“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
Horror is not just a remarkably diverse and visceral genre within which to write – it can also be one of the most difficult. The variety of emotional responses you can evoke is wide, as is the kind of experience demanded by different types of horror aficionados: From readers who crave little more than an onslaught of gory carnage, to those who shy away from graphic violence but love the skin-crawling atmosphere of a slow-burn ghost story.
To help you mix up your scary stories, or gain a better handle on the genre if you’ve rarely dabbled in it, here are 5 ways to scare the pants off of those who dare tread between the covers of your next hair-raising opus.
1. Evoke a Blend of Responses
It helps to understand the difference between horror-centric emotional responses. Fear and suspense are rooted in anxiety – the expectation that something bad will happen. Fear is the “what’s out there?” emotion – the response to something rustling in the bushes, to nearby footsteps in the dark or the sound of breathing coming from inside the closet.
Panic and terror often follow fear, once the perceived or expected threat is made real: The monster leaps from the shadows, or the intruder is revealed… and the low throb of fear becomes immediate, adrenaline-pumping terror. The threat is there, it is real, and it must be escaped.
Disgust is another viable option – the visceral, gut-churning reaction to vivid bodily harm, grotesque mutations or simple common revulsion such as insects crawling from foodstuffs.
For a varied experience, try mixing these types of horror across your scenes – terror, for example, is often the shock “punch line” that helps break the oppressive nature of fear, giving your reader some temporary respite from the pressure while still offering the adrenaline jolt they’re looking for.
2. Increase Their Heart Rate with Short Sentences
In moments of terror, using short sentences will help you push your reader into a heightened state. Where your foreboding setup will likely be constructed of longer, dread-building sentences and paragraphs, this should change once your character makes the mental shift from fear into terror and panic.
Switching to a shorter structure will force your reader to take breaths more often, pulling them deeper into the scene and creating an experiential connection with the panic your character is going through.
3. Shock Them with the Unexpected
Horror is often structurally compared with comedy, and for good reason: The success of both relies heavily on elements of misdirection, build-up and release.
To send your reader figuratively rocketing off their seat with shock, hit them where they least expect it. As the tension builds in your scene, heading for the inevitable (terrifying) climax, construct the action in such a way that you’re pointing your reader’s attention in one direction, but come at them from somewhere different with the payoff.
This misdirection is a classic staple – think a character apprehensively investigating a scratching noise coming from a floor-level cupboard. Slowly, fearfully, they reach in… gulping as the saliva dries in their mouth… and open the cupboard door.
Inside, there’s nothing… but then something skitters in the doorway to their right. They look… but also see nothing. It seems they’re alone – and then they stand, look up, and the monstrosity we’ve been expecting is right above them, preparing to attack.
To prevent this becoming stale and overplayed, ensure your reader doesn’t know when you’re going to drop that final bomb – keep them wondering, keep them rapt, and keep them fearful until you know it’s the right moment to strike. This takes practice, so keep at it and try a few different approaches with your scenes – you can sometimes masterfully subvert expectations by deploying the shock early.
4. Corrupt the Everyday
Try taking pedestrian pieces of everyday life and twisting them into horrific representations of themselves. Think, for example, of body horror – a stubbed toe refusing to heal, the event instead kicking off a grotesque metamorphosis – or a character going through their morning routine only to suddenly discover they don’t recognize their own face.
Taking common things that carry basic expectations in the real world and giving them an abnormal outcome is a simple way to form an effective, relatable horror story.
5. Don’t Skimp on Character
Your characters are of utmost importance in any successful horror novel. For your readers to feel any concern whatsoever about your threat or your outcomes, they need to find connection with the characters you’re putting in peril.
The stakes should be high – extreme even – and rooted in believable personal relationships with people who will suffer grave consequences if the hero fails to overcome evil.
This doesn’t mean that your character has to be a perfect, virtuous person. They don’t even have to be entirely likeable – but they need to invoke strong feelings in the reader.
Spend the required time to thoroughly flesh out and understand your characters – know how they will react when placed in terrifying situations. Will they be able to think clearly and act appropriately, or are they likely to panic and fuel further chaos?
Know their motives. Why would they even get involved in a situation so deadly? This is where you can play on relationships, increasing the threat by making targets of the people close to your protagonist. This way, your character isn’t just fighting for their own survival – they’re also fighting to save their loved ones.
If you’re writing a monster story, don’t forget that the creature is also a character. Be sure to flesh it out – its origins, its life cycle, methods of attack/defense, whether it is intelligent or acts based on instinct, its weaknesses, and so on and so forth.
Believable people, believable creatures and believable settings are essential for your reader to sink into the story and become relaxed and open enough for your scares to hit their mark.
BONUS: Create Standout Scares with AutoCrit
As you finish each chapter, or once your entire first draft is complete, don’t forget to run your work through AutoCrit using the Mystery/Suspense setting!
Any horror novel should be tense, unsettling, and peppered with pulse-raising terror. AutoCrit will guide your hand during editing, with direct structural comparison to thousands of successful suspense novels.
With AutoCrit, you’ll easily nail your descriptions, fine tune your sentence length for those build-and-release blasts of horror, and ensure readers remain gripped from start to finish by putting your story into the kind of shape that’s been proven to satisfy the needs of thrill-seekers time and again.
What do you think, horror writers? Do you have any expert tips you’d like to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!