When it comes to fiction writing, many wordsmiths struggle with one word in particular. That one word is ‘scared.’
When you write an unnerving scene, wanting the reader to be scared in some way, that fear has to come from somewhere. And a lot of the time, it comes from nowhere – specifically in the form of a random noise or action, like a creak in the dark, a sharp knock at the door, or a hissing sound coming from an open window.
If you want to truly make the reader afraid, you need to consider where that fear comes from. And while you might be tempted to reach for a ghoulish, grisly monster, consider a more subtle approach. You might scare the reader with a swarm of angry hornets, or a swarm of black bees. You might make them fear for their lives, or the lives of their loved ones. There are many ways to scare your audience into submission – and none of them have to involve gruesome details or horrific sights.
Create Unsettling Atmospheres
To truly scare someone, you need to do more than just make them jump at loud noises – you need to create an atmosphere that feels dangerous. And when I say dangerous, I don’t mean in a glamorous way. Take the time when you were a child and went to fright houses with your parents. You would go through a haunted house maze, trying to outrun ghosts and ghouls in order to reach the safe spot. That’s the feeling you need to go for as a writer – something that will make your characters feel uneasy, something that will make them keep wondering if they’re going to make it out alive.
Even when you’re not writing about ghosts and ghouls, it’s still important to create an atmosphere that feels like something to be scared of. Think about the scene in which Danny Ocean meets his end. In this scene, what does the tone of the entire story feel like? Does it feel like it could be a scary movie, or like it could be a comedy?
If you want to write an atmosphere that feels dangerous, reach for the darkest notes your instrument will allow you to play. There should be no romantic inflection in your voice – it should sound like a monologue, devoid of any comedic relief.
When you’re writing, keep in mind that this is a scary scene. And while you might not always want your writing to be completely devoid of humor, you should try to keep it at a minimum. In fact, you should aim to make readers laugh – but only in a scared way. And while humor can be a great tool in writing, at times it can feel a bit too much like relief – it takes the edge off of the fear and unease you’re trying to create. So when you feel like laughing, save it for when you’re by yourself, or in an empty room with no one else to disturb. Use it sparingly, and with discretion.
Consider The Tools You Have At Your Disposal
If you’re using a laptop, it might be wise to consider taking a power outage before you start writing in the dark. With no electrical charge to draw from, you’ll be forced to write by candlelight – which, let’s face facts, isn’t pleasant when you’re trying to work. And when you realize that you’ll need to limit your screen’s brightness in order to prevent straining your eyes, you’ll probably start seeing shadows instead of what you want to see on the screen. It makes for a miserable experience, trying to work with nothing more than the illumination of a small flickering candle.
While we’re on the subject of candles, none of us likes to write near them either – especially when we’re trying to create a spooky atmosphere. After all, when you’re finished writing, you’ll be left with an irritated throat and a bad case of candle mouth – not what you want when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep. So if you have a choice between writing with light from a lamp or moonlight – choose the lamp. And if you have a choice between a standard lamp and a spotlight lamp, choose the spotlight. They both have the same effect of putting you in a better mood, enabling you to write in complete darkness – if only you can find a place that doesn’t have any overhead lights.
To create a truly spooky atmosphere, you need to look into the tools you have at your disposal. Are you using paper or an e-reader? Are you in a noisy or a quiet place? Think about the lighting when you’re writing – is it a lot of light, or a dim light? What about the weather? Does it feel like it’s going to rain, or is it sunny outside? What about the temperature? Is it cold, or is it warm?
Every little detail can make a difference, and you need to consider all of them to create the perfect setting for your story. You don’t always need to use expensive tools or high-end equipment to achieve the best possible outcome when writing – there are simple things you can do to make a big difference, like gathering blackout sheets, old T-shirts, and neckties (just kidding).
Create A Suspenseful Mood
Music is another important part of the horror movie experience. And while we’re on the subject of movies, let’s not forget about the effect the sound track has on us when we’re watching a scary film. Music generally helps to set the scene, and often times it’s the simple, repetitive sounds that get to us first. Once your mind associates those sounds with something scary, even if it’s only in your head, the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up. And believe it or not, that’s the kind of feeling you want to induce in your readers – whether they’re sitting in front of you or on the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a grand piano or a plastic barrel with a few stones in it, as long as you know how to play it – and you play it loudly! – you’ll start to feel like a real life horror movie star.
Once you have that feeling – that feeling of familiarity, of recognition – you can put yourself in the right mindset to write. If you want to write something scary, it’s best to start with something easy – a short story about a lonely tourist who travels abroad and ends up falling in love with the wrong person. Something like that. Something romantic. Something that isn’t terrifying. Because if it’s too scary, you might scare yourself off the story altogether. And we can’t have that. So do your research, get those characters from head to toe, and get to work.