Trying to instil genuine fear is a difficult task for any writer. But here I’ll share some tips on how to scare your reader.
Some writers miss the mark without realising it.
They set the scene, they used powerful words, and in doing so, delivered a shock. But did it hit the bull’s eye. Did that moment resonate deep inside the reader and cause them to think about it long after closing the book?
There are countless external factors that can interrupt the story and wash away the emotions we are going for. A phone could ring just as things start heating up. The dog or cat demand the reader’s attention. Or a wife, husband, or anyone, asks the reader a question at a critical moment in the scene.
These are the things we have no control over.
But in between the pages, there are things we can control.
If we consider the five points listed below, we will draw in the reader and fuel their imagination.
Using these five points, we can create the memory of fear. And with the memory, and their imagination in overdrive, we can scare them.
- Draw on your life experience
- Avoid trying too hard to be scary
- Choosing the wrong words
- Pacing and sentence structure
1, Draw on your life experience to scare your reader
Writing about something that you think will be scary is less convincing than something you know is scary.
For instance, I’m not afraid of heights. I’m like Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate when he stood at the edge of the rooftop. However, I know people who react like Keanu Reeves in that scene. He reluctantly looked over the side, then quickly pulled back to safety.
Personally, I don’t understand it, so I spoke to a friend about his fear of heights. He was able to articulate exactly how his mind and body react.
He told me his body feels like it’s “tumbling” towards the fall like he has no control. Also, how his heart rate climbs and his senses spike. And if he’s there longer than his rational mind can cope with, his entire body freezes.
Having never felt that experience before, how could I write it with any conviction?
The answer is simple.
I recall the things I am afraid of, and how they make me feel. Then, describe those feelings to my reader.
Instead of trying to describe something that you think will frighten the reader, write about the feelings you had when your hair stood on end in the past.
Doing this makes you write from experience. And when you describe something, you know, you can add all the small details that you remember. How did that feeling start and grow? What thoughts infected your mind? How did you react physically and emotionally?
Recalling these memories and building on the answers is a great way to connect with a reader. If they’ve ever felt fear in the way you describe, they will react the same way.
Invite them to recall the same memories and relive them in the confines of the narrative.
2, Trying too hard to scare your reader
When you try too hard, you will likely reach for trigger words that are often too forceful.
Hyperbole in a book is expected and enjoyable if used appropriately. But when a character is moving through a darkened hallway, or entering a blood splattered room, using extreme words can sometimes distract the reader from their emotions.
Don’t tell the reader how terrifying it is by using dramatic and overpowering language. Doing this risks laying it on too thick. Simply describe the scene with relatable language. This way, the reader can fully understand what’s happening, and their imagination will take over to make it truly dreadful.
Recall, if you will, the last time you felt that tingle run up your spine. What were the words that went through your head?
Take whatever scenario you like: walking down a darkened path, the power going out when you’re home along, or waking in the small hours with a “feeling” that something isn’t right.
Chances are, the words that went through your head weren’t words of clever and enchanting writing. More likely, they were simple and to the point. And probably a few words that I can’t write here.
Simply tell us what is happening and focus on the details. Don’t tell us that a noise sounded like a “terrifying death-gargle of a murdered witch.” Instead, describe the gargle, the sound, the pitch, the echo, and how the character reacts to the noise.
By describing the reaction, the reader can empathise with the character and decide if it’s frightening or not.
3, Choosing the wrong words
Words are weapons for a writer. We use them to invoke specific feelings by describing scenes, people, and actions. But if we over yolk the pudding, we desensitise the reader and certain words will lose their power.
A book I read recently told the story of a young woman in a suspected haunted house. The narrative was good, but by the end, I was left feeling like everything was geared toward causing a fright.
Even the chime of the microwave was described as “the loud ping of the microwave rang in her ears like a fire alarm as it echoed from the kitchen. [She] jumped up from the chair; her heart pounding in her chest…”
At this point I rolled my eyes. Either this woman had a bad experience with a microwave in her past, the microwave had an abnormally loud bell, or the writer was trying too hard to make everything sound frightening.
Save the dramatic words for the dramatic scenes.
A writer can nurture unease by using appropriate, everyday words.
If everything “hammers,” “bangs,” “startles,” etc., eventually, the words lose their shock-factor. And if every scene is dramatic and require these words, then maybe you’re holding the suspense too long.
