Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Horror Plots

I've been distracted for the past few weeks by something I half-remember reading two decades ago. It was a breakdown of the types of common tropes in horror, including isolation, alienation, invasion, mutation, and possibly one or two more; I'd come across it back in my gaming days, when I was going through a phase of running a lot of horror-oriented games. The frustrating thing is that I can't remember where I first read it, whether it was an academic source or not, or even whether the whole idea is something that I'd put together myself from different books that I'd read.

I am miffed. I may even become vexed.

Trying to hunt down the terms on Google didn't help: apparently, nearly everyone who has something to say about horror literature includes at least three of the terms I was searching for, which resulted in an overabundance of possible sources. None of them quite matched my memory, but the search did lead me to browsing The Philosophy of Horror by Noël Carroll, and that's what I'm going to write about this week. At least it'll keep me from continuing to scour the internet for a book that may only exist in my imagination.

I'm not so much interested in Carroll's theories of what horror is or why it's gained a particular popularity in recent decades. What I want to point out instead is his chapter on the structure of horror plots, which might be of use to people who are planning on incorporating those kinds of stories into their fiction.

Most horror stories, he writes, have fairly predictable structures, one of the more common of which is the four-step progression of onset, discovery, confirmation, and confrontation. One or more of these steps could be missing in some stories. In others, the progression could be repeated (in part or in whole) in the form of subplots or successive events. What stays the same, however, is the order.

The onset phase is the one in which the horrific phenomenon (let's call it a monster) first makes its presence felt. It doesn't necessarily have to appear, but it still enters the story's setting: people disappear or are murdered, flocks of evil-looking birds start to settle on the rooftops of town, a gloomy fog descends over the abandoned castle. The audience might be shown the cause immediately, but the protagonists only see the effects.

In the discovery phase, the protagonists learn the cause. They may not believe it at first, or if they do, they may not be able to convince anyone else of what they've learned, but the important part is that they've been pointed at the solution to the mystery posed by the events of the onset.

The challenge of belief is what drives the confirmation phase. It may be that the protagonists are faced with evidence that the monster they've seen is real, that the legends are true, that spiritual evil exists, and so on. It may be that they find someone with expertise in dealing with monsters (a Van Helsing, an exorcist, a psychic) who explains the truth to them. If their problem isn't their own belief, but that of other people, this is the phase in which they manage to convince at least some of those people that they're right about the threat.

Finally, there's the confrontation: the protagonists face the monster directly, armed with whatever knowledge they have to defeat it, and either succeed or fail. Even if they win, they might not manage a lasting victory -- if for no other reason than to keep the option open for a sequel. Out of all the phases, this is the one that can probably be extended the most, with escalating confrontations against the monster's minions all leading to a final conflict.

So what can you do with this structure? Yes, it's formulaic, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're just starting out in writing for this particular genre. Once you get more comfortable, you can experiment further, play with its conventions until you come up with something you like.


  1. Ooh ooh! Ooh ooh!

    Thanks for reading Carroll's book and relaying the important bits. I think I kind of gleaned some of these elements from reading lots of Gothic horror stories lately, but the structure is not one I could have defined so well as this. So I find this post exceedingly helpful to my future horror-shaded storytelling.

    Thanks for sharing and interpreting for us! :)

  2. I know what you mean about picking up the structure by osmosis. A few years ago, I gave a paper on monster-of-the-week shows (the original Kolchak: the Night Stalker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural) and the American landscape, and came up with the pattern of discovering the problem, researching it, and defeating it. It seemed very clever at the time, but now I see I was twenty years too late.

    The lesson: don't just use your own field for research, especially when writing about something that other people have discussed extensively.