Writing: Exploiting Your Readers’ Fear

Ah, Halloween. What better time to discuss the ins and outs of scaring your readers? Horror writers probably know many of these tips, but those of us writing other genres usually encounter a few scenes where we want to make sure our readers are good and terrified. These should help the latter bolster the fear factor in their scenes and hopefully serve as good reminders for the former. 

(Note, If you are looking at writing a full-on horror story, I encourage you to read this blog post on how to write a ghost story by James Colton.)

First, remember that a reader’s greatest fear is fear of the unknown. Let me direct you to one of FDR’s arguably most well-known quotes: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The unknown is a petri dish for fear to feed on. Look at the numbers of people who visit psychics and mediums because they fear the unknown future. Not knowing what lies behind the door you have to open is far more terrifying than knowing a hideous hungry monster lurks there. With this in mind, keep your readers in the dark. Remember, Jaws freaked out audiences because they never saw the shark until everyone knew the characters were going to need a bigger boat. Note: keeping your characters ignorant helps keep your readers ignorant. Having characters wonder or question or take stabs at what the problem might be will remind the reader that he doesn’t know what is going on either.

Twist the “normal.” Picture this: Veronica always locks her car, and she discovers her car is unlocked. The dog who always barks at intruders is now wimpering. The lone, unsmiling man at the amusement park eyeing the machinery.

Remember that your readers will go farther with fear than you lead them. In my novel, Out of the Shadows, my character, Marcus, was captured during a battle. One of my beta readers wrote me a nasty comment in the margin: “Marcus had better not be a traitor!” I laughed because I would never have thought to torture my readers with the possibility of Marcus betraying Davian, but my reader had taken his disappearance much farther than I ever intended. Set it up, hide information, throw in a few red herrings, and let your reader worry. Worry turns pages. Page-turning books sell.

Please don’t tell your readers that the character is scared. Show it. Show, don’t tell. Go through your manuscript and eliminate all the typical “scary” words: scared, terrified, frightened. And don’t just pull out a thesaurus and replace them either. Show your reader how your character is feeling. What natural, biological reactions that indicate fear is the character experiencing? Goosebumps? Wet hands? Sweat? Chills? What is your character doing that indicates fear? Clutching a pillow? Crying in a corner? Twisting something? Holding a talisman or other religious article? Show these things. Make your reader feel terrified by allowing her to experience your character’s emotions and reactions.

Make sure your setting helps induce fear. A friend approaching you in broad daylight is not scary. The same friend holding a flashlight approaching you at midnight in a dark woods is. A setting with few escapes or dim lighting works well. Play with your setting to allow for maximum fright.

Use sensory details. Make your reader feel as though he is in the story. Sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. Ignite these senses in your reader’s imagination. And then turn on her. (***manaical author laughter***)

If it scares you, your readers will sense it. Writing what scares you will make your story fresh and real. If you feel like your story isn’t delivering the fear, you might want want to make sure that your premise scares you.

One last note: Putting characters that can’t fend for themselves in frightening situations is terrifying. Be very careful if you choose to do this. Use babies, toddlers, mentally handicapped, and animals as fodder for your creature might be too much for non-horror readers. You might be able to pull it off, but tread lightly.

What about you? Do you have any tricks you have used in your writing to treat your readers to an extra helping of fear? (Oh my goodness, that pun sounded much funnier in my head…)

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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2 Responses to Writing: Exploiting Your Readers’ Fear

  1. lordsides says:

    In my current story-in-progress my “zombies” aren’t what people think of when they think zombie. I’ve been having fun playing with expectations, dropping clues to what the creatures are like for the reader and then adding a character who puts lives in danger because he/she doesn’t know the rules (in hopes that the reader will respond with “No! You don’t do that!” even though in the previous instance that is exactly what the reader would have done), and withholding all info not required to move the plot forward to keep the reader guessing about what is coming next. It’s hard sometimes to determine how much to reveal when, but when adapting the story into a role playing game scenario I got the very confused reactions to the revelations that I was hoping for so I think I’m on track for some confused but interested readers when the story is finally done (I’m moving into the last act now). I’m also going for the Walking Dead approach of nobody but the one telling the story is guaranteed to make it out alive. There’s less of a sense of danger if you think you know who will survive and who won’t. I’ve got some very likable people (and some less likable ones) who meet gruesome demises. Sometimes they are heroic and sometimes needlessly accidental.


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