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Creepin’ It Real: Writing Scary

by Audrey Harper

Have you ever wanted to write something spine tingling, terrifying, or just plain spooky? Well strap yourself in because I’m going to tell you what, in my opinion, makes a story, and its characters, scary.

  1. Under Describe Your Scary Things – Monsters, violent acts, imminent danger…all of these things can have a stronger impact if they aren’t bogged down by comparisons and painted so clearly they become as real as a flowerpot. Yes, of course whatever you’re writing about needs to have description, but if there’s no room for suspense, the writing can feel bland. If your characters don’t 100% know what they’re dealing with, the reader can emphasize with them. Show us the emotion in the situation and avoid telling us what your characters don’t understand.
  2. Play With The Senses – There are so many ways this can be done. Take a sense away from your character. Heighten another. Have a monster rely on a singular sense and make that your protagonist’s weakness. Or vice versa, but make it the monster’s strength instead. Taking a sense away can add suspense to a scene. For example: a character wandering around in the dark and hearing an indistinguishable sound is much more frightening than a character being able to see that it was just a cat jumping off the counter. Also, keep in mind that I would consider the fear reactions of fight, flight, and freeze. How your character reacts physically is just as important as how they knew to react.
  3. Humanize Your Monsters – This is where some psychology comes in. Having an antagonist who on the outside appears to be a good person (perhaps an elderly woman or a charismatic business person), but on the inside is a manipulative, self-serving monster can create a gaslighting scenario. Due to the charisma or importance of the antagonist, characters can turn on the protagonist for suggesting that they are evil, essentially getting painted as monsters themselves. Give the antagonist political or societal power and now your protagonist is limited even further.
  4. The Uncanny – What’s scarier than a human who acts like a monster? A monster pretending to be a human. Something that’s trying to pass as human, but you occasionally get glimpses of something inhuman. This idea, like the senses, can be developed in anyway. Was this creature something that used to be human like a vampire? Is it something that never was human like an alien or an angry spirit? Having monsters that can adapt to their surroundings, or be anyone, can add another layer of dread.
  5. Find A Balance Between Gore and Psychological Horror – It’s totally okay to want to write about severed limbs or Saw traps, but finding a balance between those descriptors and what’s going through the victim’s head (or antagonist’s!) gives dimension to the story. Some readers find gore incredibly gross. Some find psychological horror boring. In my experience, stories that have both are often received better than stories with one. Write what your comfortable with, but don’t be afraid to experiment with both.
  6. Get Physical – In point 1, I said not to get too descriptive, but I do think it’s also important to show us the physicality in a scene. How do bones and ligaments sound when a demon possessed body contorts itself? Hyper focus on specific anatomy of monsters and use the same descriptor every time that body part is mentioned. For example: if every time a monster’s teeth were mentioned as “needle teeth,” the reader won’t be able to picture those needle teeth any other way. Temperature is important. Does the character react physically to scary sounds? Do they hunch up? Jump? Get goosebumps? All of these things are human reactions and can help a scene feel real.

Again, I want to say that these tips are my opinion. You don’t have to follow any of these to write something in the horror genre. I’ve just found them to be useful in my own work. So in case you ever get stuck while writing a scary scene, keep these tips in mind and maybe you’ll get unstuck.

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