I read a recent horror novel in which the hero, having bought a creepy old house, receives a scrapbook from the previous owner loaded with photos and clues to its history. Our hero spies something disturbing in one of the photos, and his reaction? He throws the whole scrapbook in the fire. This horror plot device exposed the story’s architecture as clearly as if it had been drawn on a graph: at some point the hero would have to seek out the former owner, a mysterious and cranky old man, and force him to give up the information that the scrapbook had possessed. And that’s exactly what happened.
In horror novels, we’re supposed to be afraid of what might happen. We expect our heroes and heroines to be in danger. But we also want that danger to be legitimate, and not the obvious result of the writer’s contortions.
Horror Plot Device: Going Back for the Cat
In Alien, tough officer Ripley keeps the audience’s sympathy until, in the heat of the crisis, she drops everything to retrieve the ship’s cat just so the filmmakers can have the alien sneak into the escape shuttle. While some animal lovers may applaud this, the vast majority of the audience will be aghast at her decision, and for the first time accept the idea that she might die. Their emotional involvement has just been halved by the heroine’s blatantly stupid move. I mean, I love my dog, but in that situation, it’s, “So long, Snoopy!” And no one is surprised when the alien turns up at the end because the plot mechanics are so exposed.
When writing a horror story, keep in mind that your reader wants to identify with your hero/heroine as an example of how they think they’d behave, not how they actually would. The “Going back for the cat” horror plot device will get in the way of this.
We all want to believe we’d be clear-headed and resourceful as the monster bears down on us, even though secretly we know we’d just curl up and wet ourselves. It’s possible to make the audience care for a cowardly, weak character if you’re a really top-notch writer, but if you’ve set yourself the task of putting your horror monster up against a real hero, then don’t create jeopardy by making that hero do something stupid with an unbelievable plot device. Your reader will spot it at once, and it will take them right out of the story.
(For a different view/similar topic check out Save the Cat!)