What makes a great horror story? - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
October 5, 2021

Every genre has its own genre conventions and elements – and I often think of them in the same way that I imagine a high school cafeteria … with each table holding different kinds of books. The horror table would contain blood, guts and snarling werewolves (in my uninformed mind).

But that assumption was proved wrong in a recent First Draft Friday chat I had with Jack Pierce, the bestselling author of Under a Mourning Star and Harvest the Children.

When I asked what element set horror apart from other fiction genres, the answer both surprised and delighted me. It wasn’t gore, explicit violence or a high body count. It was dread — the heightened awareness of fear and suspense that raises the hair on your arms and makes you turn the next page, even if you’re terrified of what it might contain.

I loved that answer, and immediately had a half-dozen more questions.

How do you introduce dread?

How quickly do you reveal the source of the fear or the villain in a horror novel?

What are some great examples of horror writing and novels?

What level of gore or violence typically exists in horror?

Do “jump scares” exist in horror novels?

What can we learn from horror movies, and how do those elements equate to books?

You might be surprised at some of Jack’s answers (spoiler: his favorite horror novel is Jurassic Park), and I think you’ll certainly enjoy this lively chat. Click below to watch the video.

Keep scrolling for the full transcript of our talk, and explore other First Draft Friday chats.

More on this topic

Jack Pierce’s podcast: https://terrortrax.com/listen

Explore Marlowe (our A.I. manuscript analysis tool): authors.ai/marlowe

Full chat transcript

Alessandra Torre: Hi everyone. This is Alessandra Torre with First Draft Friday, brought to you by Authors AI. I am so excited by our guest today. I’m joined by Jack Pierce. He’s going to be talking all about how to write horror effectively and what you need to know about writing in the horror genre. So, welcome Jack. It’s great to have you here. Can you introduce yourself and let us know a little bit about you?

Jack Pierce: I’m Jack Pierce. I am the author of Under Mourning Star, Harvest the Children, and about eight or nine other books. I’ve kind of lost count at this point. Most of them went to number one and I do a show called terror Tracks where I more or less teach you how to write novels the way I do at least. And not even just horror, but all sorts of genres because I’ve mixed with many. But anyway that, and I also released a new chapter for my audio books on there every week. Plus, you can hear me review from an author standpoint and a horror fan standpoint. I do criticism of Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes at the end of each podcast. So, it’s something for everyone if you’re into horror

Alessandra: So when we talk about horror for a lot of our audience is I’m aspiring authors and published authors and we focus on craft. So when you’re defining horror as a genre, if I’m an author and I’m not sure if my book is thriller or suspense or horror, what really defines a novel as being horror?

Jack: The thing with genres with horror is, horror has a lot of genres that are very, very close to it. It’s almost like brother and sister genres, like thriller mystery, you know, stuff like that. But the thing that really decides if it’s a horror novel or not is dread. Dread is the main thing of horror because, you know, while I could show you a picture of Michael Myers, he’s scary if he’s in your house, you know, but like the picture itself, isn’t really going to scare you. It’s the dread of he’s in the house, he’s sneaking around. Where is he? You know, it’s like that this horror.

Alessandra: That anticipation and build-up.

Jack: Yeah, horror is all about atmosphere and dread are like the main things. Thriller is more like, I guess like James Bond or something, where it’s a lot, it’s more about… like a thriller would be like a rollercoaster and a horror would be more like monsters under my bed sort of thing.

Alessandra: So, how do you build that dread? So, it is the tension level almost constant in a horror book, I guess?

Jack: Not in mind necessarily. I like to almost make genres anyway because most of my stuff is a mix between horror and thriller because I mean, if you have a novel, it can’t be all scary the entire time. But I think if you want like the best example of horror perfected – a Silent Hill, the first two games. That storytelling, you know, from a visual standpoint, from a writing standpoint, if they put it into a novel, it would probably sell better than Stephen King, it’s that good. Because they get it.

Alessandra: So Silent Hill is a movie?

Jack: It is a video game and then it turned into a movie later. I know most video game movies are terrible, but Silent Hill is a masterpiece. That movie is incredible, and I’m like a massive fan. I would pick it apart if there was something wrong with it. That movie is just perfect.

