How to Scare Your Readers: Writing Effective Horror

Writing horror is weird: you’re basically inviting strangers to listen as, for hours, you try to scare the hell out of them. And best case scenario, when you’re finished with them, they’ll anxiously await the next time they can pay for the privilege of being scared by you. Honestly, the whole thing sounds like some cultish mind-control . . . horror story. Or like people waiting in line for a roller coaster with “death” in its name.

In horror, storytelling’s golden rule—“if you get their attention, you better have something to say”—goes niche: if you get their attention, you better send chills down their spine. And let’s face it. We’ve all seen Silence of the Lambs. Pennywise has been revived. Hell, a new generation of kids is growing up on Goosebumps and, now, Five Nights at Freddy’s. And then there’s the news. Suffice it to say, your average modern consumer of American media is a little jaded to the same-ole, same-ole scare tactics.


To build an effective horror story—or a thriller, suspense, fantasy/sci-fi, or nongenre literary story with horror elements—it’s important to know how you want to scare your readers, what your main characters are supposed to evoke in one another, and how your basic approach to content should reflect those goals.

What Type of Fear?: Looking at the Hero-Villain Relationship

What exactly do you want your readers to feel? Should they be set on edge/nervous about the unknown? Terrified of how a known diabolical horror will be applied this time, to Character X? Afraid of time running out? Incrementally and subtly terrorized by a force that reveals its destruction in spread-out scenes and with stealth? Scared of a person, creature, or force that seems so completely unhinged that the worst of the worst is practically guaranteed?

If you don’t find the answers coming easily, it may help to refocus on two of the main pieces of any good pulse-pounder: the protagonist and antagonist. In horror, as in other genres, their relationship boils down to what they bring out in one another. In one of the most prominent classic examples of this relationship, the villain finds the hero to be a worthy opponent—a challenge—and escalates instances of violence and terror to “play with” the hero. The hero, in turn, has to manifest a heretofore untapped level of courage, often being cornered into moments of hellish introspection along the way. (As exemplified by one duo that, even as they have played Genre Twister over the years, dabbling in everything from slapstick comedy to slick action to dark thriller, have maintained that basic dynamic: Batman and the Joker.)

In horror, there’s one basic stipulation that goes with their dynamic, whatever precisely it is: the villain should want to scare the hero—and the hero should be scared. It’s very hard to make your reader feel any fear if the protagonist doesn’t. Literary Psychology 101: your protagonist is your reader’s proxy. So . . . well, if that dude isn’t worried, why should I be?

But what type of fear? And what kind of courage does the hero need to push through?

If the hero-villain dance is one of maleficent versus benevolent genius, the hero may be terrified that an equal-to-or-greater-than mind is working for the dark side. And may need to unearth a courageous self-trust and the ability to stay calm in the face of battlefield chaos. If the baddie is a repugnant fanged troop from the army of the undead, the hero’s courage doesn’t necessarily need subtle psychological flavor (though it can certainly be fun to inject unexpected intricacy into a zombie/werewolf/vampire/etc. story); these heroes need the basic courage to confront creatures that can kill them, quickly and nastily.

Should You Go for Gore?

It’s an age-old issue in horror and genres that incorporate horror elements: Do you need blood and guts to sell the fear? And for that matter, does going gore actually make readers’ fear spike, or does it just make them squeamish? For some, revulsion and fear may be sibling emotions; for others, gore is off-putting enough to be a deal-breaker.

When you’ve figured out what you want to make your readers feel, your overall approach to shiver-stirring content should unfold naturally:

If you intend a given nemesis to be repulsive, so that readers—and other characters—experience a distinctly visceral aversion, let your readers see him shed blood, hear him dragging his feet through puddles of it, feel him retrieving tools of the trade from the body remains tiling his basement. Engaging and offending the senses paves a steady path to repulsion.

If the horror vibe you’re going for is more psychological, gore isn’t necessary. Actually, not just “not necessary.” In these cases, gore is typically a distraction; use of it beyond the infrequent and well-thought-out variety can lead to an inconsistent tone that undermines your story.

