Writing Scary Stories
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Some tips and tricks for freaking out your readers.
I don't know about you, but I love a good bit of horror. I didn't always. I was a big old scaredy-cat until my mid-twenties. Although I must confess, that rack of Goosebumps books at my hometown library did always feel like it was calling to me. It took an October scare-binge a few years back to finally get me into the genre I'd always been meant enjoy. Scary stories can be fun.
But writing things meant to be scary is a monster all its own. More than any other genre, except for perhaps comedy, the physical/emotional reaction you are aiming to elicit is paramount. Your story fails without it. So how do you do that, exactly? How do you frighten someone who is safe in their own home? Well, there are a lot of answers, but I wanted to share with you some insights from The Art of Fear: How to Write Scary Ghost Stories that Terrify Your Readers by James Colton. The book is meant for writers of horror fiction, but I think there are things to be learned by screenwriters as well.
Colton's fear-inducing principles are as follows...
- The Unknown: We are not afraid of the dark. We are afraid of what may be lurking unseen in the dark. We are not afraid of death. We are afraid because we don't know what death will be like. A monster or paranormal entity is often much more frightening when it goes unseen. As soon as we know what we are facing, some of the fear slips away. Besides, the pictures each of us are able to build in our minds are much better at scaring us than anything else is. Don't tell your reader everything. Make them worry about what they don't know.
- The Uncanny: You may have heard of "the uncanny valley," that space wherein something like robot or doll that is supposed to look human hits a point of causing us discomfort. We like things that look human--to a point. But when it gets too close, such that it's only a bit off, it gets, well, creepy. This is part of why dolls sometimes freak us out. In a story, if you were to have someone that appeared human but had something just a bit off about them--perhaps in the way the moved or the way they just didn't blink--that could be creepy.
- The Subtle: This is very much related to both previous points. Subtlety can be much more frightening than detailed descriptions of horror. Here's an illustrative excerpt from the book--wherein Colton paraphrases British horror author Adam Nevill:
"Imagine putting your naked arm through a hole in the wall, expecting to find treasure. Instead, you feel something that is either:
Slimy, gooey, dripping, gelatinous, and glutinous
Which is scarier?"
Oh god, "wet." Wet is scarier.
It's also subtle.
- The Emotional: Simply put, if a reader doesn't care about your character, then they're not going to have an emotional reaction to what may or may not happen to them. The reader should identify with the character--feel almost as if they are the character. Further, the emotional states of both the protagonist and the scary thing have an impact on how frightened or uncomfortable the reader becomes. Let your scary thing have an emotional state; a "positive" one can be just as scary as a negative one.
- The Foreboding: You have to work up to the scares. Without the build-up, you don't get the desired end result. Use all of the previous principles to foreshadow what's to come, to build tension, and to give readers some time to get invested and suspend disbelief. Particularly when you're trying to sell as scary something the reader doesn't believe in, you have to give them experiences (a strange sound in the attic, a shadow behind the curtain) that they can buy into first. Start small and ramp up the fright factor all the way to your climax.
Scary stories are awesome! And writing them can be a lot of fun.
If you're interested in writing such things yourself, you may be interested in checking out the previously mentioned book, The Art of Fear: How to Write Scary Ghost Stories that Terrify Your Readers by James Colton. He gives a lot of great examples from effectively scary tales, and he goes into the process of actually writing scary stories later on in the book.
The link above is an affiliate link to the book, which means that if you decide to buy it and to use the link, I will get a teeny tiny bit of the proceeds at no additional cost to you. (Please do not feel any pressure, of course, to do either of those things.)
As always, if there's anything you'd like me to write about, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.