Give your reader a chance to relax and get lulled into a false sense of security. And when you’ve caused uncertainty or unease through the use of gentle and suggestive words, hit them with the full power of your hyperbole.
4, Pacing and sentence structure
When a writer is in the moment, the words flow as the narrative takes shape.
Because we can see what the scene looks like in our mind, we write quickly to capture it in black and white. However, when we take a step back, we can struggle to see the scene any other way than the way it played out in our heads.
In short–we are looking at it from one perspective.
This is why it’s important to let the manuscript rest for a few weeks. When we return to it, we can read it from a reader’s perspective.
This is when pacing and sentence structure issues show themselves.
The scenes where the MC seems to go from relaxing and drinking his coffee, to rushing from room to room could now seem confusing. Was the room-to-room section introduced out of the blue? Or was the coffee drinking not quite the build-up the scene needed?
How about the sentence structure? This is key to creating unnerving scenes.
If we use long and complex sentences, we risk confusing the reader. If we use too many short sentences, it can read like a list and the flow of the scene vanishes. But when a mixture of both is used, we can distort time for the reader. They’ll lose themselves in the words and bring the book closer to their nose as they get drawn in.
This can instil a sense of fear, reluctance, anxiety, hyper-focus, helplessness; all the things the character is feeling.
And if done correctly, the reader will feel like they’re experiencing the same emotions as the character.
5, Using descriptions properly to scare your reader
Descriptions are the foundations of good writing. But poor foundations can cause a structure to crumble to the ground.
Below are some common problems that stem from a writer’s inability to use descriptions properly.
Over describing (overwriting)
Over describing settings, items, people, feelings, can slow a story down to the point of being unreadable.
If your character walks into a forest, tell the reader what the trees look like. Tell them of how the sunlight breaks through the canopy and how the shadows dance on the floor. But if you describe too many aspects and the reader turns the page to more description, they will resist your words and begin scanning for action.
They want to get a good picture in their mind, but they also want the story to unfold.
This is often referred to as overwriting and there are many other elements to this issue. But one way to limit overwriting is to only describe what needs to be described.
Chances are, when I wrote the word “forest” in the second paragraph, you pictured your version of a forest. It is the writer’s job to augment that image to suit their narrative. But no more. That’s what the reader’s imagination is for.
In an action scene, the reader wants the action to unfold line-by-line. They don’t want to pause for you to describe the legs of the table the character is hiding under.
The next issue that a writer can fall victim to is describing irrelevant things.
I wish I could remember where I read this, but to paraphrase it: “If you describe a room to me and tell me in great detail about an AK47 on the wall; someone better use it.”
Remember, you are holding the camera and showing your readers the things they need to see. If you focus on things that are irrelevant, you could omit the very things required to pull the reader into the room.
If a chainsaw-wielding lunatic bursts through the door, the reader will appreciate a quick description of the doorframe breaking, and the door flying off of the hinges. But they are probably more interested in the chainsaw, the person holding it, and any blood or flesh still attached to the working parts.
Avoid showing how the splintered wood fell to the floor and how the door landed next to the sofa. Show us the lunatic and maybe window the MC is going to jump through to escape.
Yes, you get to tell the story, and in your world, the grass can be blue. But world building aside, giving inaccurate descriptions of common things is a big problem for readers.
As a writer, you are charged with making the story as relatable as possible. You need the reader to able to relate so they can begin to trust your words.
A good way to do this is to introduce things they are familiar with. But to do this, you must also be familiar with the things you are describing.
Now, it’s probably a fair assumption that not all of us are familiar with the M4 Carbine rifle. But there are readers who know this weapon well enough to realise if the writer got it wrong.
Similarly, if you’re writing about a place but have never been there, you could be incorrectly describing it to someone who knows the area well.
If you are going to descript items, places, or actions that you don’t fully understand, you must research them.
Doing this will add authority to your writing and the reader will trust your words. If they distrust you because you incorrectly described something, they won’t believe you when you tell them about the danger climbing through the window.
They must trust you in order to feel the feelings you want them to feel.
Writing a scary scene is best done when you understand what makes a particular moment frightening for you.
If you know why it frightens you, you can describe all the small details to your reader and invoke visceral responses.
Make your reader recall a moment that made their skin crawl, or the time when they froze in fear.
By using relatable and suggestive language, you can plant the seed of uneasiness and nurture it into fear.
But push too hard or try to force them with hyperbole and you risk being rewarded with an eye roll.
All you need to do is help your reader’s imagination do what it does best.