It’s an age old question. How do you scare your reader out of their wits?
Whether you are writing a horror story or a ghost/supernatural story or indeed any story that you want to illicit plenty of emotions – especially the scary ones – the ability to scare the reader or invoke fear, helps to makes the story all the more realistic.
But scaring people isn’t easy.
The art of scaring your reader is all about what you DON’T reveal, as opposed to what you do reveal. And that’s because fear – psychologically speaking – is a primitive emotion that manifests when we don’t understand what we are confronted with. It’s easy to fear something we don’t know about, and that’s because we feel like we have no control over the situation. Not being in control scares many people.
In fiction, it’s about creating that sense of no control, not knowing, not seeing the whole thing, of being helpless. It’s about creating a heightened sense of tension and atmosphere. It’s about manipulating how and what the reader feels, making them imagine all sorts of things.
Good monster movies don’t always show the monster straight away. Instead we’re teased with glimpses, because that makes our minds imagine what the monster is and what it looks like, until the final reveal. The same principle of dangling the carrot also applies to story writing.
The idea is to tease and influence your reader, to make them imagine what evil lurks in dark corners and what lies in wait for your main character when they least expect.
Scary scenes depend on our common fears such as the fear of the dark, dear of rats or snakes, fear of spiders and other creepy crawlies, fear of the water, fear of thunder or lightning, the fear of clowns, the fear of losing something or someone, the fear of being alone, or conversely, the fear of being in crowds, just to name a few.
For every fear that humanity has, a writer can exploit it.
So what are the main ingredients for a good scary story or scenes? There are number of factors – being scary relies on exploiting our primitive fears, having the right spooky or creepy setting, a gradual build-up of tension, lots of atmosphere, the right mood and heightened emotions and/or conflict.
It’s about feeding the reader bit by bit, playing on those primal fears as the story progresses, letting the reader imagine all sorts, then feeding them a little bit more, but never allowing them to consume everything in one go. Remember, people fear the unknown, it makes them uneasy.
And something isn’t scary if you know what is coming.
Another thing to consider is that the higher the stakes for your main character to deal with, the more tension and atmosphere you create. This keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, so to speak, wondering what the hero will do to get out of the situation.
And don’t stop at raising the stakes. Increase the danger. With danger comes the unexpected – will the hero escape the evil house? Will he or she escape the clutches of the monster or ghost or whatever supernatural creature you’ve conjured.
Scary scenes also depend heavily on emotions and the focus of the action on the main character. Readers want to see the panic, the dread, the fear or worry. They want to feel the claustrophobia of the situation, they want to feel the taut atmosphere and they want to feel the tone.
That means description plays a huge part in how the story is delivered. The right word choices, the right amount of showing rather than telling and using visual imagery and the five senses and to convey the mood and atmosphere, to show the emotions, conflict and fears.
There is quite a lot to consider, but it’s worth noting that there are also different types of ‘scares’ that writers use:
a) The psychological scare – This where you hints at things that may or may not be there, you tease the reader, you pull at their emotions and play on their fears, creating mood and an uneasy atmosphere, yet revealing little.
b) Visual scare – this is what horror writers love to use. Gory and visceral imagery is used to shock and terrify the reader, with gruesome descriptions and a brooding atmosphere that helps complete the scene.
c) Shock scares – something that the reader simply doesn’t expect, like jump-scares in movies; the sudden revelation or a twist. This can also apply to twist endings.
The best way to scare the reader is not by telling them everything they need to know, but rather letting their minds and imagination do the work for you. And by coercing all of these ingredients together, you can create a convincing scary scene to fill your scary story. Next week we’ll look at how all this is accomplished.
Next week: How to write scary scenes – Part 2.