Scaring Your Readers

In honor of it being Halloween I thought it appropriate to look at what truly disturbs us – what keeps us up late with ALL the lights on? I love to read intelligent thrillers and horror novels. Give me something truly disturbing and I’m happy. Call me crazy.

man's face - scaredEven if you’re not a fan of horror, building compelling suspense and conflict into your plot is important to modern readers. But what scares you? What gives you the shivers? What elements of fiction make stories so frightening?

Going Goth

I enjoy the classic horror: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Prometheus Unbound (Frankenstein), Dracula, there are so many. Classical gothic writers understood that the people of their time were terrified by the unknown and capitalized on their fear of the unexplained. Instead of using explicit violence, they shrouded their antagonists in mystery–a shadowy figure far off in the distance. They gave their monsters a solid dose of humanity. Study their economical word use, using context and connotation to bring added meaning.

Establish what is normal

How do you know something is off if you don’t know what’s normal? You have to establish what normal is before you can scare your readers. This is a great clip from an old movie adaptation of Frankenstein. Watch how ‘normal’ is established by meeting Maria and her kitty as she says goodbye to her father – then the monster arrives. It’s the kind of scene that you continue to watch, but with one eye open because ‘this can’t end well.’

1931 Frankenstein – The Girl and the Pond

What is truly scary?

Now, I’m not a hack and slash horror fan. Movies where the main plot is about killing large numbers of people with as much blood and gore as possible aren’t my thing. Not that those situations can’t happen – but I don’t walk around everyday wondering if I’ll be a serial killer’s next victim. What gets me are stories that are more plausible and everyday. There’s nothing inherently frightening about an empty school, an abandoned playground, or a tricycle tipped over on the side of the road – but there is something out of place that has me leaning forward. I don’t like this…

Tell The Truth

I recently read an acceptance speech by Stephen King from 2004. In his speech, he talked about how all of fiction is a lie – as writers we’re asking the reader to take that willing suspension of disbelief with us and buy into the world we’ve created however similar or different from our own world it may be. But, you must tell the unvarnished truth within that lie.

“Remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it…How stringently the writer holds to the truth inside the lie is one of the ways that he can judge how seriously he takes his craft…I’ve tried to prove myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie.” – Stephen King

If you’re facing a knife-wielding attacker how would you react? If someone’s chasing you at night, be honest – are you more likely to run into the forest or a crowded street. When writers force characters to do things that no sane person would do in that situation, it undermines the terror. If you’re piloting a plane that’s about to crash into the ocean, what would your last spoken thought be – a heartfelt plea to your spouse or an expletive?

The Monsters of Today

While an attack of killer tomatoes, a green blob, or a giant ape might be entertaining on some level, they’re not truly frightening. Really, how likely is it to find a killer tomato? But a stranger offering a nine year old a chance to see a new puppy and leading her off the playground – that’s real – that’s straight out of the headlines. A hijacked plane, a man forcing his way into a young woman’s apartment, a gang murder, a skull found in a farmyard – we know these things happen. They’re real. That’s what makes them truly frightening.

“It’s reality’s ‘what is,’ not the imagination’s ‘what if’ that can transform horror premise into horror story. It takes reality, heaps of it, to create and populate a story realm that gives the reader the frights royale.” -Mort Castle

“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” -Douglas Winter

I’ve watched a few hack and slash horror films. Yeah, they’re gory and gruesome and disturbing – but am I truly frightened? No. Because I don’t care about the people who are dying for the most part. Make me care about the character first – get me invested emotionally in the story. That’s how you scare readers to bits. So much of horror is perception and anticipation.

Would Misery have been as disturbing if you didn’t care about Paul Sheldon? Or related to Annie Wilkes – in some small way? That’s what horror does best – helps us see the monsters in ourselves.

There’s A Line…

I have to say that the most disturbing movie I’ve watched recently was The Killer Inside Me starring Jessica Biel and Casey Affleck. It’s a drama, I believe, not even horror – but it garnered a physical reaction in me. After watching him pummel the woman he claimed to love to pulverized bits (modern movie makeup can be frightfully realistic), and him rape a two year old, I honestly thought I was going to be sick – literally, and turned it off.

As a writer, I have to tell the honest and unvarnished truth about my characters within the world I’ve created – but there are places I’m not willing to go – things I won’t write about. If you’re squeamish writing about certain things, don’t start characters down a path you won’t travel with them. Choose a different story, a different character, a different genre.

What story recently kept you up late with all the lights on? Why? Do you have a favorite horror story or thriller?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


10 comments on “Scaring Your Readers

  1. I am definitely a sensitive reader/viewer. For me, there’s enough woe in the world (e.g. the previous post, The Sin of Being Female) for me to seek out that sort of thing and find it entertaining. I’m not judging anyone else, that’s just me, and I understand that a lot of folks find it sort of cathartic.

    As a writer, I definitely know my limits – that’s why I write cozy mysteries. Thanks for your post, Marcy!

  2. One movie kept me awake and disturbed for three days: Julia. It was a movie of the WWII resistance with an amputation. (I have an irrational fear of amputation.)

    The horror movie that kept me awake is Poltergeist. I was pleasantly scared, thought I had passed the climax and resolution, when boom! Disaster strikes. I was caught off guard.

  3. I recently watched Quarantine and whilst the majority of the movie was gripping it did feel a bit formulaic, however the last 15 minutes really made me feel itchy and squirmy, not because of what you could see but what you couldn’t.

    As for books, I’m a bit of a Dean Koontz fan at the moment. He doesn’t right horror as such but stories that portray how characters would truthfully act in extreme situations. I think the scariest bad guy is the one who doesn’t have a motive or traumatic childhood to make him into a monster. The scary ones are those who want to set the world on fire just to watch it burn. Hannibal Lecter springs to mind.

  4. I’m not a fan of horror or thrillers, but I like to read Harlan Coben every now and then. In the suspense/crime drama genre, as in any other, I have to care about the characters. If I can’t at least sympathize with them, I don’t get drawn in. If I can, in some way, empathize, then you’ve really grabbed my attention.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Lisa.


  5. Like so many others, I don’t read or watch horror. I get my fill of that on the daily news and in my private therapy practice. I don’t real Stephen King anymore – one day, in the midst of a book, I couldn’t take the violence. I put the book down and never bought another (I”m sure he cares VBG)

    I’m with you – there are places I won’t go. thanks for a good read that made me think about things and my own writing


  6. I’m a horror fan. I’m not really into the gore (though I like The Walking Dead). I prefer more supernatural horror stories/movies. I know that evil exists in the real world. I don’t really handle movies that deal with that kind of horror too well..especially if the victims are children. Supernatural horror can still scare me, but I also know it’s not as real (though Paranormal Activity did give me nightmares…both 1 &2). That’s comforting. Even Dexter can be a bit much sometimes.

  7. Thanks for the help! I am a young writer who tends to be overly frightened by horror and my over-vivid imagination, though am venturing to write a horror story. I spent a while trying to find some tips on tension and how to create horror, and this really helped without making me have to re-write huge chunks of my manuscript!

  8. I have found much truth in your words-zombies and all that unrealistic horror don’t seem to get to me; yet things that really could happen, even in a very odd and rare scenario, are the ones that leave me with my lamp on at night. Thanks again, Camryn xxx

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Camryn. I dug this up from another post – thought you might find it interesting.

    When I think modern horror, I think Freddie Krueger or Scream. But horror has its roots with Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to the Horror Writers Association, “horror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.”
    The rest of the post is here:
    Keep writing!

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