Questions to Build a Bloodcurdling Bad Guy

What would positively ice one’s spine in real life won’t necessarily make a ripple in fiction; even if your villain is slaying strangers with a machete . . . well, the horror and oddball horror/comedy worlds have both seen plenty o’ machete killers. What makes this one different? What makes this one somebody you wouldn’t simply run from in the real world—where, let’s face it, we’d all run from threats of a much slighter scale than burly folk with big knives—but someone who stalks your peace of mind right through your suspended disbelief?

If you have created an engrossing world with believable characters and a setting that fascinates, you can rely on those very elements to convince your reader the bad guy is BAD.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How does the bartender react to your villain sitting down for a drink? (Rushing to get it even when the place is packed; dropping the ice scoop; responding with a halting stutter even when the villain’s own words seem, on the surface, pleasant, etc.)
  2. If the villain’s family and/or friends are part of the story, how do they react? Family breeds familiarity and motherhood tends to breed overlooking even heinous flaws. Is your villain so fearsome that his mother’s hand shakes when she cuts a slice of pie for him, their dialogue stilted from caution on her part and passive threats on his?
  3. How do strangers react to your villain? If you need to convey some grotesque deformity or scar, it can be effective—before you ever describe it—to show a stranger turning around to see the villain and gasping. Recoiling. But even if the villain wears no visible mark of evil, others could still sense something’s off and start toeing the line, breathing more deeply, checking around the room to make sure their loved ones and prized possessions are accounted for.
  4. Is there someone in the villain’s life who is not afraid? In Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde/The Tooth Fairy/The Great Red Dragon gives a variety of characters a variety of reasons to quiver before him, but his romantic interest, and blind coworker, Reba McClane never fears him. Is there a character who has good reason to miss what makes your villain fearsome? If so, it can serve as a powerful contrast, and deepen characterization by hinting at how things may have been different if it weren’t for a certain feature the world can’t look past but this one character can. Better still, this can allow you to gradually escalate circumstances to the point that even Character X becomes terrified of the villain—not only showing how vile the villain has become, and how hope for redemption has been lost, but also provoking in the villain an unprecedented degree of rage and vengeance.
  5. How do others act when the villain “does her thing”? Regardless of whether your villain uses a hook, sword, gun, or more everyday and subtle weapon to effect destruction, there’s a moment when the villain starts doing that thing via which she’s earned her reputation, and how people react is important. Think not so much in terms of standard movie-screen reactions (running, crying, pleading, etc.) but in sudden contrasts of character (grown-ups wetting their pants, the resident tough guy cowering, people who have just been fighting over a civil dispute suddenly helping each other take cover) and extreme self-protective measures in which the frightened character risks—even welcomes—lesser injury (getting splinters under one’s fingernails from scratching the wood floor while being dragged away; jumping from an absurd height and breaking one’s legs; rushing into a forest, a cave, the hideout of a vicious gang, etc., for comparative safety).

By asking yourself these questions, you’ll help establish your villain as a truly terrifying presence that rings in the memories of horror fans for years to come.

An experienced book editor can assist you in making your scary characters their most frightsome, your hero believably brave, and your surrounding characters and settings conducive to punching up the fear. Contact me at or via the web form on this site for a consultation and sample edit regarding your novel, nonfiction book, short story or poetry collection, or shorter work.


Beyond Character Quizzes: Asking the Right Questions to Develop Distinct Characters

Think back to Creative Writing 101, the class where an actual Important Writer came to read—a guy with elbow patches and a college-press story collection with cover art that looked pretty pro in the days predating Fiverr artists and rampant Photoshop skills. The class where you and your classmates, green in the art of feedback, were kinda lost after underlining the word “suit” when the writer meant “suite” and comparing the smart-kid character to Scout Finch. The one with the character quizzes.

You know the type.

  1. What’s your character’s favorite food?
  2. What type of movies does he like?
  3. Describe her accent and list any often-used phrases.
  4. Is he religious? Political? Is his family? Do they fight so hard about it at dinner that a flying drumstick nearly takes someone’s eye out?