Alessandra: OK, perfect. So Silent Hill has to be on my to-do list. It’s two movies or it’s just one?

Jack: Well, it’s two movies. You just ignore the second one because that one was awful.

Alessandra: OK. So you said a lot of horror is a mix because you can’t be dreading something constantly. Is it because the reader needs a break?

Jack: Yeah, I think it’s the reader needs a break. He needs sort of some relief to it. That’s sort of like if it was all Dreadnought all the entire time, every slasher movie would just be like 90 minutes of Jason killing people. I mean, you need that, that lightness to kind of make you at ease so they can grab you again and make you dread again. After a while, your mind would get exhausted if those 500 pages were just scary the entire time.

Alessandra: Does a lot of horror fiction use comedy to do that? A lot of slasher movies, you know, there’s funny moments, and I didn’t know if that was also present in horror fiction.

Jack: I add a little bit of lightness to a lot of my books, even though there’s very, very dark moments. Every so often you will hear some type of line sort of like… I’m a big fan of the bond series, the James Bond series, so I mixed a bit of that in Under A Mourning Star: the Adventure, and the wise cracks and all of that, there’s a few lines in the book that even during intense scenes, it actually still make me laugh. When I think about just stuff that I was laughing when I wrote it and I still laugh at it when I see the stupid jokes now. But I don’t think you shouldn’t turn it into like a Jim Carrey movie or something. You’d need some type of lightness because as I said, you know, if it was all kills, there’ll be boring; you have to have something in the middle of the sort of padded out. And I think a great example is sort of like with Stephen King’s at because you don’t need necessarily comedy to do that, but you have a lot of world-building going on. I think the best type of horror is where you build characters that people care about and then you kill them. Because you know, that’s the best way to do it, I think.

Alessandra: So when you talk about genre rules, you know, so I come from a romance background and I also write suspense, but there are like certain rules we can’t break. I can’t kill my main character, typically. So with horror, main characters die all the time and it doesn’t matter if the reader is emotionally involved? Do you have to have a final girl? Does somebody have to make it to the end or does sometimes the bad guy win?

Jack: I’m trying to think through all my books when the bad guy won. Yeah, I mean…

Alessandra: I guess it depends if there’s a sequel, right?

Jack: No, because with my sequels, I have different characters like in the lead of every book. There might be a chronological sequel, but there’s like no book after Under A Mourning Star yet. And then, it has two books before it that were, you know, the Snow White Murders and Dreamer; those happened before Under A Mourning Star with different characters. You could kill your main character and you can kill him and have someone else take the lead or kill him at the end or kill him at the beginning because that’s what happened in Psycho, the movie. We know that Janet Lee got stabbed in the shower in Psycho, and funny thing is, because it’s horror, the reason it’s so timeless is because it’s almost like there’s a horror family when you really think about it because Janet Lee was actually the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was Laurie Strode in Halloween. So Psycho started Slashes, Halloween perfected them, and no telling if Janet Lee has a kid or not. But I mean, Jamie Lee Curtis probably has plenty of kids. I don’t know if any of them are going to be stalked by a mask guy. So, I mean, you can play it any way you want. I mean, like Scream did the same thing. They took the idea of killing the person that she thought would be the main character at the very beginning of the film. And so horror, you can kind of move your main character all around and trick the audience, thinking that this is going to be the main person then you’d kill him, and then someone else is and all that. So, you can do it a million different ways with horror.

Alessandra: Are there any like genre conventions in terms of point of view, is it almost always third person or it’s first person and third person – what’s the norm?

Jack: I don’t know exactly what the norm would be, but I personally do everything in first person because feeling it’s a lot more immersive. It’s a lot easier for me to tell you a story than try to read to you a script. I always felt like there’s a lot more immersive because if I’m telling you the story, it’s like you’re sucked in. But when I hear such and such said, and then such and such thought this and blah, blah, blah, I just feel like that kind of…

Alessandra: Detaches you a little bit.

Jack: It detaches me, but also the fact that that’s not realistic in real life when you’re telling a story, because I don’t know what you’re thinking right now. No one can read minds, so it felt weird to write third person.

Alessandra: So I’m trying to work through that though, because if you are writing first person, are you writing first person and then the reader experiences the death of that character or typically the character whose point of view you’re in survives?

