Learn how to scare your readers with our top tips on writing horror fiction from author Rachel Burge
Whether you’re writing an atmospheric ghost story or a blood-chilling horror, there are lots of horror fiction techniques you can use to scare your readers and leave them afraid to turn off the light.
Characters to care about
The first thing most people think about when writing a scary story is the monster. But in order for readers to be truly afraid, they need to care about your characters. If they’re not emotionally invested in your protagonist, they won’t care if they escape the serial killer or make it out of the haunted house alive.
When we read any story, we project ourselves into the characters. In the case of horror, if we’re afraid for the main character, we’re also afraid for ourselves - and that’s when our heart will start thumping.
While the ‘big bad’ of your story has to frightening, make sure you give equal attention to your protagonist. You need to know what drives them (their wants, needs, flaws and fears), before you put them in danger. They don’t have to be likeable, but they do need to be relatable. Create characters who feel emotionally believable and readers will be more likely to accept the more supernatural elements of your story.
Remember that the scale of threat is not related to the level of fear. There might be a global alien invasion in progress, but if you want readers to feel the horror of the situation give them a single family to care about and show their desperate struggle for survival.
Don’t reveal the monster too soon
The greatest source of fear is the unknown. If you let readers know exactly what your main character is facing from the start, you will miss out on the opportunity to build tension and create a sense of dread.
For this reason it’s better to reveal your monster (ghost, demon, alien, psychopath), as late in the story as possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer tantalising glimpses – blackened fingers under the door, a face in the shadows – just keep the big reveal until near the end.
The things we can’t see are the most frightening, so tap into your readers’ primal fears and let them fill in the blanks. The more we have to use our imagination, the more likely it is that the story will linger in our minds after we turn the final page.
There are lots of ways to show what your monster is capable of – and in turn, demonstrate the threat it poses. Your characters might come across a mutilated victim, discover some information (in an arcane book of spells or the internet), or be warned by someone to turn back now, before it’s too late.
Keep the reader asking questions
Uncertainty, whether that’s something glimpsed from the corner of your eye, or not being sure of another character’s motivations, is a sure way to make your reader feel unsettled.
You will inevitably have to provide answers as the story progresses, but each time you solve a mystery, make sure you raise further questions. At no point should your readers feel that they have all the answers – and that includes the ending. The most powerful endings in horror leave some element unexplained.
Avoid clichés and tropes
From the girl who goes down the cellar, to the man who insists on taking a short cut through the woods, horror is full of characters who make bad decisions. If you want your story to feel realistic, ask yourself what most sensible people would do in that situation.
If your character does something that puts them in danger, make sure you give them a valid reason. Perhaps they are devoted to their cat. When the cat goes missing, they are distraught – so when they hear a crash in the cellar, it’s believable that they would go and look for kitty.
Every genre has its conventions, but horror has more than its fair share of tropes and clichés. If your reader can sense where a scene is heading (because they’ve read it all before) and are then proved right, they will feel either bored or comfortable. Neither is good. You can either avoid clichés, or use them to your advantage. In other words, make readers think they know what will happen - but then do the unexpected.
Unsettled and unsafe
Your main character will not be in constant danger throughout the story, but that doesn’t mean they should feel safe. Maybe they are living in a dodgy neighbourhood, worried about their elderly mother, or their boss is harassing them. Perhaps the story starts on the same day their cat goes missing...
The challenge is to maintain a sense of unease in the reader, so that they’re already feeling tense when you bring out the jump scares.
Atmosphere and setting
The setting you choose will have a big influence on mood and atmosphere. Start by thinking about scenery, as well as the weather and climate of a place.
I set my ghost story in the Lofoten Islands in winter, when there’s only a few hours of light each day. The near-permanent darkness and remote location – an isolated cabin in the snow, helps to create a sense of claustrophobia.
Rather than writing about a haunted mansion or abandoned hospital, can you take your readers somewhere interesting that they haven’t seen before? Lots of urban places have the potential to be creepy at night or when there’s no one there: a supermarket, empty office block, a building site.
Once you’ve chosen a setting, consider how it resonates with the character arcs and the story you’re writing. Setting is more than just backdrop. It can also convey meaning and carry theme, so it’s worth spending some time to get it right.
Use all five senses
Once you’ve chosen a setting, close your eyes and imagine yourself there. What can you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? You may not use all five senses in every scene, but if you can vary the sensory descriptions, it will help your reader visualise themselves in the story.
Atmosphere is most effective when it’s built in layers. So you might describe the setting in broad strokes at the start of a new scene, and then drop in a creepy detail or two in the following paragraphs. Pepper your descriptions with vivid images, rather than writing one big block of description, and it will help draw your reader into the world of the story.
If you can, try to visit where your story is set – it’s one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of a place. Alternatively, read books and watch movies that share a similar setting to the one you’re writing about.
It can also help to create atmosphere while you are writing. When I’m working on a spooky scene, I will write surrounded by flickering candles and with a horror soundtrack playing.
I also have a pin board in my office with inspirational images, as well as Pinterest boards [See my board for The Twisted Tree here], where I collect images that I find particularly evocative.
The more vivid a setting feels for you, the easier it will be to convey to the reader.
The Twisted Tree by Rachel Burge, is out now, published by Hot Key Books
|About the author
Rachel Burge is the author of The Twisted Tree – a chilling ghost story steeped in Norse mythology, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Michelle Paver's Dark Matter.
Martha can tell things about a person just by touching their clothes, as if their emotions and memories have been absorbed into the material. It started the day she fell from the tree at her grandma's cabin and became blind in one eye.
Determined to understand her strange ability, Martha sets off to visit her grandmother, Mormor - only to discover Mormor is dead and a peculiar boy is in her cabin. Then the spinning wheel starts creaking, books move around and terror creeps in . . .