Frightening Writing: Tips for Scaring off Pants

WritersdontcryNHowtoscareyourreaderearly every fantasy story I have ever read has at least one moment where the author tries to scare the pants off me. Often I’m supposed to fear the villain. Sometimes I’m supposed to fear his minions as well. And other times, I’m just supposed to fear a horrific situation, or the probable consequences of a character’s questionable choices. But any way you cut it, knowing how to scare your reader is an important skill—and one whose lack would undermine your entire novel. (The last thing you want when the Masked Moo finally battles the Dehoofinator in your super serious fantasy epic, is laughs—except maybe yawns.) But that’s no problem! Just throw in a couple of gaping maws and some evil-looking claws, and you’re done, right?

Tragically, no. Being scary isn’t just about word choice (though that’s totally important), or choosing between needlelike teeth and toothless sucker-maws (both perfectly valid choices). Being scary is a kind of climax. And just like every other climax, it’s something you have to build up to, deftly orchestrating the slow increase of tension and intensity until you reach the bloody finale! (Okay, maybe not just like every other climax.) You can divide said climax into three different stages of scary: anticipating the threat, perceiving the threat, and suffering the threat. Or, more simply, fearing a monster, seeing the monster, and experiencing the monster chewing your arm off.

While each of these brands of terror stands on its own, the complete scare package generally starts out with anticipation, moves to perception, and ends in suffering. However, within that greater arc, we can actually use all three tactics to slowly build the tension and intensity to a heart-stopping finish. These waves will start by using primarily the first level of horror, and then use increasing amounts of the latter two levels. And, of course, the very best “sufferings” carry in them the promise of new “anticipations.” (See Alien: the facehuggers.)

Easy enough, right? But let’s break it down a little bit.

Anticipating the Threat

Playing on a reader’s anxiety and fear is horror’s version of foreplay: and hot damn, does it work. It masters the double threat of both scaring you onto the edge of your seat—and then keeping you there. In fact, anxiety-based scare tactics are so effective that they are often undermined by the reveal of the monster—particularly if the author is not as skilled at the other two stages (or, in old horror flicks, if they special effects budget wasn’t quite there).

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Comments (2)

It’s when everything your character fears comes to pass—and then some.

Posted by: Supreme Beanie | Monday January 7, 2013 at 4:42 AM

Great post, thank you! Your writing is very fun to read. This post reminded me of a quote I read years ago. I think it was Orson Scott Card (though I could be wrong; as I said, this was years ago) who said that horror was the lowest on the fear scale. Dread was the most powerful. Just showing folks a scary creature isn't nearly as effective as making them wonder just what that is creeping around in the dark. And now you have me wanting to go write a really good dread scene! Thank you! :)

Posted by: Megan Peterson | Tuesday November 13, 2012 at 8:27 PM

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