True fear is hard to convey, especially when writing a scary story. Sure, you can state that your character feels fearful, but fear is an art form better shown than told. And merely repeating the words “fear” and “dread” and “horror” and “panic” and “fright” and “alarm” and “scare” isn’t going to cut it.
You could go with the classics of rattling chains, splattering of blood and tormented groans. But that’s all been done before.
What you want is to chill your readers to the core. You want to see goosebumps. You want to haunt their nightmares.
Most importantly, you want your scary story to be discussed so that others read your writing.
So, how do you write a scary story? It’s all about the technique and deliverance.
Keep your favorite stories and movies in mind as you read my blog post.
Control the Breath
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
When we’re in a calm state, we usually don’t notice how we breathe. But when tension arises, our breath becomes quite noticeable.
Same with your story. If your characters are in a state of panic, fear or anxiety, your readers should breathe how they’re breathing in order to match the desired emotion.
This is where your creativity comes in.
To build suspense, focus on your sentences. Readers tend to hold their breath during a moment of anticipation, and if they’re reading long, rhythmic sentences that crescendo to the climatic confrontation, they’ll find themselves gasping for air.
When your characters reach that horrific moment, it’s time to do the opposite. Encourage your readers to breathe rapidly. Short sentences. Shorter paragraphs.
Contain the Facts
In a great scary story, the difference between your reader and the character walking into a dreadful situation is that your readers know without a doubt that it’s coming.
That doesn’t make sense. Isn’t the point of a scary scene to be thrown off and not see it coming?
That’s the role your character needs to play.
In an effective scary moment, your reader is certain that the situation the character enters is a very-bad, no-good life decision. And that’s because the readers know just a bit more information than the character to come to this conclusion.
Keep your characters in the dark just enough so that they seek out that scary situation willingly. This will drive your readers batty because they want to stop the character from making this bad choice yet there’s no stopping what’s about to happen.
Capture Their Attention
A scene can’t be scary if your readers are skimming your sentences. Your readers must hang on your every word for that frightening moment to resonate.
So slow time down. Focus on the present moment. Heighten every sound, sight, scent, taste and touch with vivid descriptors. Every second must feel like a minute.
Readers can’t look away when the next sentence of tension relies on the last. And when that scary moment arises, your readers are all in and fully engaged in your story.
Create Unpredictable Hideouts
Your readers know that this is the scary moment. But what they don’t know is how the villain appears.
This is how you get your readers to jump out of their seat.
Make a list of predictable places your villain can appear in a specific scene. Then have your villain appear from elsewhere.
Say your character hears strange sounds in the kitchen: Scraping knives, the slow creak of the fridge closing, the rush of flames from a gas stove burner. Your character creeps towards the room, step by step, flicks the light on and turns the corner into the kitchen.
But the villain is not there. The fridge is closed. The stove is off. The knives are nowhere to be seen.
Until a sea of knives rains down from the ceiling! Your character is distracted by fending off sharp blades that the villain can sneak in at any moment from anywhere.
But from where? Somewhere that’s even unexpected for you to guess.
Craft Startling Confrontations
Your readers know that the scary moment is approaching. Your readers know that when the character enters the scary situation, such as entering a room, the villain won’t be revealed right away.
Your reader is also making a list on how the villain can attack the character. Think like your reader and make that list too, so that you can see your story from your reader’s perspective.
Then, have your villain approach the scary moment in the most unpredictable way.
This goes beyond where and when the villain emerges. This is about how the villain confronts the character.
Chances are, your villain has had some time to brainstorm. So let yourself be creative as long as it stays aligned with your story’s reality and character motivations.