Horror Writing 101 – Mystery

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This section is about mystery. Or more generally story hooks.

Not every kind of horror benefits from a mystery, but if you can give people something to investigate, it can be a good hook. You can use a mystery to both intrigue your audience, and give your main character(s) a reason to keep going. People understand the lure of a good mystery. The desire to understand. It may not be universal, many people are quite content to not understand anything, but most people do like it when you give them a bit of mystery.

So when your character(s) are going into the old house that everyone says is haunted, setting up a mystery earlier to give them a reason to go in, makes it more believable. It also gives you a way to keep them inside well past the point most people would leave. All it takes is someone bitching that if they leave, they will never figure out what’s going on. Most people can understand that. They may not feel like they would stay, but it is understandable that some people might.

Now, I am using mystery in a very broad sense here. It doesn’t have to be a proper mystery. I really just mean give people a reason to be interested. Or several if you can. Any reason, or reasons, at all to want to find out what happens next, and how it ends.

A problem that needs to be solved. Someone who needs to be found. A mysterious message that needs to be explained. It doesn’t have to be a full on mystery, just something that people will want to have resolved by the end of the piece of fiction in question. As much as I am loathe to use banalities as the focus of fiction, even a relationship can be used to hook people. If you can get them to care about how two people relate to each other early on, that is a hook to keep them interested till the end. They will keep on going through to see what happens with them.

Or you can go with an actual mystery. Is the house haunted because of a murder? Well, solve the murder and maybe the souls can be set free. Is it haunted because of an occult ritual? Figure out how to cancel out the ritual and the haunting will be stopped.

In horror the mystery can be something as simple as, will they survive? But to qualify as a good hook you need to get people to like the characters pretty quickly. Otherwise they wont care if they survive. You also cant be too kill happy or they will just assume you are doing the usual everyone is dead except one or two characters. Which they will assume to be the ones you make out to be important.

That’s the trick guys like GRR Martin use. They make a character seem important, then kill them off. Since it’s a soap opera, there is no actual story taking place, and no one is important it’s easy to do that.

Horror, by nature, works best on the small scale. Although it can be done big, it’s hard.

There are two things you can attempt to do really. Trying to directly scare the audience, or getting them scared on behalf of a character. Or both, depending on the scenario.
You can have a build up to a character opening a door, which if you have done your job right will scare them on behalf of the character. Then give them a good jumpscare and/or freak out scare when the character does open the door.
Better yet, have the scare come a bit after the door is opening. Make them see something coming, deny it, give them a moment to exhale, then BOO!

It doesn’t always work, but when it does work, it tends to work very well.

Horror is a lot like comedy in that there is a set up, then a punch line. In this case the punch line is meant to scare the crap out of people instead of make them laugh. Unless you are doing horror comedy, in which case you can do one or the other, or even both sometimes. That’s why the two genres go pretty well together.

Anyway… the point here is that when you are writing horror, there is a temptation sometimes to just drop some characters into the shredder and torment them. Which may appeal to some people, but most like stories to have a proper structure. Acts, a beginning middle and end. Things happen for a reason. Reasons are given for the audience to care what happens.

A lot of slasher movies fall victim to that. There is no reason for anything. A group of teens, or college students, ends up in the cross hairs of the killer for no particular reason, then they get killed one by one till the lead beats him, or escapes.

But consider the first Nightmare on Elm Street. There is a mystery. There is a backstory. Not so much after the first movie. They tried, but it gets pretty convoluted and strange. Less mysterious, and mostly just weird.

I guess it sort of comes down to how you look at the horror genre. If you look at it as stories that just happen to focus on creating fear, then you will want to create complete stories.
If you just see it as an excuse to do nasty things, and yell BOO at your audience, then you wont care about doing proper story telling.

I say you should always aim to tell a complete story. Give them something to wonder about. Hook them in. Keep them hooked, and they are putty in your hands.

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