Jack: No, I’ve had plenty of first person characters die, usually at the end of the book so I don’t have to create someone else. I don’t think I’ve ever had… I don’t have many good endings to any of my books, really. I mean, all of them almost in badly or not optimally for the main character one way or another; not necessarily killed, but something usually bad happens.

Alessandra: OK, can we talk about villains for a little bit? So with horror, villains are sometimes supernatural and, and people, is that correct?

Jack: It can be either one.

Alessandra: It can be either one. OK. Are you ever in the villain’s point of view?

Jack: I’ve thought about doing that and I’m actually planning on doing one about a professor that stalks his students on Facebook and then uses that and kills them in different ways, and he gets to see inside of his mind or whatever, I’ve kind of avoided that because I’m scared that the cops are going to grab it and say, oh, he actually did it because I get some really immersive and really into the characters when I write them, scared that it’s going to be, oh, we got you for this. You know, this actually did happen, and you wrote this, so you must’ve been something; this nervousness in your mind. When me and my editor were working on Under Mourning Star, we looked at each other and I said, we have to start censoring things in this. There are certain things that are probably going to get us in jail or the nuthouse, but we had to tone down some things. And the line that I told him that some things are better left implied, and that’s what we did on some of this stuff, because that was a very, very dark book. I don’t know if there is a… I think we were really trying to hit for the fences with that one.

Alessandra: For those of you watch watching or listening, please shout out any questions that you have. I want to make sure we get your questions answered as well. So when we’re talking about that, like how far is too dark and things like that, is it gore levels or is it actions that the characters do that might be just too dark or where do you start to sensor yourself there?

Jack: Killing children and sexual assault or like, you know, kind of where I try to limit, where I try to stay away from those two, even though both of those happened in Under Mourning Star, but the person that did it ended up getting burned alive. So, something bad happened immediately or after. So I mean, it wasn’t like they got away with it or anything, they got torched in a very destructive way.

Alessandra: And his gore a common – so how gory do you go? In romance there are different levels, based on things like explicitness of sex. So I was curious in horror, are there different sub genres of horror where some are more bloody, or is most of that sort of skimmed over and the focus is more like you said, on the anticipation and the dread?

Jack: For me, I don’t really write that much gore because there’s a certain level of it that’s necessary, but one thing that bugged me in another kind of left field a little bit, but I think people will understand. When they put out mortal Kombat 10, because I’m a massive like Mortal Kombat freak. They put it out and all the fatalities were so gore that it just made me uncomfortable. I’m like this, I mean Mortal Kombat is supposed to be goofy. And you know, like the guy, like he blows himself up, like they’re doing like the dances and stuff. It’s stupid, but when you go too far with the gore, like hostile or the newer Mortal Kombat, again, it becomes more unpleasant than comical. I just think that and jump scares the two worst things in horror at this point, honestly. I mean, when you look at any Halloween movie, how many of those had big gore and guts and everything, or even the Friday 13th movies either had more, but nothing like the opening from Scream, which was disgusting. So I think gore is necessary, but not over the top. Once you get it over the top, it looks kind of stupid.

Alessandra: And that was another thing on my list of things to ask is jump scares. Like most of my experience with horror is movies. I’ve never read horror except when I was a child or a teenager. And so I was curious if jump scares happen in fiction as well, or if you kind of lose the impact of that if it kind of comes all at once.

Jack: I think it loses the impact because I think that jump scares are the worst things to have in the horror movies since they started. That is just the worst convention. If there’s one thing I could erase from horror it would be jump scares. That is just so – because yeah, it gives you a level of dread, but you’re not scared of the monster. You’re not scared of the situation. You’re scared that something’s going to go kaboom and then that’s all it is. That’s not scary. That’s startling and annoying to me. Real horror would be sort of like Halloween, like Halloween is terrifying because you have a guy that’s in a mask that could exist that is sneaking in your house, and you don’t know where he is and he’s about to stab you. That’s scary.

I think the atmosphere – when you’re talking about movies, atmosphere is a lot more than jump scares. You know, if you watched original two Halloween movies, they’re perfect. When it comes to the lighting, to the music in the background; when you watched that Laurie Strode chase, the first one from Halloween one, you can look it up on YouTube. It is just a masterpiece of how to shoot a horror scene because even me knowing Laurie has been killed only once in the series, it is terrifying just watching this girl, realistically run through this house as this guy’s coming after her with a knife.

