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Building on the definition of a Paranormal Story (as opposed to Dark Fantasy) described in the answers here: What are most common tropes of a paranormal book and dark fantasy book?.

A paranormal story is about a phenomenon that cannot be explained in-world. It defies natural laws, probably logic and common sense, too. Borrowing a rule from the link, a story with an incidental paranormal element isn't a story about a paranormal element.

I don't want to be too narrow on defining what counts as paranormal. The genre is Horror so inclusive of traditional ghost stories, elements which are left intentionally ambiguous, and stories that evoke the supernatural even if it is rationally or psychologically explained.

The Paranormal Story can be a subplot or smaller section of a larger story. The question is about how to structure just the paranormal parts of the narrative, in practical terms, they way they might be plotted as story beats on a timeline.

What is the structure of a Paranormal Story?

I was only able to think of 2 paranormal story structures:

  1. Evidence of the paranormal – the phenomenon is incrementally introduced, allowing characters to discover, debate, and rationally reject each in turn. Circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimony build, creating conflict and division among the characters – or self-doubt in a single character. The inevitable climax is a confrontation or direct encounter with the paranormal, which resolves the conflict – either the supernatural is confirmed as true, it is rationally explained through a plot twist, or ambiguity is preserved.

  2. Descent and return – when the phenomenon is unambiguous, it's presented as a dark mirror or alternate reality to the normal world, with a threshold or barrier which can be circumvented, fails, or acts as a portal. The protagonist intentionally or accidentally descends into the paranormal world which becomes stranger and more threatening the deeper they go. The conflict is about navigating back to the normal world, or the consequences of bringing back a compromised object or entity which should not exist in the normal world.

I am able to think of many other structures for horror stories in general, and this feels broadly adaptable to co-exist with other horror themes, but when I thought critically about what keeps a paranormal story about the paranormal – as opposed to transitioning into a monster chase or some other type of horror story – these were the only ones I could think of.

Are there others?

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In paranormal stories you first need to establish normality. Make sure that you note down the elements that you have presented as the cardinal staples of normality. You then need to break them, one by one. The order in important. You first break the elements of normality that could be explained by the laws of normality itself as a temporary altered state, or as an unlikely coincidence. Then you can introduce bigger changes until you defy even the laws of physics.

For instance:

  • introduce a group of students going to school on a schoolbus on a sunny day.

  • the schoolbus breaks down. The engine won't start. This could just be a normal event.

  • sudden gusts of wind lift a cloud of dust along the road. Unlikely, but still possible.

  • animals start appearing at the edge of the road, and they stare, unafraid, at the kids in the bus. Strange, but perhaps there is a not-so-obvious explanation.

  • black mud starts dripping from the ceiling of the bus. Extremely strange, no satisfying reason can be provided.

  • the bus is lifted in the air and starts flying. Open defiance of the laws of physics.

With each step, you also need to provide a voice that denies the possibility that these events are paranormal. This is the voice that the reader needs to cling to. It provides a step-by-step transition into the harder-to-believe scenes without immediately dropping the suspension of disbelief. In the example above, I added this voice in italic.

  • what if we used 'the bigger changes' as a starting point or as the first element from your normality order and make everything normal at the end of the story? – Prasad_Joshi Mar 20 at 7:34
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    @prasadjoshi Then you're more likely writing a comedy or an allegory or a kids' fairy tale. Horror creeps in. There is an "inexorable dragging" component, which you'd be lacking if you were to start in medias res. – NofP Mar 20 at 8:12
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It seems to me many paranormal stories (like possession, or demons on Earth) just begin with the paranormal, period. In The Exorcist a child is possessed and must be cured.

In The Omen, Damien (the child) is the son of Satan and the Antichrist.

To me most paranormal stories begin very early with a pre-existing paranormal thing and the protagonist is already aware of the paranormal, isn't surprised, doesn't need to "learn" about it, but is an expert that seeks to solve the problem and dispel the paranormal.

Even in Stephen King's Firestarter, the father knows from the beginning what his kid can do, and is fighting to protect her.

Those don't sound like either of your two scenarios.

  • The Omen is easily the 1st story structure, with evidence and testimony introduced over time, and rationally rejected by the father. At the climax he "confronts" his son directly – that is #1 exactly.... I would put The Exorcist in the 2nd structure, where the priests "descend" metaphorically into the paranormal world to "retrieve" the girl's soul, getting tangled in consequences along the way as it gets weirder and threatening. The girl is the "portal". Climax is the demon may escape inside an adult priest.... I will respectfully disagree that Firestarter is a horror story, lol. – wetcircuit Mar 19 at 17:24
  • In the middle of your post in big letters you ask What is the structure of a paranormal story? I answered that. I suppose if you want you can jam all stories into just two categories, just like people do with plot types claiming there are only 3, or 7, or 22, or 28. I think your second category is far too broad; and crowbarring the girl as a "portal" and the priest's battle into a "descent" is stretching your description far too thin to be useful for devising a story plot. I could say your 1st type is a "descent" and a city is a "portal", then we have ONE type. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 19 at 18:23
  • Um… ok. Maybe I do not understand the structure, as in the timeline of events, that happen in the stories you mention, I could be wrong. The Omen has a main character, and events that happen on a timeline. Those events include the father literally being shown evidence, and him rejecting the evidence. That is how he learns about it. Evidence builds until he doubts and confronts the boy…. That is the structure of the plot. Your description seems to be that "Damien is the son of Satan, the end." I honestly believe there is more that actually happens, like characters and conflict, but OK. – wetcircuit Mar 19 at 18:34
  • I'll grant you Damien follows the first structure, I don't grant the Exorcist. In the 3AS all stories begin in a recognizable "normal world" for ACT I so the audience can relate, and rejecting the II (inciting incident that will force them out of normal) is human nature too. These are not unique elements of a paranormal story, the II just happens to be a paranormal event, that escalates. Damien and The Omen follow the 3AS, there is nothing unique about them for being a paranormal structure. It seems to me the only possible difference is how, the paranormal presents itself, and [cont] – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 19 at 18:48
  • The Exorcist isn't "Kid possessed The End." By "structure" I am asking how these stories are told, what is the order of events, how do the characters deal with the idea, what is the climax that it's building to... There are 2 protagonists, young priest & old priest. they have flaws and internal conflicts walking into the situation. Here the "fact" of paranormal is established, a small debate but the plot is not "Is it real?" The plot is that these priests have to go "deep" into the evil, and return with girl, but not the demon. It's not the same as The Oman. I am sorry to have offended you – wetcircuit Mar 19 at 18:50

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