Classic Structure of the Horror Novel

Classic Structure of the Horror Novel


By Ron Brown


©2001, Ron Brown

As in any form of writing, there are guidelines for the structure of the horror novel.  These are not rules but rather conventions that should be known and considered when you structure your story.  In the same way that principles of writing (such as maintaining constant point of view in a scene) should only be broken once the writer is comfortable with the convention, the classic structure of the horror novel should be the starting point for new novelists.


The center of any horror novel is the fear, rational or not, within the main character.  The main character can be either adult or child, but should begin as a hapless victim of the overpowering evil, and should be a good person.  Though the fear can be of a psychological nature, it should not be something that can be explained through normal human experience.  There should be some supernatural or unexplained entity or mystery whose solution is outside the realm of typical understanding.


The evil should begin as an invisible force.  In fact, it will often appear at the beginning that the main character has created the evil in his own mind.  The evil can be undead, occult, based on folklore, or other, but it should be sinister, and should only reveal its true self slowly as the story progresses.  Regardless of what shape it finally takes when its presence is known (demon, vampire, person, etc.), its power and intent should be obviously evil and supernatural.


This plotting process ensures that the surrounding characters do not believe in the evil at first.  Coincidence will explain the initial actions of the evil entity.  If it's appropriate, the supporting cast should show concern for the well-being and sanity of the main character.  Only after a convincing disaster or death will they believe, and then they should run to the main character, both fearing him or her, and needing help.


The final convention of the classic horror plot is the method of overcoming evil.  The protagonist should develop some power in order to conquer the evil entity.  At first they should resist the use of the power, but once its use begins they should be taken over by it until the task is complete.


Again, these are not rules, but rather guidelines and conventions.  A great many horror novels deviate at some point from the classic form, but this is an excellent starting point for those beginning their work in the genre.  Once a writer is comfortable with the classical plot, and  has seen how it drives the story,  she can begin to alter it to achieve the goals of her individual plots.




A helpful book for many aspects of Horror writing is How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction  by J.N. Williamson.  This book includes an introduction by Robert Bloch and several chapters on specific Horror -related writing problems, including pieces by Dean R. Koontz and Robert R. McCammon. 


How to Write Tales of Horror, 
Fantasy & Science Fiction


J.N. Williamson


Writers Digest Books

ISBN 0-89879-483-8