First, a disclaimer: Although horror might be my favorite genre, I’m no expert on it.
In fact, a lot of Creepypasta.com readers would say I’m the last person who should try to teach anyone about it. Two years ago, I wrote a story, a spontaneous rework of a crappypasta, and submitted it to them. When I’d showed it to friends and posted it on critique sites, the response was universally positive, but when it went up on the site, it tanked, debuting as one of the bottom five stories in its history, and only managing to eke up to 5/10 stars after several days.
As for the comments… You can see them. Most didn’t bother me too much since they misinterpreted my intent in writing it, but the one that really caught my eye was the one that described it as a forced attempt to be scary without knowing what that meant. In hindsight, it was spot on. I didn’t know how horror worked at the time; I thought it was like any other type of fiction, but with more bad stuff. I had a lot to learn about its unique plotting, atmosphere, and methods of building tension.
This is probably why it fell flat with that particular audience, despite succeeding with beta readers: it works as transgressive fic, but not when presented as horror, and the realistic feel I tried to give it ended up being its biggest problem. If you look at the plot, it’s just one thing happening, then another, then another, without much continuity between them—you know, like real life. But, also like real life, it doesn’t make for a very good genre story when told as-is.
So, why am I airing out a flop? Both so you can learn from my mistakes, and as a “before” for the “after” that is this article. Since then, I’ve tried my best to learn the genre’s structure, and part of my reason for writing this was to organize my own notes into something coherent.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that horror seems to follow an identifiable process. A lot of people have given us clues to this: Stephen King shed some light on it when he said there are differences between a mere gross-out, standard horror fare, and what’s truly terrifying. Someone else, although I can’t remember who, said horror hits you in the brain, the heart, and the stomach all at once. Both of these are parts of the “formula,” but now I’m going to try to explain what I believe is the whole thing.