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.

Reactive and Proactive Characters: Buffy vs Bella

Your main protagonist should begin as reactive and eventually progress to proactive. Buffy (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was this bada$$ character who didn’t take junk from anybody including Spike. Everywhere she went, she influenced the action around her. Bella (from Twilight) seems to be in need of rescue all the time.

Buffy the vampire slayerI love movies and television – anything that will bring me into a great entertaining story. I especially LOVE vampire stories – everything from Bram Stoker to Buffy to Twilight to Van Helsing to Daybreakers to Underworld. Bring it on. (Hence today’s title.) I love a strong female character, one who doesn’t take junk from nobody. I have no patience for the Daphne’s of the story world – remember Daphne? The female fashionista from Scooby-Doo who gushed over Fred and was always being kidnapped – ALWAYS. That’s annoying. I mean, even Scooby and Shaggy decide to be monster bait after some Scooby snacks.

At some point in your story, your protagonist needs to go from reacting to situations outside of their control, to taking control and influencing the action – otherwise (as a general rule) your readers will quit the story. Gone are the days of the 50’s pirate romances where the damsel in distress is kidnapped by the pirate and by the end sees all his redeeming qualities beneath that hard damsel-stealing exterior and falls in love with him. Oy. That’s where I quit reading and beat myself with the book as punishment for wasting my time.

Reactive characters

Usually every novel begins with a reactive protagonist. Cue the ‘normal’ scene with Buffy at school or waking up, and then BAM – a vampire appears out of nowhere and knocks her flat. She’s forced to react to a situation outside of her control or influence. Bella is reactive for nearly the entire novel – but more on her later. Most stories begin by putting the protagonist in a situation outside of their control they can’t walk away from, often a life-threatening situation. The kind of novel you’re writing will dictate what kind of situation this is and what the stakes are.

You raise the stakes for your protagonist by continuing to heap problems on them they can’t walk away from. It’s like a cliche country song – first your truck dies, then your dog dies, then your girlfriend leaves you… But reactive characters depend on others for solutions to their problems.

Proactive Characters

Proactive characters are the ones who take action into their own hands. This is when Buffy goes all – ‘that vamp’s so dead,’ and marches out of the library wooden stake in hand. She makes a decision, good or bad, and acts on it – and her action moves the story forward. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Spike had to always kidnap Buffy and Angel rescued her. Yawn. What kind of vampire slayer would that make?

The proactive character doesn’t wait for others to create a solution, he is involved in creating his own solutions. They make decisions about their situation, maybe come to a fork in the road, maybe make a bad decision – but they don’t wait around for others to fix things. These characters are more interesting to read about, and because the reader is along for the decision-making process they’re invested in the character.

The Problem With Bella

Bella in school parking lot

I really enjoyed reading Twilight, it’s light and entertaining. A welcome escape from reality for a bit. However, here’s my biggest beef with Twilight – Bella is reactive. Stuff happens to Bella and she waits for Edward to rescue her throughout almost the entire novel.

She’s almost smushed by a truck in an icy school parking lot – Edward rescues her.

She’s a social outcast who’s never had a boyfriend – Edward, the guy every girl wants, decides to date her.

She’s targeted by vamps who want to eat her – Edward whisks her away to safety.

It’s not until the third-last scene in the book that Bella takes one small proactive step and agrees to escape her protectors to meet the bad guy to save her mom – and then what happens? Edward rescues her. She gets bitten – Edward sucks out the poison. A model for teen girls Bella is not.

If you’re stuck in a vamp-infested cellar in an all-out smackdown – who do you want with you? Bella or Buffy? Point made.

Luke Skywalker vs Anakin Skywalker

My son is a huge Star Wars fan. But here’s my problem with Star Wars – if you watch all 6 movies it becomes clear that the whole series is really about ‘the chosen one’ Anakin Skywalker, not Luke Skywalker as those fans of the first trilogy thought.

Everyone loves Luke. Luke runs back to save his aunt and uncle, he decides to follow Obi-Wan into unknown danger, he trains to be a Jedi with Yoda, he rescues Chewie and Leia and Hans, he faces his fears and not only defeats Darth Vader but redeems him as well. He creates his own solutions.

But Anakin? He’s found. He’s trained. He follows Obi-Wan. He does what he’s told – he complains, he cops an attitude – but he still does what he’s told by everyone: the Emperor, Padme, the Jedi Council… He reacts. He does four proactive things in 6 movies: he kills his mother’s murderers, marries Padme, and he agrees to serve the Emperor and become a Sith – which lands him in yet further reactive situations until he throws the Emperor in a pit. I think that’s a big reason why there are more fans of Luke than Anakin.

