How To Scare Your Reader: 11 Tips From 11 Horror Writers
How do you scare your reader? Perhaps the ultimate question for the horror writer, and a question that has intrigued me for a long time. The dictionary definition of ‘scare’ is [to] ‘cause great fear or nervousness’. Fear is an evolutionary survival tactic that originates from our fight or flight response. Fear induces a biochemical physical reaction that can include sweating, heart palpitations, and a surge of adrenaline. The reaction can be so strong it’s even thought, as per Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, you can quite literally be scared to death.
There’s an interesting study conducted by the University of California, dubbed ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles effect: A natural experiment on the Influence of psychological stress on the timing of death’. Interestingly, our body cannot differentiate between physical danger and emotional scares (check out The Medical Dictionary’s entry on anxiety, specially the limbic system, for further information). Now my interest – despite what some may have you believe – is not to actually scare anyone to death, or even to have readers pass out as per Palahniuk’s infamous ‘Guts’. No, I just want the reader to experience that thrill, that uncomfortable sensation that comes with being unnerved, that rollercoaster-like surge of adrenaline. So naturally I consulted eleven of the best horror writers in the field today, eleven authors who know how to evoke fear and leave the reader restless. Here’s what they had to say when asked ‘how do you scare the reader?’
You’re Not As Safe As You Think You Are
I equate scaring the reader with making them feel unsure, or unsafe. Fill a realistic, recognizable slice-of-life scene with characters that the reader empathizes (not sympathizes; there's a difference) with, and then have something happen that's off. The gradations of off, of course, are up to you; anything from a light knocking with no source, to a tomato-red wasp flitting in, to a giant atomic beastie that drools snarling three-headed dogs. Well, maybe not the last bit, but it's that dichotomy between the real and the off that makes for wonderful moments of anything-can-happen dread.
–Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts
Reveal the menace, whatever it may be, in a place where your character should be safe, where nothing bad is ever supposed to happen. If your character has allies, you can have them exacerbate things without understanding they're doing exactly the wrong thing with the best of intentions.
–Pat Cadigan, author of Chalk
Atmosphere And Pace
Scaring readers is not something I'm generally interested in doing. I'd rather unsettle the reader, which can be done in a variety of ways. That said, the key to a good scare is atmosphere. Building a sense of creeping dread through choice of vocabulary, setting, and mood creates scares more reliably than any monster or maniac I've ever read about.
–Nathan Ballingrud, author of The Visible Filth
For me, successful horror fiction is about pacing. I prefer stories that build slowly with a sufficient amount of time spent conveying a believable and relatively safe world before any complications are introduced. In this way, the reader has already formed an attachment with the characters and is therefore more concerned when things begin to go wrong. The manner in which things do go wrong, is also made more effective when delivered in a slow and measured way. Stories that have scared me, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Adam Nevill’s The Ritual work because they build a gradual sense of unease, starting with seemingly innocuous episodes that grow and shift, becoming more serious threats as the story progresses. I’ve adopted this incremental approach in my own writing, finding that orchestrating a series of disquieting moments not only helps structure and shape the story but allows for a better understanding of what your characters are going through. One of my favourite short stories which deals with this technique in quite a self-referential way, is Mary Butts’ ‘With and Without Buttons’. Intent on scaring their neighbour, the two protagonists realise that a good haunting is dependent on the right “choice of stimulants” in small doses over a period of time. It’s a basic but effective formula, highlighting the importance of a slow and steady approach.
–VH Leslie, author of Skein and Bone
I suppose the obvious thing to say is, don’t try too hard to scare your reader; scare yourself, and the rest will follow. For me, though, that fear is inextricably tied up with love. The things that scare me aren’t necessarily the ones that go bump in the night, but the idea of losing someone or something I care about. Or the loss of the self – the idea of my mind slipping away and being able to do nothing to stop it. That way true horror lies. These are things that lie deep inside us, of course, and so in order for the reader to feel it they must be able to get inside the mind of your characters, to be right there with them on their journey. I think that’s why Stephen King’s work is so effective; his characters feel so real, they start whispering inside our minds almost as soon as we begin reading.
