It occurred to me that I’ve done a few instructive posts on this topic, so I thought I’d assemble them for you – and for me. (I find me quite helpful every now and then.)
Posts one and two serve as basis; post three shows me putting it to work.
Click the links above to get to the segment of your choice, or scroll down to read each in its entirety here.
After all, the books that scare people exist; why not read them to see how it’s done?
When I went to read the scary books and learn from them how to write a scary book, it was not quite as easy as I thought it’d be.
With some books, I screwed up. Like The Shining. I’d seen the movie a zillion times, and read the book a long time ago, but I thought if I picked it up again, I’d see the scary stuff and learn from it. Specifically, I thought I’d read it, pay attention to when I was getting scared, and then examine the story to see what had transpired to get me to that state.
This is called reading with intention. For example, you read a novel for a different reason than you read an owner’s manual. You read the newspaper to be informed, but you read a textbook to learn – a different version of being informed.
Reading scary books to enjoy them and enjoy being scared – and then dissecting the situation to see why I was scared and how it had been done, what was involved – that’s what I think is meant by the advice, “If you want to write, read.”
Odds are, someone else has done what you’re trying to do, and like you might watch Babe Ruth to learn how to hit a home run in baseball, or study The Beatles to get ideas of how a song should be structured for most listeners, you could also see and understand the steps in building a scary story – or any story, for that matter.
And my goal was horror.
I wanted to learn how to scare readers.
That’s different from how a movie does it, by the way. A movie can have something jump out from nowhere and say, “Boo!” That doesn’t work in writing.
Or does it? Could it? Had it?
That’s what I wanted to know.
I’d done a little of this scary business in An Angel On Her Shoulder, and a little more in The Water Castle, an as-yet unreleased novel from which I used a sample chapter in last year’s scary anthology The Box Under The Bed. (The chapter was a bonus for eBook preorder buyers and paperback readers, and is no longer in the eBook version.)
In it, I went deep in a certain scene, trying to scare readers.
That’s where, between those two stories and the feedback my beta readers and critique partners gave me,
I learned that there were things that had to be present to pull “scary” off.
Steps that “sad” didn’t need.
One thing I discovered by mistake as I went to read The Shining – scary isn’t as scary when you know what’s coming. I did that with The Shining. A lot. I already knew the story too well, was often looking forward to my favorite parts and not always appreciating the other eerie things. Totally my bad, but I’m human. So although I enjoyed most of it (King has a tendency to go on and on about stuff at times), it wasn’t gonna be the right vessel for this task. I simply wasn’t going to be scared by stuff I knew was coming.
In The Box Under The Bed, I also included a chapter from An Angel On Her Shoulderwhich I called “The Death Of Mrs. Billen” for the anthology. It was billed as a scary story – and rightly so. That was its goal. But I wasn’t originally sure how it was going to do what it ultimately did.
I let Angel sit for over a year before going back and editing it for publication in 2017.
During that time, I added things and deleted things, but I mainly enhanced things. I put emotion in and I amplified it where it was supposed to be scary. Readers and movie watchers don’t want everyday life, I reasoned; they want drama – and if so, they occasionally want over the top drama. Drama that manifests itself in a raging, full blown, scared out of their mind scene.
It was a process, and it worked – but Angel is a paranormal thriller with a few scary or uncomfortable spots. It wasn’t full on horror, neither is The Water Castle.
But in writing them, I felt I’d touched on what the trick to doing scary was.
When I read Pet Semetary, to prove my hypothesis, I screwed up again. I’d wanted recommendations for scary stuff a while back, and Pet Semetary was recommended. But since I didn’t have time then to indulge myself in this horror education, I read a Wikipedia plot summary – and by doing that, again removed the surprise element! You’d think I’d learn!
Eventually, I did. When friends told me about the Stephen King novel It, I purposely didn’t read or learn anything in advance about the story. I knew there was a clown, and that was about all. Maybe the clown was in the sewer, but I couldn’t say for sure. And being a King story, it’d probably be a killer clown. So okay, I knew that much.
I saw some stuff in It that was emulatable.
In the first five pages he showed me something I wasn’t expecting. Not scary, although there was a scary moment, but the way he got me to care about the character. There, in that, and again later, I learned or confirmed what I had been thinking about how to lay out the setup to a scary scene – which I already suspected was correct from the CP feedback in Angel and TWC.
Also, between The Shining and It and Pet Semetary, I learned a few things that I think are forming my understanding of how to write horror. I don’t profess to be a master yet, but storytelling has some methods that work in all stories, and since I can make people laugh or cry with my prose, I ought to be able to use the same styles of setting things up – that is, knowing I need to set things up so a situation will be funny, and knowing I need to set a situation up so it’ll be sad – therefore setting up a situation to scare my reader.
And like telling a joke, if you have to explain it, it isn’t funny.
Scary works in a similar fashion.
But here, I’ve put the basic pieces together.