But Twilight‘s a NYT Bestseller – and it breaks this rule

I hear what you’re saying – ‘but Bella sold A LOT of books.’ Really? Bella is the point of view character, but which characters are selling that series? I would argue it’s not Bella, who is the one telling the story – you’re never in Edward’s head and only briefly in one book do you get to see inside Jacob’s head. But it’s Edward and Jacob (both proactive characters) who sell the story to fans, not Bella. Are you on Team Bella? Point proven. The secondary protagonists steal the show. I think that story would be a lot more interesting if Bella was a bit more Buffy.

Camy Tang has a really great article on proactive characters if you want to read more on the topic.

What about you? Do you agree that proactive characters are more interesting than reactive characters? Who’s your favorite character – are they reactive or proactive? What about your main protagonist?


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

Writing Prompt #14 – Creating Suspense

This week we were honored to host suspense novelist Linda Hall for a guest post, so it’s time to put her lessons into practice.

Creating Suspense in FictionYou’ve recently purchased a new house, and it’s your first night there. What happens?

(Need a refresher on creating suspense? Check out Linda’s guest post on Painting Your Characters into A Corner and Marcy’s earlier post on Creating Suspense In Fiction.)

Paint Your Characters Into A Corner – Guest Blog by Linda Hall

What makes for a page-turner? If you ask award-winning novelist Linda Hall, it’s suspense. We’ve invited her to guest post for us today to give you some tips on how to create suspense in your novel, regardless of the genre.

Since her first book, The Joshia Files, was published by Thomas Nelson in 1992, Linda Hall has written 18 other suspense and mystery novels. Alongside writing novels, she’s been the keynote speaker at conferences such as Write! Canada, part of the faculty of the University of New Brunswick’s Maritime Writers Workshop, and is a regular contributor to Deeds of Darkness, Deeds of Light, a blog that examines the murder mystery/thriller/crime fiction genre from the viewpoint of readers, writers, editors, agents, and librarians.

Take it away Linda . . .

Linda Hall How to Create Suspense in FictionI’m pleased to be invited to guest blog today. Summer means lots of summer reads for me, and I’m currently in the middle of a Dean Koontz thriller, The Good Guy. This book is basically a “chase” book.

I admit it. I’m staying up too late reading it, and, being a writer, I’m constantly asking, “How does he do that? How is he making it so that I can’t put this one down?” The writer in me is doing a bit of analyzing.

Before we go any further I want to define a few terms.  To me, suspense is a technique, not a genre. Suspense needs to be a part of every bit of writing that we ever do from nonfiction to fiction to poetry to comedy. Simply put, suspense is that all important key ingredient that keeps the reader turning pages, no matter what she’s reading. News articles need suspense. This blog needs suspense.

It’s possible to write a thriller that has little or no suspense. I’m sure you’ve read some of these. The plot premise on the back of the book is enticing.

“With an idea like that, I can’t wait to get into it,” you say to yourself.

But then something about the book falls flat. Your interest wanes, and you keep putting the book down. Sure, it was a thriller, but the suspense was missing.

So, back to Koontz who is, in my opinion, a master of the suspenseful thriller. How does he do it?

1.   Right in the middle of the action, he switches points of view.

We are following along with The Good Guy and The Innocent Female as they ditch cars and buy food and attempt to figure out why The Assassin wants them both dead. They are behind the door and hear the bad guy right behind them, and then we switch into the bad guy’s point of view.

He doesn’t see them, doesn’t hear them. Whew! We can wipe our brow once more. But then he figures it out! And now he has them in his sights! There is no getting away this time! And then, Koontz switches into the point of view of the police officer who’s sitting at his desk at home, and it’s night and it’s dark and he’s and trying to sort it all out.

2.   He creates a multiplicity of problems, and the obvious solutions don’t work.

The Good Guy started off with one problem. Someone mistook him for a hit man and gave him a bunch of money. Then the real hit man comes into the bar. The obvious solution would be to dial 911–that’s what you or I would do, right? And The Good Guy is about to call the police, when he sees the guy drive away in a police car. The police are in on this? He closes his cell phone.

So, if you have your heroine wandering down into a dark basement in a storm because she hears noises, she better have a good reason for doing so.  Facing the same situation, you or I would run lickety-split to the neighbors and call the police. You have to make sure the obvious won’t work. If her child was in the basement, or her dog, that would be a compelling reason for her to throw caution into the gutter and go down there.

3.   He adds specks of doubt into his characters.

In this Koontz book, suddenly I am wondering about the Innocent Woman. What is her story? Why isn’t she forthcoming about her personal life? Why is her point of view conspicuously absent from the points of view that the story follows? Maybe she’s not the innocent bystander that I thought she was?

Try doing that. Or, if you’re writing from the first person, a way you could do this is would be to have your heroine  read an email or a letter, but keep the contents from the reader. Keeping small things from your readers will enhances the suspense even in your romance.

