Writing Scary

Writing scary is about more than confronting fears on the page.  It’s about eliciting fear in the reader.

I'll never forget the first time a book truly terrified me.  It was The Amityville Horror.  I was thirteen, babysitting for a neighbor, and alone at night.  I had just read about a pig with red eyes that appeared in a bedroom window.  A few minutes later, there was a tapping on the french doors of the living room.  I looked up and saw, you guessed it, a pair of red eyes.  It was the neighbor's cat, asking to come inside. But for a brief second, the words came off the page and directly into my life.  I was terrified.  

I'm not suggesting that a reader needs to experience the fear in a book to relate to it.  One of the miraculous things about books is how they allow us to feel and experience things we wouldn't want to in real life.  Books expand our world from the safety and comfort or our couch. And scary books allow us to experience and confront fear.

How do they do it?  I’ve noticed a few elements common to books that genuinely scare me.

      Atmosphere:  "It was a dark and stormy night."  It may be cliché, but mood, setting, and tone all contribute to scary.  If you want to instill fear in the reader, you can set the tone by placing your character in a scary place or situation.  You can play with the time of day (yes, night is scarier than day), weather, location, sounds and smells to create an atmosphere that evokes fear and trepidation.  Or you can play the opposite- sometimes events are scarier when we think the character is safe, when we don’t see it coming.  A murder in a dark alley in the middle of the night might not be as scary as one that happens during a six year old’s birthday party on a sunny Saturday.  

      Stakes:  Nothing ratchets up the fear factor like stakes.  Not just life or death stakes, but personal stakes.  If the reader is invested in the characters and what happens to them, then the readers will be afraid for them too.  Make your characters relatable, likeable and give them a personal stake in the outcome.  No one is afraid for the red shirt guy who dies on Star Trek, but they care about what happens to Spock.  

      Foreshadowing:  Hints that something bad could happen or that something is coming will rachet up the fear factor.  Anticipation builds tension.  Give readers the opportunity to worry about what might happen along with the character.  

      Primal fears: we all have fears that are unique to us, but there are some primal fears that virtually every person is hard-wired to feel.  The survival instinct is strong, and most of us fear death, loss, and evil.  There are other fears of course, but I think on some level they all relate back to survival.  For example, the fear of speaking in public is really the fear of embarrassment and rejection (loss), and the fear of flying or heights is the fear of injury or death.  You can give your characters’ quirks and unique fears based on their own experiences, but find a wait to relate them to universal, primal fears to incite fear in the reader.

      Pacing:  Writers who write fear well are usually masters at pacing.  The apprehension, tension and fear builds and intensifies as the story moves forward, leading to the inevitable moment when the fear must be faced head-on and defeated (or not).

Red herrings:  readers love to anticipate, but they also need to have moments when that tension is released a bit.  Keep readers on their toes, train them to expect the unexpected by including some twists and false alarms along the way.  Maybe that guy who is following the character down a dark alley turns out to be a friend who just wants to say hello.  Perfectly innocent or not?  Keep us guessing.

 Pay-off:  Now that you’ve built a novel that is full of tension, atmosphere, and apprehension, there needs to be a pay-off.  Is your character constantly looking over her shoulder for an unknown threat that never materializes?  Readers will expect an explanation.  Has the book been building to face off between the character and his nemesis?  We want to see that scene. Your character doesn’t have to win the battle, but we want to see him fight it.


Love your post. Very timelywilling for meyou since I recently tried writing my first scary short story.

There really is a lot that goes into writing this genre. I noticed the vocabulary changes dramatically, I guess this goes into the different atmosphere you mentioned, but also included different adjectives and adverbs for how the characters were feeling or seeing things.

I particularily enjoyed playing with the pacing-throwing in foreshadows and red herrings.

I always knew I was on the right track when I started to creep myself out a bit! :)

So glad you found this post helpful Christopher! And I think scaring yourself is a great sign.

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