Alessandra: So how do you add that? In movies, they do it with the lighting and you have the music, but when you’re writing a scene, how do you introduce those? Do you do it the same way? I mean, do you describe how fast is the pacing? Are you using a lot of detail when the killer is following? How do you bring that kind of dread to the page?

Jack: I’ve never actually had a slasher book and I don’t think they work either. The closest I’ve ever gotten, I guess, was the Snow White Murder, but that was more like law and order mix Allen Hill. I mean, it was a lot more on the cop side of things and bad stuff. Actually, you were talking about gore, there was gore and there’s no white murders. There’s one murder that was pretty over the top, but the rest of them were pretty tame. I think that… I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question because I don’t write slasher fiction and I don’t think many people do either. I mean, slasher is really hard to do because I mean, what are you going to do? Just follow camp counselors for like a hundred pages and then finally have him start killing people in the last 25? I mean, I don’t think it translates to fiction at all. Some people might in the chat might be correcting me now. I mean the only one I can think of off the top of my head is to Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker, which was pretty much the script for Hell Raiser. There really was no difference between the book and the movie. Like, it really was just a movie on paper and that’s what I try to write as, I don’t try to get into the Stephen King of trying to make something a thousand pages. Everything in the book is necessary and if it’s not, it gets cut.

Alessandra: What’s your normal length of a novel?

Jack: Under Mourning Star is 450, Snow White Murders is 400, Dreamer was 360-ish. So for novels around 350 to 450 usually, but I do not huddle at all my writing.

Alessandra: Is that like 75,000 words? Do you know the word count?

Jack: Yeah, about 72 to 75?

Alessandra: Alright. We did have a question from Darynda, I hope I pronounced your name correctly. They said where would one start when reading your books? Do you have a favorite novel that you’ve written?

Jack: It depends on what exactly they’re looking for, but if you go to terrotrax.com/shop, they have a link to all my books where it’s at the top says buy my books and you can read everything in Kindle Unlimited now actually. So just pick and choose if you have that service. I honestly think Under Mourning Star is my favorite one because it was the first one, but I think objectively the best commercially would have to be the Snow White Murders. I think that’s the one that was written the most linear in a way where, you know, it was the easiest to follow, but also have plenty of depth and great characters and everything. Dreamer is my art house favorite. If you’re not into horror, Dreamer is the one you have to read, but if you’re into Horrors, Snow White Murders is probably about as good as you’re going to get.

Alessandra: Fantastic. So you said your books aren’t slasher, so is it typically one villain stalking or trying to kill one character or several characters and that is one storyline? Is that accurate?

Jack: No, no, I don’t do it that way. It depends on the story, but Under A Mourning Star was all about a cop that has flashbacks and nightmares to this town that he grew up in and moved out of right before a mass murder happened. So they sent him back to go find out how the mass murder happened and why. And he basically just has a bunch of flashbacks to all these different scenes of what happened there. I’m more of an atmospheric psychological Jacob’s ladder horror versus Jason horror. And but I have like some more traditional stuff, like the shorter books like I’m Ghost Writer Murders, which is basically just slashers wherever going to get out of me. That was about a teenager that gets a typewriter that turns the town against each other.

That’s fun somewhat. And it has sort of like a mystery element of, is it the typewriter that’s committing these murders? Like, is he doing like some magic or is there still one like slasher villain and going and doing all these kills. So that’s about as close as a slasher I’ve done, but we’re currently playing that audible one on the show on tracks. So if you want to hear that, you can hear that in the middle section of every show, but yeah, man, I don’t really have any of the, you know, Michael Myers stocking teenagers things because I just don’t think it fits on paper. I’m more of a psychological Silent Hill. Silent Hill is my thing.

Alessandra: I’m going to have to watch that.

Jack: The games were like my thing, they are pretty much, you know, even the main, I guess overarching villain of the entire series of Mega, pretty much is pyramid head with a different look. Like you’ll see pyramid head in some of Silent Hill movie, but Silent Hill just had this great sort of thing where it was scary, but everything had a really deep meaning to it. Like what pyramid had really represented was just so dark and creative that I just love that concept of it’s basically just a guy’s guilt manifested after he killed his wife, so it like follows him around with the giant knife.

