Oh The Horror! 5 Writing Tips to Help You Scare Your Readers
There’s something delicious about creeping along a dark hallway with a character, feeling their terror as they grip their kid’s baseball bat with sweaty fingers. Something woke them from a deep sleep. Something not quite right. It could be the tree scratching against the window. It could be the cat.
But we know it’s neither of those things, don’t we? We know something terrible is waiting in the shadows, something with ripping claws and teeth.
Keep on reading for 5 valuable tips to creating anticipation, suspense and horror in your next book!
Let your reader get to know your characters
To write great horror, you must create characters your readers care about. That means you need to give your reader time to get to know your character before you let your monster out to play. Violent opening scenes often don’t work because the author hasn’t given the reader any reason to care about the person getting mangled. If you want to make me stay up way past bedtime to find out what happens to the main character, let me get to know them. Give me time to care about them. You don’t have to spend thousands of words or several chapters doing this, either. Give your character problems your reader can identify with. Give them struggles. Figure out how to make your reader identify with them. The minute you do that, your reader becomes your character. When that happens, you can bet they’ll get shivers up their spines when they catch a glimpse of something looming outside their window late at night.
Be mindful of your word choices
You can turn up the horror factor of a scene by being deliberate with your word choices. Let’s say your character is in a park on a bright, sunny day. Nothing to fear from the perky tulips lining the sidewalk, right? If this scene leads up to a confrontation between your character and the monster, don’t let those perky tulips go to waste. They’re blood red, aren’t they? The lurid color reminds your character of the claw marks in her dead husband’s chest. A child could pick those flowers, or rip them violently from the ground. Perhaps they’re wilted, dying, a description of their rotting leaves and bug-bitten petals evocative of the terror to come.
Pacing is key
Consider sentence length when you’re writing your scary scenes. When you want to slow the action, make your sentences longer. When the monster attacks, go short. Staccato even. If a scene isn’t working, change up the pacing. Perhaps you usually write your action scenes in short, abrupt sentences but the scene is falling flat. Rewrite it, playing with the sentence length and the structure of the paragraphs. Don’t be afraid to play your words.
Let your setting scare your readers
When Clarice finally meets Hannibal Lecter, we’re already creeped out by the dude. Why? Because we saw what Clarice had to go through just to see the guy. We heard the rules. We saw the guards and the glass between Clarice and the otherwise unremarkable older man. We didn’t have to be told the dude was bad; we could see it.
You can use setting to your advantage. Think of the intrepid knight searching for the dragon. We don’t have to see a description of the wyrm to know it’s vicious. Show us the burned village, the gutted sheep. Show us the other knights, beheaded and left deliberately in the main character’s path as warnings. Let us see the terrified old woman who can’t stop shaking, who can’t even talk, who can only point a bloody finger at the gleaming scale embedded in the door of her house.
Don’t always reach for the obvious to scare your reader
Remember those perky tulips? Not exactly scary flowers, are they? Even bright sunlight can be scary if you set it up right. A kindergarten classroom on a bright, spring day could be scarier than an abandoned mental hospital at night if you set up the scene right. That man over there in the corner? He’s not the teacher, is he? He has a vial of poison in his pocket. All he has to do is break the glass and all those laughing six-year-olds will be dead in less than twenty minutes. The laughter of those kids becomes heartbreaking, brittle. The cheery song about bananas becomes menacing. What is he waiting for? What will set him off? Jimmy’s ball banging against the wall? Kassie’s wail when her friend pulls her hair?
When you write your scary scenes, don’t just reach for the leering demon or grinning clown. Make even the most mundane things terrifying. Your readers will thank you.
When you sit down to write your horror scene, take a few minutes to remember a time when you were scared witless. Maybe you almost fell down the stairs at work, or you thought you saw someone creeping outside your window, or a dog lunged at you when you were walking home from school when you were ten. Dip down into those scary memories and try to recall how you felt, the thoughts that ran through your head, the way your stomach clenched, your skin crawled, etc … then use those memories to imagine the scene in your head. Put yourself in your character’s place, drop down into their goosebump-covered skin, let yourself panic as you try to figure out what’s lurking in the shadows at the end of the hall.
It’s probably nothing.
I’m sure it’s fine. Just a shadow.
Jen Ponce writes about kickass women and oogy monsters. Visit her at: www.JenniferPonce.com
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