Storyville: Using Terror and Horror to Tell Powerful Stories

In one of my previous columns I talked a bit about the difference between terror and horror, and I wanted to expand that conversation—go deeper and elaborate. So let’s dig in.

When you think about horror as a genre—including short stories, novels, and film—one thing you may have noticed is how many stories start. They almost always begin with something quiet. Why? We need to get the audience to care, there is an education happening here, world building going on. We have several variables at play (setting, character, plot, lore, internal and external conflicts) and we need to set those up first. If you just rush in, you might create something violent, something shocking, but it won’t resonate. That cat jumping in the window might scare people, but it won’t stay with them—it’s just a moment, a reflex. We need to go deeper. How do we do that?

By combining horror and terror, that’s how.

Let me explain.

If terror is a feeling of dread, then horror is a feeling of disgust. By mixing these two sensations together, you should be able to set your audience up for some really intense moments.

What comes first is the expectation, the clues, the foreshadowing. It can start with a tapping in the walls, a strange smell coming from the basement, some movement in the woods behind your house. What we’re building here is tension. What we want to do is escalate. Terror is an emotion, and that’s where we need to start. By itself, one small item out of place, one dead bird by the picture window, one phone call in the middle of the night—that doesn’t add up to much. It’s the repetition of events. It’s when things get darker, deeper, weirder, larger. This is how we build to that terror, through fear, that anticipation humming along until we can’t stand it, until we reach the apex, the climax, the truth. The terror is what seeps into your skin—that inkling, that hint that something is wrong, that sensation. It’s that brush with death as you go to cross the street, then another brush with death as you go to board your subway train, and then a third brush with death as you walk home (always the rule of threes at play). This takes time. While the horror can reveal itself early and often, typically we are building toward that one crucial moment. There can be smaller scenes, and we can do this dance over and over again—push and pull, hint and show, tease and reveal, paranoia made truth. But as we look at Freytag, and the classic dramatic structure, your story or novel or film is always building toward one major truth, one huge revelation, one broad idea that (if done right) will ripple out into the ether, staying with you, long after you’re done paying witness. Terror is not that one bird, it’s the pattern—a series of birds hitting the glass, the window slowly being covered in tiny splotches of blood, paired with minuscule cracks. And what if it isn't a bird? What if it is a mechanical bee? Or wolves? Or demons at the glass? We’ll get to resolution and change and denouement in a minute, but for now, that terror has to be created over time, one terrifying detail, slip, mistake, clue, nibble at a time. To write a powerful story, especially in horror, the terror is only half the battle.

So what’s the second half?

That’s the horror.

If the terror is anticipation, horror is the reveal. If the terror is paranoia, horror is the truth. If the terror is all of the voices, clues, hints, all of the little things we’re trying to ignore, trying to believe aren’t anything at all, just hallucinations, explained away in the bright light of day—then the horror is the beast made flesh, fear incarnate, worry come to life. This is the pairing we need, this is how it works best, in my opinion.

The horror is the disgust—it’s the gore, the violence, the evil come home to roost, the summoned creature finally on your doorstep, with no way to escape. If you are scared of spiders, that fear is the terror. The horror is manifest—the cobwebs in your face and mouth, the legs walking slowly over your arm, up your bare chest, the hairy appendages, the black beady eyes, the tiny pincers. If the fear is that something is seriously wrong with your family, and you want to protect them, something is going on that you don’t understand, can’t control, the horror is the actualization—the beheading of your daughter, your son’s mouth filled with spiders (SPIDERS!), your husband bursting into flames, your own decapitation as you pay witness to some old god, some ancient evil, one that’s come a long way, worked very hard, to make sure it continues living (and eating, and destroying). The fear is that the world is coming to an end, that aliens are invading, and you can’t escape. The horror is killing your family as the threat approaches, stomping over the hillsides, closer and closer, the road shaking, windows rattling, the gun now in  YOUR mouth—only to realize that it’s not true, the army is here, you’re saved. That horror will resonate. It will ripple outward. It will keep you awake at night.

In shorter work, in stories, you may have one long escalation of terror—clues and hints, small reveals and information building up to an epiphany—one major truth or horrific moment at the end. That one final, epic climax, resolution, change, and denouement. In a novel (or film) there will certainly be more than one event. Each chapter can do this dance—push and pull, hint and reveal—smaller pieces of a whole. The birds at the window are one thing—scary, gross, unsettling. But they are part of a larger narrative. Is it nature rebelling as something tries to eliminate the animals? Is it a great migration, merely trying to get out of the way of what’s coming—the creatures well aware of what horror lurks in the woods, underground, in the water? Maybe it was sleeping, maybe it was called, maybe it was waiting for something. Perhaps that something was you.

If you take the time to utilize both the foreplay and the climax, the pieces of the puzzle and then the full reveal, the shadows and then the creature shown in all of its disgusting glory—you have an opportunity to not only create tension throughout, creating characters with depth, addressing both internal and external conflicts, while gaining sympathy and empathy—you have the chance to truly terrify your audience, leaving them with a horror so unspeakable, they can’t even say it out loud.

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Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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