While completing a favorites list on behalf of your character may ignite your nostalgia for those days of filling out magazine quizzes alongside your best friend with goofy and/or profane answers, that’s essentially what it can feel like: playing around. Having some fun with your characters but not getting to know them on a make-or-break level. This doesn’t mean you need to forswear character quiz questions altogether, but save them for when you’ve answered the questions that matter more.

How Does Your Character Relate to the Theme?

I’ve written previously about how focusing on a not-too-broad, not-too-narrow theme can help you more clearly see individual characters. Once you have an unobstructed view of what kind of story you want to tell—what Big Questions you’ll answer, what enigmas you’ll crack open—it’s often much easier to see what essential roles your main players will need to serve along with the primary ways in which they’ll interact with one another.

What Part of Your Character Is You?

Returning to Creative Writing 101 for a moment, do you remember the central characters in any of your classmates’ short stories? Do you remember thinking that, outside of a few swapped-around superficial details, your classmates were absolutely writing about themselves? Do you remember explaining how your own main character wasn’t youish at all and your fellow writers-in-the-making looking at you like suuuure?

Since those days, through much three a.m. caffeinated practice, your once-shrimpy creativity has probably grown musclebound. Maybe your characters now live on different continents—or planets. Maybe they have to confront social issues you know only through a combination of research, imagination, and empathy. They might even hold core political beliefs different from your own. Maybe you’re so good you can now, with commiseration and a soft heart, write a vegetarian character in between whopping Cookout-burger bites. But listen. That vegetarian Martian who supports the communist uprising after being bullied for years because her scaly skin is purple to everyone else’s scaly green—there’s still some part of her that’s you.

Writers are not blank slates, even writers who work organically, who are short on outlining and long on going with the muse-ical flow. There’s a reason you, as opposed to John Irving or Ali Smith or Chuck Palahniuk or elbow-patched Important Writer, are writing this story, these characters.

For example, let’s say you decide the part of Purple Communist Vegetarian Martian Girl (let’s call her Matilda) that most clearly arises from your own character is her tendency to “overcorrect.” For instance, she goes from being a doormat to a violent pseudorevolutionary, no shades of gray between. Maybe you once went from a poorly protein-supplemented macrovegan existence to Super Atkins and landed yourself in a red-meat stupor for weeks. Or maybe it was something not meat-related and of slightly longer-term consequence.

Proper characterization will prevent Matilda from coming across as a run-of-the-mill, cartoonish alien.

Once you identify what part of your psychological or philosophical DNA a given character is manifesting . . .

  1. your own bond with and vision of that character should be brighter.
  2. you can more aptly oversee the remainder the character production process, namely making sure you’re not inadvertently demonizing or ennobling Matilda beyond what’s called for out of some need to chastise, justify, or praise that part of you now showing up in your literary offspring.
  3. you can better filter out (or in) other you-qualities based on what makes sense for Matilda’s own character and her role in the story.

How Does Your Character Sound?

Not so much when singing in the shower, but when speaking, when thinking, when narrating her own life. While this one can be every bit as fun as quiz questions, I consider it separate based on just how important it is. Because your medium is the written word, the ability to hear your character can lead to, and is usually therefore more immediately important than, your ability to see your character. Seeing may be believing, but in storytelling, hearing is seeing.

When you’ve answered these essential character questions, feel free to proceed to the fun stuff. Sketch Matilda’s favorite T-shirt. Determine what rock music sounds like on Mars and whether she’s a fan. Is ultrapricey earthling coffee her weakness?

When it comes to working through the finer issues of characterization or objectively seeing whether your characters have chemistry, whether they fulfill the needs of your theme and plot, whether they come across with believable internal consistency, etc., an experienced book editor can help. If you’re looking for a literary editor to handle your manuscript evaluation, developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, or any combination thereof, contact me via the web form on this site or at

Almost Outlined: Working Past Mental Bottlenecking to Create a Killer Book Outline

Say your novel-to-be is about rock and roll—that much is clear—and you’re ready to outline. Or rather, ready or not, you need to outline. You sit down to your spreadsheet, blank Word doc, legal pad, or multicolored sticky notes, your head abuzz with story impressions: the thudding loudness and in-your-faceness of rock’s heyday; the rock modernists; some patchy character profiles; a main plot, three subplots, and fifteen mini plots; this idea you have to score some original rock tuneage and include it in the book—your music actually telling part of the story (not sure how—will figure out as you outline); this other idea you have to represent the dissent that frequently breaks up bands by telling your story not just in alternating narrative voices but alternating POVs; and . . . and . . . and . . .

