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  • Writer's pictureCharles Harned

The Different Horror Plots

Halloween, my favorite holiday, is right around the corner. With little more than a month to go until the year's spookiest day I've decided to compose what I hope will be a helpful article detailing the different types of horror and the most common styles of plot found in horror works.

According to TCK Publishing, horror is the seventh most popular fiction genre. pegs it at number nine on their list. Of course, horror can overlap with other genres like thriller/mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. It's not all that difficult to simply lump horror in under fantasy or break it into subgenres (like paranormal mystery) and tuck it away within the folds of the Big 5 (Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Fantasy, Sci-Fi).

However you categorize horror, it is a genre of redundancy. This probably applies more to horror films, which rely on oft-used methods like jump scares, than horror literature since the latter lacks a visual element and therefore can employ more creative methods to build tension. But make no mistake, this is a genre that has been saturated with similar tropes and ideas and story types. A negative person would critique this reality as a lack of ingenuity. I, on the other hand, believe an abundance of comparable stories exists because people find them fascinating.

So, without further ado, let's jump into the different types of horror and story mechanisms.

There are a lot of different subsections of horror. The chart above deals with film, but it applies to literature as well. I've whittled down the genre into a handful of fundamental categories and plot styles that I find helpful when trying to bring a horror novel (or screenplay) idea to life.

Note: Before starting to write or even plot, honing in on a genre's most basic nature and objectives can be extremely helpful. What is actually happening? Why is this happening? How is all of that supposed to make the reader react? If a story just isn't quite coming across how you want it could be that these primal tenets need to be further examined.

Horror Categories

  1. Turn: Secondary villains turn someone else (via magic or a satanic ritual etc.) into the primary villain who does their dirty work for them. The protagonist (who is usually close to the turned "victim") must eventually defeat them. Ex. Jennifer's Body

  2. Monster: Very similar to Turn horror. A monster (evil or misunderstood) is the primary antagonist. Usually follows either a Chase or Pick Off plot style (these are explained below) afterward. Ex. The Wolf Man, Frankenstein

  3. Trap: Protagonist is trapped somewhere and unaware that the place and people in it are the antagonists until it's too late. Heroes must (try) to fight their way out. Protagonists usually come to the place by choice, not realizing the dangers that await. Ex. Cure for Wellness, The Visit, Get Out, Gretel and Hansel, Midsommar

  4. Siege: Like a Trap horror but the opposite. Protagonists are stuck inside a structure with antagonists on the outside. The good guys are unable or unwilling to leave, but eventually they will have to. Like a castle under siege. Ex. Jackals, This is the End

  5. Rescue: A character is captured (or dead). Others protagonists try to rescue the unfortunate soul or discover what happened, inevitably going directly to the antagonists. Frequently combined with a Pick Off or Chase style plot. Ex. Insidious, Friday the 13th

  6. Psych: Protagonist goes crazy, effectively becoming the antagonist or a tool to be used by an off-screen antagonist. Ex. The Shining

  7. Flip: The protagonist is the story's villain. This character must have a genuine cause or the audience won't relate. There must be other characters (antagonists) who have done bad things that the audience can't identify with, even if they don't actually kill people. (Note: A funny, likeable anti-hero or simply a clueless one could potentially substitute for having a legitimate cause or desire for revenge.) Ex. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Jekyll and Hyde

These are just some of the most prevalent horror categories broken down to their most fundamental forms. Whether the heroes go somewhere they shouldn't, are stuck somewhere, become the villain, or have to rescue one of their one from a villain's clutches, there is plenty of overlap and a lot of similar themes and story elements.

Now, I'll lay out the basic patterns these stories generally follow.

Horror Plots

  1. Pick Off: A group of protagonists (and/or other characters) gets picked off slowly by a villain or group of antagonists. Ex. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Prom Night, I Know What You Did Last Summer

  2. Chase: Maybe the most common horror plot device. Either one or several protagonists get into a bunch of close shaves with a villain before ultimately defeating them. Defined by intermittent periods of action and calm. Unlike a Pick Off plot, the most important characters generally get away from the bad guy by the skin of their teeth, although sometimes a character is sacrificed here or there to keep the stakes high. Ex. It, Fright Night

  3. Strange Events: There is usually not a villain chasing or picking off protagonists in this plot style. After a slow or even downright normal beginning, weirder and more unnerving things start to happen until the tension finally bubbles over into action and often gruesome violence at the climax. The strangeness (usually non-action) intensifies as it builds up in anticipation of the ending action. (Note: Beginning and middle must have enough close calls to keep the reader engaged.) Ex. Sinister, The Nun, Exorcism of (insert name here)

  4. Escape: Protagonists must work through a series of dangerous clues or puzzles to escape a villain or antagonist plot. Inevitably, some of them won't make it out alive. Ex. Saw, Escape Room

As you can see, there is plenty of overlap in these plot types just like we see in the different horror categories. A blurring of the lines is something that happens quite frequently in genre fiction and, while sometimes making pitching and marketing more difficult, allows authors to be unencumbered by strict guidelines and able to take a story in the direction it is best suited for. And although certain horror subgenres are so saturated agents and publishers aren't really interested in new iterations at the moment (thanks a million, Twilight), others are ripe for a whole new host of books that keep us up at night.

Comment or send me a message at Happy Halloween!

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