Three Killer Ways to Start a Horror Story (with examples)

What’s the best way to start a horror story? You’ve got your excellent idea, a great plot and a killer ending. How are you going to begin? Horror is all about the effect, delivering fear and dread and dislocating readers from their place of comfort. Starting the story in the right place goes a long way to set up your story and lay the foundations for the emotional impact you’re aiming to deliver.

Of course, there’s any number of ways to start a horror story and the best place to start will depend on what kind of story you’re writing and the overall effect you’re seeking to create. Here are a few ideas with some examples from some master horror writers….

writing horror stories

How to Start a Horror Story

Start in the Middle of the Horror

Some very effective pieces of horror writing start within the horror. It might be right in the middle of the action, slamming the disgust right in the reader’s face and creating a sense of grotesque the reader has no chance of escaping from. Alternatively, your story might use an opening scene that straight away creates some sense of the horrific without getting into the real story just yet.

Poppy Z Brite’s short story “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” straight away puts us in macabre dislocation from reality. We’re immediately shown characters sipping absinthe stolen from a tomb, along with the tomb occupant’s skull, thinking back on violent carnal indulgences and how they put together their museum of gruesome artefacts. This story is deeply unsettling from the get go, before we’re even allowed to enter the course of the focus tale.

Peter Straub’s short story, “A Short Guide to the City” is a touristy walkthrough of a fairly typical town, except this one happens to have a serial killer at large. We learn about the killer and his heinous crimes in the opening lines and his presence haunts every page until the end. It’s not as confronting as Brite’s example, but the reader is immediately dislocated from the normal, wryly contrasted with the tone of the city description.

Start Before the Horror

My personal favourite way to start a horror story – as a reader, a viewer and a writer – is to open before the dread in a place of normalcy. This gives us and the story characters, a safe place to be torn from once the story gets underway and it’s this safe place we’ll be trying to get back to as we go through the horror. Often there will be a slight hint of the macabre underlying this light opening tone just to set the emotional pace and remind us we’re about to wander into a horror story.

Horror is the effect: fear, dread, dislocation. Starting right prepares the emotional punch.Click To Tweet

Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity starts off with a glimpse into an idyllic vineyard homestead and then cuts to two characters driving along the highway chatting idly. Everything is quite normal. After a quick intro, we’re introduced to a dark aspect of one character’s past. The story moves on with more and more of these little dark threads of her past woven into an entirely normal situation and then launches into the full scale horror tearing apart this relatively normal world.

Starting a horror story before the real horror story starts ties the narrative closely to the classic Hero’s Journey narrative structure.  The Hero’s Journey shows the hero start off at home, go off on the adventure and then return to that normal home a changed person.

Start After the Horror

Starting a horror story after the horrific drama has unfolded is a less common way to start a horror story, but can be done with excellent effect.

The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan starts with a secondary character’s retrospective of the horrific events that transpired. The reader doesn’t know anything about the main character, we haven’t even met her directly yet, just that some terror is about to beset her.

This gives the story an immediate sense of tragedy. Before we even get to know the main character, we know that she’s doomed to live out this psychological terror. It’s her journey into that terror that entices the reader in.

Stephen King’s novella, The Mist is also taking place retrospectively but in a very subtle way. The story opens: “This is what happened.” We’re then shown a typical family sweltering out a summer day and nothing strange is happening except a storm is coming their way. It’s a completely innocuous situation, but because of that one opening line, we know that something significant happened and because we know this is a Stephen King story, we know that it’s not going to be a happy tale.

Figuring out the best way to start a horror story might take some experimenting. Try starting your story in different places of the whole narrative and see where it delivers the greatest impact.

horror writing prompts

If you’d like a few ideas (101 ideas, actually) for writing your own horror story, I’d love to give you a copy of Write in the Dark: 101 Writing Prompts for Horror for FREE (usual price $1.49).

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Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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