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.

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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.
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  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 editor@powerproofgirl.com 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.

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