Sometimes just starting a horror story is the hardest part. But a good, strong opening can make a story.
To start a horror story, figure out the source of fear. Why should your reader be afraid? Hook the reader with a promise of what’s to come. Introduce the main character, set the tone and build suspense.
If you follow these simple rules, you can create a powerful opening scene that sets up your story so that it practically writes itself. Read on to find out how.
Figure out the Source of the Fear
Suppose you start your story by introducing a cast of characters. There is your protagonist; maybe, a guy starting a new job in a city far from where he grew up. He brings his family with him, a young wife, a couple of kids and a baby.
They move into an old house that they bought way under value, and then strange things start to happen.
Now you have established a reason to be afraid.
There are a couple of young kids and a baby to protect. The idea that something might threaten your children is terrifying to most people.
There is also the wife. She has put all of her trust in her husband. What if he lets her down? What if he has put his family in danger? What will that do to his identity as the protector?
You have now figured out the fear factor. This is the first thing you want to do when starting a horror story. You must establish why this is going to be scary.
In this example, each of the children as well as the husband’s relationship with his wife and his sense of identity, all serve as vulnerabilities that can be attacked.
Maybe there is a vampire living in the basement of the house. At first, the kids start coming down sick one by one. You can make a lot from this.
Does one of the children turn into a vampire? Can they be saved or will they need to be staked through the heart to save their soul?
Do the parents know how to defend their family? How will they learn?
Don’t just rely on shock and jump scares to make the story scary. Use suggestion and implication. For example, if one of the parents discovers bite marks on their child, it may lead to the conclusion that there is a vampire, but you haven’t specifically stated it.
If one of the children turns and becomes one of the undead, there is the implication that they will have to be staked, but you don’t have to say it out loud.
By establishing the fear factor from the beginning, or at least having a clear idea in your head, it becomes much easier to fill out the rest of the details in your story.
The genre of your story will also help you determine what is scary.
If you are writing a gothic horror, perhaps an old dark house is the source of fear. If you are writing a ghost story, then it might be some terrible thing that happened in the past, and the threat of it happening again may be the source of fear.
Want to write a Ghost Story? Click here.
Hook the Reader
Any story opening needs to grab the reader’s attention. They must have a reason to invest in your story.
Make a promise to the reader that something big is going to happen.
Advertisers are good at this. Have you ever read a sales letter that promises you can lose ten pounds in two weeks, or become rich in seven easy steps?
They typically start with a wild claim. Then go into a long anecdote about how they hit rock bottom, after making every mistake imaginable. Finally, they discovered the secret when they did this one thing that you can learn about in their course.
They use this formula because it works. You can use it too.
Make a promise of more to come before setting the scene and establishing the plot.
Get to Know the Main Character
It’s a good idea to introduce the main character as early as possible. A story revolves around the main character. Give the reader a reason to care about him or her.
In his book, Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder points out that you can make a character likeable with one scene.
He uses the example of showing the hero saving a cat that has been stuck in a tree. This one scene is enough to show the audience that the hero is a likable guy, now we can get on with the action.
If you don’t include this scene, then the reader is not going to be as invested and any action or drama that follows will fall flat.
Set the Tone
Setting the tone of the story is part of the promise you make to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they are going to read.
Your opening scene should give them a taste of what’s to come. Introduce them to your writing style. Show them the kinds of characters they are going to read about and the type of narrative they are investing in.
The theme of your story is also part of the tone. Let the reader know early on if the story is going to be nihilistic or hopeful. Are you pushing family values or promoting hedonism? Is capitalism a major part of the story or do you want to condemn it?
It should be clear from the beginning where the story lies in terms of values. That will let your reader know how to interpret the character’s behaviour and how to understand the plot.
Suspense is important in any horror.
Many writers often mistake anticipation for suspense. Anticipation is knowing that something is going to happen and waiting for it with a sense of expectation. You might anticipate a birthday present or getting fired from your job. It can be good or bad but it usually doesn’t inspire horror.
Suspense is when you expect something to happen but you aren’t sure. You expect a bomb to go off, but it might not. You expect there to be a burglar in your house but it turns out to be a cat.
Anticipation implies certainty while suspense implies uncertainty.
Suspense is much more useful for horror stories.
From the beginning of your story, you should decide what you are going to show and what you are not going to show. This will make it easier to create a situation where your characters are expecting something to happen but can’t be sure if it will.
If you decide to show the monster from the beginning, then there must be some aspect of it that is unknown. For example, the method it uses to kill its victims, or the place it came from. There must be something unseen that you can build suspense around.
If you decide not to show the monster then you must hint at it. Show the signs of its passing. Show victims killed in unusual ways that couldn’t have been done by a human.
There you have it. Now you can write a great opening for your horror story. So get writing. Good luck.