How to Write Scary Scenes – Part 2

Last week we looked at the different elements writers can use when writing scary scenes.
Part 2 is about bringing those elements together into believable, cohesive scenes that should build upon the mood and atmosphere, with a sense of impending doom, danger or hidden anticipation for the main character.
Usually the reader is privy to this approaching danger, but the main character is not.  Writers use this ploy very successfully. That means that the reader is aware that something bad will happen any minute, so there is a build up of expectation. The reader will know something is about to happen.
The trick with this kind of atmospheric scenes is to keep the focus on the main character – their actions and thoughts and reactions - and not allow POVs to shift around. That will instantly kill any tension and atmosphere you have already established.
Description is also key to a successful scary scene – the reader is relying on the writer to deliver such imagery that they feel as though they’re right there in the action. You can choose to be visceral or gory or you can be the opposite and let the reader’s imagination fill in all the details.
With those elements in place scary or atmospheric scenes should be easier to write. Here’s some example from my own published stories:
‘Her bedroom door slowly opened to the shadows in the hallway; they sucked out the warmth and left a slicing chill, but Kate remained in slumber, despite the room growing colder.  A teasing stream of vapour coiled into the air as she breathed.
The door wavered as though a soft breeze had swept past.  The shadow in the corridor lurched, grew black…’
Here the emphasis is on the mood and tone which helps to create the build-up of atmosphere and expectation within the story. Shadows creeping in the dark, the cold air, the girl asleep in bed, unaware there is something lurking in the corridor outside her bedroom…these simple elements help the reader imagine the worst.
Excerpt from ‘Nocturne’ © 2011 published by Static Movement
The following excerpt is about an evil clown who manifests from an old oil painting of a clown – it comes to life with murderous intent. It preys on our fear of clowns, on our perceptions of inanimate objects moving in the corners of our eyes and then it creates foreboding for what is about to happen.
Something slithered beneath the canvas and large flakes of paint peeled away as the material flexed. Slowly, a shape appeared, as though drowning beneath silken sheets. First the shape of a mouth, open as though screaming, then a large forehead, then tips of fingers, pulsing and pushing beneath the canvas...pushing until a tearing sound spliced the silence and the painting split open to reveal a darkness which spilled out like innards into the cumulative silence, before retreating and spreading into the shadowy corners of the study…
Excerpt from ‘Augustine’ © 2014 published by Thirteen O’clock Press
The excerpt below uses foreshadowing to tease the reader of what lies in wait. It’s very simple, but it uses visual cues to set the scene for which the rest of the story is built upon:
The demon in his eyes unfurled.
Darkness descended quickly. Orange-tinted clouds rolled and billowed forward, low in the sky. Grey layers began to form above the forest like a bank of fog.
The rain was coming.
Excerpt from ‘Deceit’ © 2013 published by Static Movement
Being able to scare or horrify your readers isn’t easy – what may seem creepy or scary to one reader may not be to another – that’s all down to perception. It’s how the reader perceives what is being described – and that’s where the setting, the atmosphere, the tone, the mood, the focus, the sense of impending danger and the character focus really works.
And of course, it’s about how you describe it all.
The best way to understand it is to read the likes of Edgar Allen Poe or HP Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and James Herbert, to name but a few.
General Tips:
1. Don’t overdo the scene or take too long over it, otherwise you risk losing the mood, atmosphere and tension.
2. Try not to fall into cliché, such as setting your story in a dark house in the middle of nowhere, a haunted mansion or the over-used cabin in the woods. Also avoid characters that do really dumb things, such as creep around in the dark when it’s plain they could just switch a light on. If they have to creep around in the dark, give them good reason to.
Don’t have your character(s) in the ‘car won’t start at the worst moment’ cliché or the running from the monster and tripping over their own feet cliché, (especially when they’ve managed the whole story to stay upright without incident).
3. Play around with reader’s expectation. In other words, the reader may expect what will happen next, but then something happens that they don’t expect at all.
4. Torture your reader – raise the tension, make them think something is going to happen, then ease off. Then raise then tension again. And so on until they can’t take anymore.
5. Practice, practice, practice.

  • Tease the reader; hold back on some the details to create a sense of tension and foreboding.
  • Raise the stakes for your main character – hint at or show conflict
  • Increase the sense of danger
  • Make use of the setting
  • Make use of the sense 

Next week: How to write believable plots


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