Columns > Published on April 22nd, 2019

Writing Horror Using All Five Senses

Photo by samer daboul

Horror is a raw and visceral genre that relies on fear and anxiety. Readers need to really connect with characters on a base level and share their negative emotions in order for horror fiction to be truly effective. As an editor, I often see horror writers using vague phrases like, "Judy was terrified by the sight of the creature" or “Bill was overwhelmed with sheer terror." Stop telling your readers that your characters are scared and start showing your readers their fear. Adding more sensory details and internal physiological reactions to your writing will help you accomplish this task.


Many new writers fail to effectively visualize their scenes and rely heavily on hackneyed descriptors. You could write: “Willa curled her hands into tight fists.” Or you could write: “Willa’s poor, thin hands were knotted into tight blue fists. The knuckles shone white like the joints of butchered fowl.” American author Davis Grubb wrote the latter description in 1953’s Night of the Hunter. He makes us see that little girl’s hands so clearly it hurts, and the comparison to murdered birds makes a sinister connection in your mind that is impossible to ignore. All it takes is one strong image to burn a scene permanently into a reader’s mind. So don’t be stingy with the visual details.


Sour milk. Gasoline. Dog shit. Each word triggers a different memory and a corresponding emotion in our brain. By using olfactory descriptors in our writing, we can pull the reader deeper into the story. Something missing from your scene? Add a familiar smell. And don’t just write, “The room smelled like X.” Bust out your thesaurus—use aroma, stench, sniff, stink, scent, hint, or malodor. I also highly recommend you read Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind. It tells the story of a Grenouille, an 18th-century French orphan born with an almost supernatural sense of smell that compels him to learn to be a perfumer in order to capture the scents of women he kills. This 1985 novel is a gripping read and a masterwork in describing smells.


Stop telling your readers that your characters are scared and start showing your readers their fear.

When humans are in a state of intense fear, they become hypersensitive to sounds around them. Use this to your advantage. Can’t think of a sound to add to a scene? You’re not thinking hard enough. Get up in the middle of the night and sit in the darkness of your living room. It may seem quiet at first, but the list of sounds will grow once you tune your ear to it. The drone of distant traffic, the hum of the refrigerator, the bones of the house creaking in the wind, the beating of your pulse in your ears. We are almost never in a state of complete silence. Even the sound of a character’s own voice or breath can add sensory detail to a scene. And determining the origin of a sound can even be a source of tension for the character. 


Taste is an overlooked sense in writing. It isn't enough to write that a character is eating ice cream. Give us the particular flavor, the colors swirled in the scoop, the smell of the chocolate, or the way it freezes the roof of his mouth and hurts the loose filling in his molar. No food in your story? No problem. There's an old saying that if you can't think of what to write next, describe the inside of a character's mouth. He might have heartburn, lingering coffee breath or a metallic taste on his tongue. What can you taste in your own mouth right now? Write it down.


Remember that children's party game where you put your hand into a box and try to guess what was inside by touch? Okay, so maybe I went to weird parties as a kid. Don't hold back on tactile sensations in your writing. Give us the slipperiness of blood between her fingers, the weight of the knife in her hand, the damp moss against her exposed skin as she lies on the forest floor. Let us feel what she feels and draw us deeper into your story.

Bonus: Internal Sensations

I’ve edited so many horror stories over the last few years that feature a scared protagonist whose heart is pounding. I honestly can’t think of a more trite and—yes, I’ll say it—lazy way to describe fear in a character. Human beings have dozens of physiological reactions to fear. Here's a few examples: dizziness, weakness in the legs, sudden chest pain, holding of breath, muscles tensing, sweating, stuttering, accelerated breathing, blood draining from the face, and even urinating oneself. So stop giving us pounding pulses and thumping ribcages. Get original. And remember not to over do it; two or three physical reactions are usually enough to accomplish what you're going for.

Make sure you use all five senses somewhere during your story, alternate the senses between scenes (we don't need to know how everything smells), and try to connect the sensory comparisons you make to the story itself. This will draw your reader in and allow them to fully experience your story.

Get Perfume: The Story of A Murderer at Bookshop or Amazon

Get ​The Night of the Hunter ​at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Repo Kempt has worked as a criminal lawyer in the Canadian Arctic for over ten years. He is the author of a book about seal hunting, a member of the Horror Writers Association, and a guest columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives on a cricket farm with his wife, Joy and his little dog, Galactus. In his spare time, he looks for an agent for his latest manuscript.

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