By the time you’ve wrangled all your potential storytelling elements into focus, you’ll likely have not only scared yourself out of writing word one of your outline but also decided that you and three to four of your friends are the rightful heirs to Deep Purple and what the hell are you doing trying to make a book when you could be making music. And, hey, if that’s your route, go for it. The kids these day need good music.

“Hush” is not a personal instruction. It doesn’t pertain to your writing. Outline on.

They also need good books. And if you intend to actually write, rather than think endlessly and vaguely about, one, you need to free yourself from the trap of trying to all-at-once decide how to handle characterization, plot, structure, POV, voice, style, and whether or not to include an original score.

Continue reading “Almost Outlined: Working Past Mental Bottlenecking to Create a Killer Book Outline”

Trusting Your Readers to “Get It”: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Too Much Description

Reading is a participation pastime, which is sometimes difficult for writers to remember. Rather than witnessing a visually inflexible world—as with movies, TV, etc.—readers are called on to use their own imagination and understanding of the world to fill in the gaps. This means that, in a sense, releasing your finished book represents an act of confidence in readers as a general institution, thinking, “I’ve done my part; the rest is up to them.” Easier thought than done.

One of the more challenging things for writers to keep in mind is that readers are capable of understanding the point of an exchange, scene, or sequence with just a few well-placed clues. Particularly when a scene is loaded with action or some your loveliest description, it’s hard to admit that readers can get the point with less—and that whether or not less is always more, more is definitely less when your reader got it several details ago and is now getting irked at your verbosity.

But if your job isn’t to lead readers by the hand through all the technicalities, what is important to say? How do you determine when to say when with your own description?

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Meltdown vs. Bad-Day Writing

Expressing Characters’ Emotions on the Worst (and Second-Worst, and Third-Worst . . .) Day of Their Lives

It’s a widely accepted truth that if stage actors, viewed from lofty balcony seats and way-back stadium seating alike, are to adequately project emotion, there’s gotta be a little exaggeration. Sometimes a lot. While the acting may never reach the highs (er, lows?) of soap operas or, say, the early days of Bonanza (ten points to anyone who knows the specific scenery-chewing I mean here), it does have to be pointed and often quite physical for the content to be properly expressed in the given context.

A truth perhaps less widely known: with fiction, particularly the literary variety, it’s nearly the opposite. If you’re going to express your character’s emotions in a way that comes across as relatable and real, a little understatement can go a long way.

Continue reading “Meltdown vs. Bad-Day Writing”

Keurig Cups and Characters on Aisle 12: Avoiding the Interchangeable Character Trap

You could call it the Modern Family curse (feel free to insert the title of your once-loved but run-too-long sitcom of preference). The watching world (WW) once adored it, with its sharp timing and its character-driven comedy and its Ed O’Neill. Now? The WW sorta kinda puts up with it, because nostalgia, the way you do with that one friend from school who always drinks too much pinot and argues politics. To have enjoyed such a hot streak in its early days, Modern Family certainly has succumbed to the pratfalls of far too many American-sweetheart sitcoms—not just staying on the air too long, but, in its scramble for fresh material, shuffling through entertaining-ish circumstances, whether those circumstances fit and arise from their characters or not.

The trap of writing interchangeable characters lies spookily in wait of novel, short story, TV, screen, play, and essentially all other writers. Falling into it leads to alienating fans of your earlier work who can no longer really care about the watery remains of characters they once connected to. Not to mention, the tendency to fuzzily sketch character outlines from the word go can prevent you from ever delivering the awesome story in your head to the right audience.

Fortunately, shucking that bad habit is largely a matter of focusing on that place where people definitely aren’t interchangeable: real life.

Continue reading “Keurig Cups and Characters on Aisle 12: Avoiding the Interchangeable Character Trap”