I think biggest part of horror is:
(A) the gruesome idea (scary clown that kills kids)
(B) giving it life (put killer clown in a story)
Then, making it scary, to the extent possible, by:
(C) Using words and paragraph structure to surprise, even misusing certain words for effect (try to have the scary stuff jump out at a reader)
(D) Having the character’s reaction help do the scaring (seeing someone fight off the scary clown while scared out of their wits = more scary)
(E) and holding the reader in the moment of gruesomeness (have the fight last a while)
This is what I see.
I’m not pretending that’s easy, or common, but it’s doable. I’m not even saying I explained the basics here very well, but I do feel as though I understand them at this point. Being able to explain it better to you will come in time, as it always does.
To me, scary and horror are a different kind of layering. Instead of adding emotion to your first draft to get a reader immersed in the story, you’re adding additional reactions and heightening the character’s response to what he/she sees, feels, expresses, demonstrates outwardly – and doing so in a very “show not tell” way – so the reader believes the character believes the scary thing is real and happening.
The reader doesn’t have to believe in monsters.
The reader has to believe the character believes in monsters.
And at certain moments, that the monster is definitely going to eat/kill/seriously harm/etc., that character.
In story writing, having the idea is always the easy part. With horror, getting the idea might not be that that easy. But once attained, putting it down, making it identifiable to a reader, and making them scared, that’s a methodology that can be learned. There are steps. Not a formula of “do this and then do that = scared reader,” but knowing things have to happen in an order to build to your scary moment – or it won’t quite get there.
I’ve seen examples, and I’ve identified the tools.
Now, like Dr. Frankenstein, we have to assemble them into our scary monsters.
Stephen King is the reigning expert on that, so I thought I’d get a few of his books that were recommended to me.
The Shining was always a favorite movie, and It and Pet Semetary were recommended. Maybe a few other ones. Night Shift, I think?
Got the books on order from the library and started scanning the cable channels to see if any the movies were coming up.
I had seen The Shining before, and it had just always been one of my favorite scary movies. If you asked me about the scariest movie I ever saw, I would have to say that’s it – but I haven’t seen it in a long time. Probably more than 10 years.
Hmm. Did The Shining hold up?
I don’t remember for sure, but I think I read the book after I saw the movie, so that fills in some gaps sometimes in ways that are a little bit like cheating. Some of the work doesn’t have to be done by the author because you already know the story and you know what to expect and you don’t want to be scared or you know what something already looks like.
That’s what I think.
On the other hand, it’s been probably longer since I’ve read the book than it has been since I saw the movie, so checking them both out again will be a bit of a fresh experience.
The key was to try to figure out: when did I feel scared?
How soon in the story did I feel scared, and why?
What was it that was making me apprehensive?
I think different things scare different people, so this was going to be what scared me, I guess…
What really gets me on edge is knowing something bad is going to happen and being powerless to prevent it.
I know watching Jurassic Park with the T-Rex attacking the kids in the car, that was scary because it was such a big monster – but also because the children were so helpless. We were not as concerned about the two adult scientists in the other car as we were the children. And by way of note, the little girl screaming and going bonkers with fear is what really sells that scene. It’s all well done, but she put it over the top.
And I know that children evoke more sympathy than adults.
Maybe there’s a hierarchy, like kittens evoke more sympathy than children.
Maybe baby humans evoke the most sympathy…
So in The Shining, there are a lot of scary things that are going to happen, I remember that. But I had forgotten that there was an innocent little boy. A preschooler, I think he is. And him being potentially threatened is going to probably sell the scariness of this.
Anyway, in the movie, the “hook” gets set very quickly.
In the interview to become the hotel’s caretaker, which happens immediately after the opening credits, the main character is told what happened in the hotel ten years ago, and we are now slightly concerned.
The prior caretaker a decade earlier went berserk and killed his family with an ax – and stacked them like firewood in one of the rooms – and then put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth.
The very next scene, or nearly the next scene, is with the young child Danny, about age four, talking to his mother. He has a little friend named Tony that “lives in his mouth.”
In his mouth? That got my attention.
When Tony talks, Danny moves his finger up-and-down, like it’s working an invisible puppet, and Danny talks in a different voice.
That’s all well and good until a few minutes later
when Danny is asking Tony – well, Danny is brushing his teeth – and he asks Tony why he doesn’t want to go live at the hotel, and Tony doesn’t want to talk. They kinda argue about it. Then we see Danny has passed out and a doctor is examining him as he lays in bed in his pajamas. Danny’s mother is very nervous in the background.
The doctor and the mother talk and we learned that five months earlier is when Tony came on the scene,
right after a drunken episode where Danny’s father dislocated the child’s arm
after coming home late and seeing the boy had scattered some of his papers on the floor.
Shelley Duvall, as the mother, says, the father grabbed the child by the arm. “It’s one of those things you do 1000 times at the park or at the playground, but this time he just used a little too much strength…”
So we see the child is vulnerable and we see the child has an invisible friend who is psychic. Tony knows the father already got the job and is about to call the mother, Wendy.
