I’ve written a zonking amount of horror short stories on this site. And, though I’m by no means an extreme expert on the subject, I have worked out four steps I find most horror stories fall into and obey. You could call it the “Horror Story Structure.” It’s a rough, overarching template that allows a framework when constructing scares.
Now, this is better applied to short stories. The nature of horror in long-form, the stretched version, must allow an ebb and a flow to the proceedings. If not, you risk simply burning away the reader in a fury of violent imagery. But, if applied sensibly, and dolloped over a more character-focused progression, this can work for anything horror-related you would care to make.
So, here we go. Four steps in sequence. I call it the “EITT” method. Use it and terrify.
Step #1: Empathize.
The thing about horror, and all fiction, is that the people usually are not real people. They are constructs we willfully choose to accept as real people. The fact horror ever works on anyone is a testament to the empathy people have for each other. So, step one, the first aspect, is to make us like the victims or at least care about them in some shape or form. Some stories do not make us like the characters. Authors and movie makers will construct someone we want to see murdered. Those stories are still invoking an aura of empathy in a more primal form. I don’t think anyone wants to be stalked by a zombie, after all. Even seeing that play out on someone unlikeable still has a visceral reaction attached. At the very least, realistic reactions and logic will give us a way to connect to the character.
Step #2: Isolate.
The cliché way to do this is to make the main character unable to use a car and a phone. It’s cliché because it’s often necessary for the plot to not fall apart. Characters are stronger in groups, so you must isolate them somehow. Split them up; disperse them into smaller groups. Have them alone in the middle of the night—you’ve heard hundreds of variations of this tactic.
The reader has to believe that the victims are beyond outside help—and thus can be dispatched bloodily.
Step #3: Terrorize.
This is an optional step—it sometimes can be more impactful to skip right on past it for the fourth and final. Suddenness without preamble has its place in stories. It can be nicely done.
But, in other cases, you want to do things that make the victim afraid, but not yet dead. This is why things uncoil from the dark before lurching in a blaze of teeth. This is why you play with sound, unseen threats, and corpses are strewn about the place.
This is tension building, and it has to be some level of the macabre or the morbid to make an effect.
Part #4: Traumatize.
Occasionally, this just means “murder.” If you plan to kill the victim at the end of the story, then that’s a valid choice. You could say you are traumatizing the reader when you do this. The sickening twisting of the knife is happening somewhere, at the very least.
In the situation where you’re not killing the main character, then you’re somehow affecting them with the events of the story. I can think of exceptions, but generally the witnessing of violence, of monsters, of demons, is enough to leave a mark on a mind. Not representing that is to downplay the darkness of the story. It’s undermining your impact. Seeing someone eaten alive is bound to cause mental scarring.
And that’s it. Those are the steps. Bing, bang, boom. Get in, get out, scare some folks.