No piece of advice is universal and anything you hear should be dropped at a moment’s notice when it does not fit your story. Take what I will say with a grain of salt. Anything that I say in this series may be completely wrong for a story or entirely wrong for most stories, but they are ideas and tactics that I have found useful.
So how the hell do we actually scare people in prose?
It took me a long time to figure that out, going off the wisdom of many historic greats and plenty of trial and error. Scaring people in film is easier. By the nature of visual media, it is easier to dig into the emotions of people. What about in prose?
I can’t tell you what to do to scare people, what I can tell you is to consider the ways you can scare people.
As one could expect, Stephen King did in fact figure out the three best ways to scare people. It’s almost like he’s the greatest living horror author? Who’d a thunk?
Obviously, you can’t have characters you don’t care about in a story we don’t give a shit about. That’s basics. We are not concerned with that, this blog is about how we scare people after establishing character and story. These are the tactics you can employ when understanding how you illicit fear in writing.
“The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.”
This is pretty self-explanatory. This is the weakest, shallowest, and most immediate of the types of horror. The teenaged-angst levels of writing horror, the worm thrown at your sister, the vomit on the floor, and the rats in the basement.
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you aren’t able to scare the reader, fucking make them disgusted at the imagery. This is where you reach into your skills of “showing” instead of telling. The full sensory and tactile description
“The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.”
Horror, the most immediate and familiar way to scare. Ask yourself? What scares you? The dark, the spiders, the sharks, the zombies, and especially the gruesome murder. Horror is the realm of the aftermath, the concept and the implication. Whether it’s the secrets of an incestuous noble family or the unfathomable depths of space, horror is the broadest category for scares. Anything that can illicit fear is classified as horror. More than disgust, but less than terror.
In writing, this is the broadest ways to illicit fear. It goes from the vivid descriptions of a brutal murder, the discovery of a mutilated body or the dark secrets. These cover all areas of prose from character, plot, story and world.
There is no real advice one can give besides asking yourself what scares you? What scares others? And what can you write to unsettle the reader?
“And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
The ultimate sublime fear we can create.
What is terror?
Terror is that moment when you shut the door and realize you are in mortal danger. When something is wrong and you don’t know what or where the danger will come. Unlike horror, terror is a specific period of time, an event, a state of being. It is not the horrific murder or monstrous enemy, it is the chase itself, the moment the door shuts, and the waiting for the axe to fall. It is complete anxiety and unmitigated vulnerability.
Some famous moments include the Nun at the end of the hallway in The Conjuring 2 or the shark fin rising from the ocean in JAWS. Creating absolute vulnerability, destroying safety and adding mortal threat. Removing the ability to make any sound in A Quiet Place, shutting the door, collapsing a tunnel, throwing them in the ocean. Anyway to remove safety.
Then add the danger.
Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe wrote that terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life” and horror, in contrast, “freezes and nearly annihilates them.”
You listen to every bump, every tremor, and every heartbeat when you are terrorized. For readers, they read and re-read every line before moving on. Trying to take everything in. For writers? Bring the prose into the character, show us their terror, every shadow they watch and every sound they hear. Make this last as long as possible before the crescendo or absolute violence.
Awaken their senses to the danger around them.
This is the true sublime goal of every scary story.
In my ever so humble opinion, I do think there is a fourth way to scare people. King is actually the best at this more than the other three and it’s actually quite simple to do for many new horror writers.
Dread is when you know something bad is going to happen, it’s farther off, and you spend half the book waiting for the axe to drop. Instead of holding back on the surprise twist, you tell the audience what will happen. You don’t show it. Not yet. You break the rules and tell them.
Some may consider this just terror, especially given the given definitions, but terror is the immediate, heart-pounding, awakening fear. When you are past the point of no return, when the monster is in the room with you, when the killer is in the house.
Dread is the slow burn fear.
In many of King’s books you know who is going to die chapters before it happens. It’s giving the spoiler early and letting you find out how it happens. It is the most powerful way to bring a reader in. They may throw the book away in disgust or close it after the horror of the attack, needing a moment to come back to it, but dread? Dread makes them keep reading.
If all else fails, if you can’t disgust the reader, horrify them, terrorize them, make them fucking dread what happens next. Tell them with the glee of a demented child that bad things are coming and you’ll just have to wait and see.
All of these things are used by horror writers, but they can also be incredibly useful for all genres. They illicit deep emotions that stretch across genres.
My favourite example of non-horror terror is Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga, a gloriously bloody Greco-Roman epic in space. He does the two essential things, he makes me care about characters giving them all moments to shine and quip and be loveable. Then he throws them into the most brutal violent situations imaginable and makes the audience know that no one is safe.
In every battle, every duel, every Iron Rain, we are in a constant state of heightened awareness. Absolutely terrified by the next page because terrible things are always about to happen. Characters die, immediately, surprisingly, and without mercy. Established characters vanish in plumes of blood vapour, babies are slaughtered, and no duel has a certain victor.
That is how you terrorize the audience outside the genre of horror.
It is also an object lesson in terror for horror fans.
I hope this re-examination of a familiar concept to many genre fans offers if nothing else, clarity and specificity on how to scare readers.
If you like what I’ve said here, please consider ordering my first short story collection; The Veiled Sagas: Bloodied – seven dark fantasy stories filled with monsters, gruesome sacrifices and intense violence – Click here to order through Amazon.