Which happens about 10 seconds later.
And I think about that point, we have been an introduced to everything and hook is set.
This guy’s family about to go spend an isolated winter in an empty hotel, with him as the caretaker, and we are told something bad happened there, and the boy doesn’t want to go, and the boy’s imaginary friend is warning him not to go, and the father has done bad things to the son already. Once, at least.
I don’t think we need to much more, do you?
The hook is set – but are we scared?
I think we’re getting there. We’re apprehensive. I am.
Finally, Stanley Kubrick did the movie, so we’ll have to see what King does in the book, but as Danny is looking in the mirror, one of the iconic images from the movie happens. Danny is looking in the mirror and there’s a cutaway shot to the elevator doors of the hotel opening and a dark red liquid comes gushing out like there was a swimming pool inside filled with blood. Then a brief glimpse of the two bizarre looking girls who are dressed like twins, then back to the elevator, filling the hallway with blood until it obscures the view from the camera.
That’s when we come back and see Danny no longer brushing his teeth laying on his bed being examined by the doctor.
You can get away with that in a movie. I’ll have to follow up to see what King does in the book.
But either way, I don’t think there’s many things left to set up for us to be completely hooked and for us to be starting to be scared.
From time to time I get a letter from a writerly type, asking me for input on a writing topic. Here’s one.
How on earth did you get inside the mind of such a shocking psycho in Double Blind?
I’m having a very hard time with that myself – my killers aren’t that evil.
How did I?
Well, in Double Blind I laid out some parameters of what I thought he’d do and think, based on stuff I’d read online about psychos, and stuff I’d seen in movies or read in books…
And then I said, he has to have urges or whatever, like an itch he can’t scratch, that make these actions beyond his control – like a wild animal that is hungry and must eat or they starve.
Like a lion in the jungle; if they don’t kill, they don’t eat.
It’s what they do, so they have to do it.
Then I dwelled there, showing the reader what I’d see and feel if I were doing it.
So how did I figure that part out?
An author friend once had a scene where a guy had to take a car and drive over what were essentially zombies to get away, and she said, “How do I describe what it’s like to run people over?”
Having never actually run people over, I assume, she was a bit lost.
I was like, well, on Mythbusters they’re always saying pig muscles are a good substitute for human muscles (like if you need to see how far a bullet penetrates), so what would be a good substitute for running over people? People are 90% water and some hard stuff. What’s like bones? Rocks? Tree limbs? And in a car, we’ve all driven over a speed bump; I bet that’s like running over a body. So, pile some up and drive over it! You’re halfway home: you have the information. But how do you relate it to a reader?
Having driven over a few large sticks in my time, I said you receive information in a car from the gourd up: first your feet feel a jolt, then your butt, then your hands through the steering wheel; maybe up your spine – I just broke down into detail what happened so I could transfer that information to a reader.
Same in Double Blind.
If you’ve ever cut up raw chicken for dinner, or a steak, there’s a feel to it.
Meat is meat; cutting a steak feels like cutting a human body.
And who’s going to say you’re wrong? Killers?
You think in detail about the process (for a reason I’ll explain in a sec), how using a serrated knife sends information up your hand and arm – and then what else would you feel (if it were a body, and the key word is FEEL)? Warm wet stuff, if you were stabbing a body; the knife never cuts smoothly when I’m cutting a chicken for dinner, so the killer’s knife would hang up on a bone or joint. Laying that out and adding the killer’s mental impulses like having to do it or needing to do it, to get relief – and then pushing it all as a package beyond what any normal person would ever do.
- Also, a lot of killers like the feeling afterward, or during, like a sexual rush, so you can add part of that.
- And many times there’s a degrading aspect they need to have over the victims, so you add that.
Lots of adding, right?
But wait, there’s more!
In Stephen King’s book Pet Sematary, there’s a scene where a college student gets hit by a car and his friends take him to the main character’s clinic, and King describes the guy’s brains showing. King dwells there for a while, and I realized how gross it was for me, “seeing” the guy’s brains as he laid there on the carpet – so it would be really gross for others.
And that was the genius.
Everyone who reads that gets a little uncomfortable because King dwelled there.
When I read a book or watch a movie, if it’s scary or whatever and it made an impact on me, I’ll watch it twice.
I watch it the first time to enjoy it, and then I watch it a second time – to learn.
- When did I like this character? Why did I like them? What did the author do to make me like the character?
- When did I start to feel scared in this movie? What was making me scared? How did the director lay the blocks to build to that feeling?
When you find it, you usually see the author or director dwells there.
So in Double Bind, I dwelled there. A lot. In the mental stuff and in the physical stuff the killer did. A lot of people thought I overdid it, and maybe they were right; we’ll see in book 2 because I wasn’t planning on being so “in the mind” of the killer, but it’s not finished being written yet, either!
Great question. Hope my answer helped.
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