–Alison Littlewood, author of A Cold Season
It’s a big, frightening question to answer; you almost don’t want to answer it. Is it all a matter of having a sense of horror like some have a sense of humour?
But a couple things do come to mind: first off, I think it’s okay to be scared, yourself, as the author. If you recall the times your friends told you their ghost story, it’s when they get chilled and tears well up in their eyes, the times you see the fear reactivated in them… those are the times that chill you back. So that’s a good place to start, I think, in terms of scaring your reader. Be scared yourself. Another idea is that sometimes, but not always, it’s fun to suddenly drop the fright into the middle of a scene, rather than building up to it. Like, you have a family happily eating dinner and, poof, a slaughtered goat falls through the roof onto their table, smashing the soup bowls to bits. Those sudden right turns can be more frightening than something we’ve carefully built toward for 200 pages or more.
–Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box
Tap Into The Reader’s Psyche
What readers fear in their fiction is specific to their own experiences. It’s as personal as their senses of humor. That’s not just true for this side of the page, either. It applies to the characters, too. For horror to pay, it’s got to hit home by messing with a character’s fears, ambitions, loves. Say your main’s had a tough life, but has always held onto one perfect memory of a perfect day with the person they once loved most. Now let them find out the memory’s not true. Then push it farther, and make that person they loved a monster. So mean! Your reader will cringe! Horror fiction ought to be exactly that personal.
–Sarah Langan, author of Audrey’s Door
There are two ways to scare a reader. The first is pretty straight forward: figure out what frightens people, and expose them to it. The success of this method is pretty fool-proof, if short-sighted. Stories about insects and death and trauma to children all hit their marks, but by and large they are fleeting, their scares lasting only long enough to carry the reader to the next thing encountered. The second way is much more insidious: figure what fills the reader with awe. Awe is a powerful tool, and the line between awful beauty and awful horror is so blurry they are arguably the same. Awe invades the reader, affects the reader, and long after the book is closed and put away, awe is still worming its way through the reader's psyche. Awe makes an indelible mark. To me, that's the best kind of scare.
–Simon Strantzas, author of Burnt Black Suns: A Collection of Weird Tales
Create A False Sense Of Security
How to scare your reader: make your story as based in the real world as possible (even if it's a fantastical world) so that they can recognise it – and then add the things that can show that world’s (and their place within its) vulnerabilities. Real fear comes from seeing in the narrative a set of events that, if they occurred, could threaten what's important to the reader, and could change their world into something they no longer recognise or understand. Monsters aren’t really scary; monsters walking up the street where we’re living and threatening our children? That's scary.
–Simon Kurt Unsworth, author of The Devil’s Detective
Before you scare someone, you have to get them to drop their guard. Readers go into horror thinking they know what to expect and they prepare themselves. So find a way to disarm them. Let them settle into the story. Make them laugh. Make them care about the characters. You have to establish trust with readers before they'll let you get under their skin.
–Helen Marshall, author of Gifts for the One Who Comes After
You won't necessarily scare people with blood, guts and gore. It's more than that. You know that feeling when you have a job interview coming up? Or maybe an appointment with the dentist? Even just thinking about it now, can you feel that horrible, cloying, gnawing sense of nervous dread?
Often the anticipation is worse than the reality, and that's something I like to use to scare my reader. I try to wrong-foot them. I try to catch them out. I try to steer away from what's expected. I try to lull them into a false sense of security then take them in completely the opposite direction.
I guess it all boils down to dragging people out of their comfort zone and putting them in the kind of position they really don't want to be in. And the key for me is keeping them there just that little bit too long…
Find something you know your reader won't want to look at or even think about, then write so tightly that they can't look away.
–David Moody, author of Hater
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