Alessandra: I love that. I love that. Guthrie said, I have heard that horror fiction doesn’t do well as a series, yet horror film series do very well. Any idea why that is?

Jack: I don’t really know because I’ve actually had most of my books go to number one, so I don’t know what that means.

Alessandra: Were they series or were they standalones?

Jack: They were all standalones, they were in the same universe and the same chronology, but as a series now, he’s probably right because, you know, with horror movies, it’s kind of, the audience already knows what they’re going to see. They’re going to see Michael Meyers stabbing people. So I mean, there’s only so many ways you can really make the same movie over and over. I don’t think that works for books really. I don’t think there could ever be like a Stephen King’s Hit 2, or Salem’s Lot 2 or any of that stuff, in book form at least. I think with horror, we try to wrap up the story and be done with it at the end, so the villain gets killed and that’s it, the end.

Alessandra: I love that. And Mila had a similar question. How do you feel about serial horror books? So by serial, are you referring to shorter or is she talking about a series, do you know?

Jack: I think serial what she means is probably, you know, like an anthology will be like what I do for the most part where everything takes place in the same world, but it’s different stories and different angles. And a serial would be like Bond, I guess, because it’s like you have a character that goes on various adventures. So like an actual series would be a serial, but you could also think of the original Batman cartoon is serials where it’s like every book would maybe end with like a cliffhanger or something is maybe what they mean. So, what was the question again?

Alessandra: She said, how do you feel about serial horror books? And I think this question came in very close to Guthrie, so they probably are on an app, but she said, Dean Koontz and Stephen King did this and I feel like they did it well. She said Green Mile is one example. So I’m trying to think how Green Mile would be – because if that was a standalone book, so yeah, Mila I think we just don’t understand the definition of serial, how you’re using it. If you could give us some more…

Jack: I think most of Stephen King stuff was anthology because they anthology is a different story every time.

Alessandra: Yeah. I think it’s interesting. Like when you’re talking about the keyboard, you really have like a huge playground that you can use when you’re dabbling with both human psychology, but also if you can have paranormal elements. I’m using the word paranormal, I’m not sure if that’s the right word. Another viewer said Green Mile was released in pieces as a serial. Oh, OK, I didn’t realize that.

Jack: I’m just not familiar with that format, so I don’t have an answer for that.

Alessandra: Yeah. Oh, I didn’t know it was originally released in pieces. That’s cool. Yeah, I mean, I said the same thing, so thank you both, sorry we don’t have more information on that. OK, so we only have three minutes left. So if anybody has any final questions for Jack, please shout them out. Do you have any do’s and don’ts for horror, if you’re writing a horror novel, are there mistakes that you see or things that you see fall flat? You talked about a couple of them like jump scares don’t work and slasher doesn’t typically translate well, but are there any other rookie mistakes that somebody might make when they’re writing their first horror book that you see in books that you’ve read?

Jack: Lack of subtlety would be a good one. Horror needs to be subtle. It needs to be, you know, you don’t have big, scary monster jumps out and eats the person that’s not scary, that’s silly. Horror is all about the build, the dread, the actual lead up to the thing because seeing someone get their head cut off is scary, I guess, but it’s not as scary as all the stuff that comes up to it, you know, where it’s like you’re watching this guy chase this person down and you don’t know. It’s more about what you don’t show versus what you do show. It’s a lot better to keep things unknown and make people wonder. But yeah, that’s really what it is.

I think the biggest thing that you can really tell a writer of any genre though is, make me care; that is the main thing is don’t doddle with every detail. I don’t care about this person’s backstory. If they’re about to get their throat slashed or something, I don’t care. We don’t need to do the Stephen King thing, and I’ve brought this up many times and I’ll summarize it very quickly. Stephen King, right before Stan Eurest gets killed in it, there is this thing where like his wife was watching wheel of fortune and then we’d go on a 75 page diatribe about absolutely nothing, and then we find, oh yeah, Hey, by the way, he slid to the next scene, like there’s no drama or anything to Stan dying. Like wife sees him, she screams, that’s it. But why did we have that 75 pages of nothing before that don’t? Do that. Get on with it. Make me care and get on with it, those are the two tips that I have.

