4 Emotive Tools of Horror

I have begun outlining a horror story, something that has turned out to be so much fun that I wonder why it took me so long to seize this genre and make it my own. But better late than never! Last week I blogged about the one simple rule of writing horror. This week I’m going to talk about the four emotive tools used in horror stories.

Horror-BlairWitchI came across these four things while reading WRITING THE HORROR MOVIE by Marc Blake and Sara Bailey. This is a good little writing craft book that breaks down the basics of writing horror act-by-act. If you’re well-versed in the genre, it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but I find that refreshing my knowledge re structure and story tropes helps me write better. After all, it’s hard to keep everything one needs to remember about writing front-and-centre in the old cerebral cortex. I read and re-read books about craft because inevitably they remind me about some step/trick/tool I’ve neglected to put to good use. And voila! My story improves.

This is what happened when I came across these four tools of horror. My first thought was, “Yes, of course horror needs these things,” and my second was, “Oh no, I’m not using these well.” So consider this blog post your truncated reminder of the 4 Emotive Tools you need to employ while writing horror…

1. Unease

This sets the scene for any scary story. Nothing bad has happened to the hero yet, but the audience should get the feeling that something bad might happen. Essentially, this is atmosphere. You’re getting the reader in the mood! But why use this tool? Why can’t you use a light-hearted romantic tone then BAM! Drop a murder in the scene! Wouldn’t that be shocking and scary? Maybe, but probably not. More likely the murder would seem out-of-place or fake, like it’s a joke, and instead of scaring the reader, the reaction would be, “Huh?” Unease primes an audience to be scared, much like the warm-up act at a comedy show gets the audience ready to laugh for the headliner.

Unease is the creepy walk down the hall to Hannibal’s cell.
Unease is the creepy walk down the hall to Hannibal’s cell.

2. Dread

This is a step up from unease because it is connected to an action. Dread is when something happens that in itself isn’t scary yet, but could be. For example, a phone call in the middle of the night, or a car breaking down on the side of the road, or an ambulance heading in the direction of the hero’s house. To feel dread, the audience must connect to the characters and worry about what will happen to them. If not, the audience won’t be scared. Simple motto: no scares without cares!

Dread is an action that can lead to something bad: “No! Don’t watch that video!”
Dread is an action that can lead to something bad: “No! Don’t watch that video!”

3. Terror

This is the bad thing happening! Terror is the scream! It’s the payoff of all that tense unease and rising dread. Terror doesn’t usually show up until Act II. If it’s used in Act I, it’s used sparingly. But in Act III, the fever pitch of hell breaking loose, do all you can to sustain it!

Terror is the scream!
Terror is the scream!

4. Horror

This arises from contemplation. Whereas terror is in the now, horror looks back at what happened. It is what we remember when we leave the movie theatre or finish the book. Horror is the takeaway. This is the part of the scary story that punches us in the gut and sticks with us, a nightmare we can’t forget. If you want your horror story to resonate, make sure you have this moment.

Horror is an emotional punch in the gut.
Horror is an emotional punch in the gut.

With those tools in hand, I’m off to revise my outline!

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

8 thoughts on “4 Emotive Tools of Horror”

  1. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. ” — Stephen King.

  2. Here is something I heard that blew my mind: all stories are fantasy and all conflict is horror. Cool, huh! So even though some people say they hate horror stories, in fact all stories have horror in it, it is just the degree to which the author pushes the envelope. One day I will write a horror, seeing as I grew up reading the stuff. Yay for you delving into it.

    1. That is a neat way to think about it! Every protagonist is scared of something, and it’s the author’s choice whether that horror is psychological, physical, gross or deadly. Thanks for the comment, Nicole! And one day you should write a horror. It’s so much fun!

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