Frightening Writing: Tips for Scaring off Pants
Nearly 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).
This stage is all about potential. The potential for violence and the potential to escape unchewed balance on a knife’s edge--and that constant threat mixed with a heady dash of hope amps up both the hero and the reader. If you take away the hope, you lose it. And if you take away the threat, of course you lose it. The best way to capitalize on this is to use situations that excite the darker parts of your imagination: having to wriggle through the dark, narrow space between the walls; having to put your hand down an insect-infested hole you can’t see into. Anything that raises the hair on the back of your neck. One of my favorite examples of this is from The Lord of the Rings—reading about the drums in the deep in the creeptastic fortress-cum-crypt… and then hearing them. They could see the devastating results from the last time the drums were heard all around them, could read about the experiences that led up to their horrific deaths, and yet they still manage to hold on to hope when the experience from the book starts to repeat itself.
You’re also going to want to think about fear and how it effects the hero’s perceptions. When we’re anxious or afraid, we become hyperaware, noticing and making a lot out of every detail—like our breath, our heart, and the sound of nails clicking somewhere down the hall (or is that just an eco-friendly bulb crackling?). Our motor control slips, and we move with more force or speed than we intend. And time seems to play with us—slowing down or speeding up, making us feel out of control in our own worlds.
Tip: This is where that less-is-more horror advice comes from—and it’s still solid for this stage. Anxiety-based scares are all about what’s going on in your head, so showing a lot of monster at this stage is almost always premature.
Perceiving the Threat
If the previous stage was all about setting expectations, and the next stage is about fulfilling expectations, then this is that moment in between—a moment which should bring your character’s fears into razor-sharp focus. This is where you get a face to put to your fear—and in a solid scare, this adds to the fear, materializing as a more terrible monstrosity than your reader ever imagined.
The very simplest way to solidify fears—and imply the potential for violence--is to show us the monster has claws or teeth—because, well, we all know what those can be used for. The second simplest way would be to put the monster in the context of past violence by, say, strewing the floor with bones (as seems popular in carnage pit décor), or by presenting an untidy monster who forgets to wipe the blood off her chin (I mean, really, it’s just going to get bloody again—what’s the big fuss?). But those are just the simplest examples—and rather cliché, unless given more detail and personality. The scariness of your monster’s appearance and context depends entirely on your inventiveness and attention to detail.
The facehuggers in the Alien franchise are excellent examples of using a monster’s appearance to increase their fear factor. Before you even know what they do, you know they can jump really high, and that they resemble giant fleshy spiders with fingerlike appendages. And surely I can’t be the only one who, when I see a giant spider, immediately thinks: holy heck, that thing is bigger than my face! And then suffers visions and phantom sensations of what exactly it would look and feel like if it attached itself to said face. It only gets better (worse?) when you uncover what they can do: then you have not only a fear-inspiring appearance, but also the very real fear of near-future chest-bursting (yay, circle of life!). That’s not just your death—that’s a horrible, painful death that leaves you plenty of time to anticipate it—and to hope you can find a way to escape it.
Suffering the Threat
This is the climax of your scare. It’s when everything your character fears comes to pass—and then some. For many new writers, this scene often comes down to gruesome descriptions and gore. And there’s something to that! This scene is about capitalizing, fulfilling, and exceeding those expectations you built, so you definitely want your monster attacks to live up to the hype. However, that doesn’t mean you have to get spaghetti-sauce gross to achieve your goals—over-exposure is just as strong a fear-killer as comedy.
If the first stage is about a character’s emotions, and the second is about the details, then the third section is about the sensations. Focus on what it feels like to have the skin stripped from your belly, or for a claw to lodge itself between your ribs. Tell us what it feels like have your body constricted until your bones crack, or to suffer a wave of fire so hot it steals your breath. This should be the most intense moments in your scare—so fierce you can only stand them for a short time. (For more details on writing fight scenes, please see my fight scene tips.)
Most importantly, keep it short! This stage was not meant for prolonged use: it’s too intense, and dwelling in it for too long will dull its edge and disappoint your readers. That doesn’t mean that you only get a paragraph of suffering in your whole climax, however. Great scares often successfully pass through all three stages multiple times with increasing intensity until the protagonist either finally defeats the villain--or is defeated themselves.
Stay in Your Character’s Head
Of course, for all of these stages, staying in your character’s head is the number one most important thing. Very little physical description, when written in words on a page, will have the same effect as showing us the effect it has on your character, with as much realism as you can muster. And by staying in your character’s head, you can make even the common rat the scariest thing a reader has ever encountered.