Alessandra: I love that. And that kind of played in well to James Ryan who’s joining us from Facebook. He said, “Oftentimes horror is when what we are comfortable with is threatened. How soon into our work do you feel that that threat should take place? How much buildup do you usually give before that moment?”

Jack: Immediately.

Alessandra: OK. So, right at the beginning of the book you introduced the threat.

Jack: Immediately – first sentence.

Alessandra: And then how do you show that that threat is affecting what they care about? You then feed in more the backstory or the life or how that threat will affect that individual?

Jack: I think the best version is one that I was actually working on. I can’t remember what it was called. There was a sequel or something to the Snow White Murders where like the very first line in the book is “what a mess.” And then like you, you pull back, you’re like, all right, is there something there? So then I went into sort of like the backstory of, you know, they’re at this house and this murder was just committed and on and on. This is who they were. We knew these people, they were part of this, you know, great people in the community on and on all that stuff. And then after you sort of make people kind of wonder the entire time what happened, what happened, what happened? Then you show them this big grizzly scene of the mess. So, you have to really hook someone in the beginning to make them keep going. Because I feel like when you open with scenery shots and shots of the study and all of that, the people don’t care. You need to grab something. It’s like, “Hey, look at this now, you have to get in here right now” sort of thing. And then you’re like, all right, what happened? And then, that’s how you get them. You just keep them hooked from then on; that’s the biggest thing is, start with something happening like right now.

Alessandra: And then build it up. OK, I love that. And we are right at time. I do have a final question from Bibliographer. They said, “Jack, do you have any exercises to share that would hone the horror buildup?”

Jack: No, just zoom in and pull back, that’s my main thing is when you open a book, zoom in really close to see something happened and you need to make people question why. What is happening and why is it happening? I think one thing I’ll give people, just one little last tip before we go is, the best way to end the chapter as the way that you do in any sort of movie or whatever is you leave every chapter as a cliffhanger, and every chapter after, as a sequel answering that question at the end of that chapter.

Alessandra: OK. So when you cliffhanger, you go to the next chapter and you’re still in that scene, you don’t go to a different area?

Jack: Each chapter I go to a different scene. Each chapter’s sort of its own scene.

Alessandra: All right. And then it answers it. So they’re not left hanging more than a chapter, is that right?

Jack: Yeah, you always resolve it in the next chapter. The main things – make me care and make me wonder, are like two main things that you want to do with books if you want someone to finish one.

Alessandra: One last question, I know we’re over time, but do you have any horror authors to recommend that you really respect their work or if someone’s wanting to dive in and see examples of great writing, are there any horror authors that you recommend?

Jack: This answer shocks everyone, but Michael Crichton is the best horror novelist of all time.

Alessandra: I love that. I use to devour his books.

Jack: Jurassic Park is my favorite horror novel of all time, and no one can convince me that that’s not a horror novel.

Alessandra: I love that. I love Jurastic Park, that’s great to know. So what makes it horror; the dread, the dread of…?

Jack: The dread and just the way he wrote it, where it was a lot, it wasn’t like the movie where it was almost like a theme park. I mean, it literally felt like they had stumbled onto something, everything went haywire. And I just love that sort of, you know, if you read the T-Rex scene, it is so much more intense than the movie, like ridiculously more intense and terrifying than the movie was.

Alessandra: Marlowe is our artificial intelligence for anyone watching, and she reads novels and gives feedback on them. I’m going to have her read Jurrasic Park because I’m really curious to see how that plot and pacing branches out, and now I’m going to have to reread that. I haven’t read it since I was like 13, so I need to read it again. Thank you so much, Jack, for joining us and chatting all about horror. If anyone’s interested in listening to your podcast, is that correct, it’s a podcast?

Jack: Yes.

Alessandra: Visit terrortrax.com/listen. He said it earlier, but his books are all available at terrortrax.com/shop, so please check them out and thank you for joining us. And if you’re interested in learning more about Marlowe our artificial intelligence who loves fiction, check out authors.ai, and you can try her out for free on your manuscript. So thank you all for joining us. If you are listening or watching, please like or subscribe to our channel and we will see you guys in two weeks with another First Draft Friday. Bye guys.

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