel their imagination is to choose the appropriate time and place for reading the story. This isn’t necessary but the difference is amazing. Let’s face it, a story read in bed, alone, at night, while a rainstorm rattles the windows has a far different effect than the same story read while seated on a bench in the park, during broad daylight, while children are running around laughing and playing.
Now let’s talk about the elements that are under the control of the author. First and foremost the story has to have a good plot. The author doesn’t have to have every detail of the plot worked out in order to begin writing, but the meat of the plot needs to be worked out prior to beginning.
Ideas for plots can come from almost anywhere. The author needs to be careful that their plot is original. There are a couple of ways to ensure that your plot hasn’t already been used. One is to tell your idea to someone else. You’d be surprised at the “that reminds me of blah blah blah” and the “sounds like blah blah blah” that will be given as feedback. If you have a really good critic then they will help you make your plot even better. The second method of verifying you’re not using another author’s idea is to read – a lot!
Many of the plots to my stories are set in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. The reason is because I am familiar with the area and I want the descriptions of the settings to be convincing. This is not necessary, but I like to do it. The actual plot ideas come from many different sources. Many of them are based on real events that I embellish quite a bit. Others are born out “what if” scenarios that I come up with. And still others are truly scary situations that I have experienced or dreamed up. I figure that if it would scare me, then it would probably scare other people. Wherever the ideas come from, the thing to remember is that the plot had better contain tension, horror, and keep the reader in suspense.
The next element that is of key importance is atmosphere. The author has got to create the appropriate atmosphere as the story unfolds. Within the genre of short horror there are typical atmospheric motifs that are used frequently. The list of these is quite large, but some examples are: the unnamed horror, subservience to overwhelming powers, growing insanity, building hatred, fear of some supernatural force, helplessness in the face of fear, etc. No matter what type of atmosphere the author is trying to create and maintain, it will usually require a sense of escalating tension. That is what the short horror story is a perfect medium for. It is very difficult to maintain rising tension if the story is too long. It is not impossible, but it is usually easier to accomplish over a short span of pages.
Of course, when it comes down to it, word choice is the crucial method to achieving the appropriate atmosphere. This is the real art of writing and can’t be taught through some formula or shortcut. And that’s as it should be. The reason is because this is where the author’s individual style comes through. True creativity in writing is in the author’s choice of words to create an atmosphere in describing his or her plot. As a matter of fact, there are many plots that are similar but their difference lies in atmosphere and word choice.
Earlier I mentioned the length of the short horror story as being conducive to escalating tension. This brings us to the next element and a common question. How long should a short horror story be? The answer is that there is no rule. I have read some great stories no more than a couple of pages as well as great stories that in are jeopardy of being too long to be categorized as a short horror story. But, as a general rule of thumb, I believe that the author should shoot for a story that can be read in less than an hour.
Next, let’s talk about the opening of the story. It is a wise thing to use the first sentence or two to capture the reader’s attention. There are many ways to achieve this. The author can start the story in the middle of the story if he or she so chooses. Starting a story at a gripping part of the tale and then backfilling the reader on the events leading up to where the story first began is a good device to use. The author can also throw in a few hints about where the story will lead without giving the whole tale away. There are many ways to entice the reader, but if the opening of the story doesn’t capture the reader then there is always the chance that the reader will not even bother to read past the opening paragraph.
We should also consider the point of view from which the story is told. I like to incorporate various points of views in my stories. I feel like this keeps the story interesting. Including a found manuscript or a newspaper article are just a couple of ways to include a different point of view in a story. An author should also explore first person perspective and third person perspective to vary his or her stories. And finally, dialogue really brings a story to life. Dialogue is intimidating to many would-be authors. It is really not so difficult to write good dialogue as long as it reads like it is spoken. An author must write like people talk. People say things like “gotta” instead of “got to” and “goin’” instead of “going”. If a character has an accent then the author should strive to capture the accent in the dialogue. This will make the character more believable and bring them to life.
The final element I would like to discuss is a critically necessary element. If it is not present then the story is incomplete. Not only is the story incomplete, but it also flops miserably. I am referring to the twist at the end of the story. Where this tradition began is unknown but it is so necessary to master this element that if it is not done, a great story can be turned into a disappointment.
The thing to remember with the ending is that it must be delivered effectively. It can’t be hokey, either. The ending should leave the reader thinking about the ramifications and meaning of what they have just read. You want the ending to be a surprise to the reader. You also want the reader to walk away from the story feeling satisfied that they have read a great story.
Many times the author gives hints to how the story will end and this may result in the reader seeing the ending coming a mile away. The author must be very careful about giving the ending away too soon. It is O.K. to give hints that will lead the reader to the obvious conclusion as to the ending and then create a different ending that has a bigger twist and is an even bigger surprise. Whatever the case, the ending must be approached much like a good punch line to a joke. The better the punch line the better the joke and the better the twist at the ending of a short horror story the better the story will be. The ending must be the best part of the entire story.
Many of these elements are very obvious things. But I have been quite surprised in my readings at how frequently these standard items are poorly created or are left completely absent even by great authors. That is one of the reasons that I began a log of all the short horror stories I read. I incorporated a rating system of one to five stars depending on how much I like the story. I also write a brief synopsis of what I think about the story. Currently, I have read well over three hundred stories by various authors of various time periods. It was through this exercise that I recognized the key elements that are required to create a good short horror story.