4.   And finally, he isn’t ever afraid to paint his characters into a corner.

Don’t fear this. Just do it. Something always turns up. The more corners you can paint your characters into, the better your reader will like it!

Who are some of your favorite authors and why? I bet it has something to do with the technique of suspense.


Want to connect with Linda in other places? Visit her website or her Facebook page.

Creating Suspense in Fiction

Every book, regardless of genre, needs suspense. Suspense is what makes your readers turn those pages and recommend your book to friends. While creating suspense is a technique that requires more than 800 words to cover, here are some of the best tricks to get you started.

High Stakes

High stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they do have to be world-shattering for your characters.

If Melanie’s car gets stolen, I’m probably going to feel sorry for her, but it’s not going to keep me on the edge of my seat. She’ll call the insurance agent and get a new one. I’m probably not even going to care if the police ever find out what happened to it. The search for her car isn’t going to create suspense.

But what if her two-year-old was in the back? What if the gun she used to kill her abusive boyfriend was in the glove box and she needs to find the car before the police do? What if she was on the way to church to stop the man she loves from marrying someone else? What if she’d withdrawn her entire life savings to pay the ransom on her father and the money was hidden under the seat?

We’re now holding our breath to see if she finds the car or gets where she’s going in time.

Use What a Character Fears and Values

To create suspense in fiction, you need to know two things about your main character: their greatest fear and the one thing that matters most to them. Make them face the first and risk losing the second and you’ve instantly created suspense.

In Brandilyn Collins’ novel Exposure, Kaycee Raye’s biggest fear is that she’s being watched. Her snoopy neighbor’s tendency to spy ignites a fear that Kaycee knows is irrational . . . until it turns out that it isn’t.

Here’s how the first chapter ends:

Onto the screen jumped the close-up gruesome face of a dead man. Eyes half open, dark red holes in his jaw and forehead. Blood matted his hair. Printed in bold in the bottom left corner of the picture, across his neck: WE SEE YOU.

How could you not read on?


A trap works best when the reader knows about it and the character doesn’t. You’ll create suspense that lasts even after they fall into the trap as your reader wonders if they’ll emerge unscathed.

Traps are probably the most difficult item on this list to do well. You need to be a bit diabolical to write a great trap.

  • Use their greatest weakness against them.
  • Find a plausible way to remove all the reasons your character would avoid the trap or realize it’s a trap before it’s too late.
  • Let the reader know about the trap a few chapters before it’s sprung.
  • Don’t let your character out of the trap on their first attempt.

A good example of removing the reasons your character might avoid the trap is found in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. When Susie meets her neighbor walking home after dark, you’re screaming at her to run. But of course, she doesn’t.

If she’s uncomfortable with adults and cold, why doesn’t she leave?

The natural authority of his age, and the added fact that he was a neighbor and talked to my father about fertilizer, rooted me to the spot.

As an excuse to leave, she tells him her mom likes her home before dark.

“It’s after dark, Susie,” he said.

He tells her that it will only take a minute to show her the “hiding place” he’s built in the cornfield. Why, though, does she go into the underground structure he’d built when he’s been looking at her lustfully?

“What is it?” I asked. I was no longer cold or weirded out by the look he’d given me. I was like I was in science class: I was curious.

And once she was in, there was no way out.


When creating suspense in fiction, a cliffhanger can be anything that makes it impossible for your reader to put the book down when the chapter ends. It can be a situation where you’re not sure your character will escape unharmed or it could be an intriguing last line.

I became a fan of romantic suspense thanks to Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series. In The Truth Seeker, you’ll find examples of both types of cliffhangers.

At the end of Chapter Two, Quinn (the love interest) asks Lisa (the protagonist) a question:

“Where are we going?”

“To ask a man to exhume a cat.”

Because we’re in Quinn’s POV, we don’t know why Lisa, a forensic pathologist, wants to dig up the cat, but we know it has something to do with the murder she’s trying to solve. If you’re like me, you’ll turn to the next chapter to find the answer.

Chapter Three ends with Lisa and Quinn in a fire-damaged house. The floor gives way beneath them, and Lisa is impaled on something:

In the wavering light, she saw him flinch, and she tried to offer a reassuring smile. He yanked off his shirt, the buttons flying, “Hold on.”

She couldn’t get enough air to answer; she had to know. “What . . . land on?”

He didn’t answer her.

It must be bad.

She shivered and felt a warm flood rush across her hand as her vision went black.

I first read this one back when I was in university, and those lines almost made me late for class.

Ticking Clocks

A ticking clock is the classic way to create suspense in fiction. Give your character a deadline by which they must solve their problem or suffer the consequences. It immediately amps up the tension.

What are your favorite suspense-filled novels?


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