Creating fear in your readers: Don’t go into the woods…4 min read

by Mar 10, 2017Writing0 comments

Fear is your brain reacting to some form of stress.  It does a load of complicated things (that I don’t have the word count to include) that cause your breathing and heartbeat to speed up and a ton of energy to be transmitted to your muscles (creating that whole fight or flight response).

So how do you create these reactions in your readers?

Like building suspense, there’s a lot that’s reliant on pacing.  Think of tricks as simple as long sentences and paragraphs that gradually get shorter in length.  Changing from complex language and sentence structure, to short lines and short words causes your reader to unwittingly increase their reading speed down the page.  This can create a frenetic feeling in the reader (because you’re forcing them to speed up), causing stress to increase.

You can’t just pick up the pace and pare down your words though; you need to make sure the reader cares about your character.  If they don’t care about the character, then they won’t worry about them walking around late at night despite news reports of the escaped tiger/clown/monster from Stranger Things.  And while we’re talking about news reports, don’t forget the necessary art of foreshadowing.  Your character walking around at night isn’t going to cause fear in your reader.  If you know about the escaped tiger, and they don’t, then that’s the stress point you’re manipulating in your reader to cause that chemical reaction in the brain.

It’s also worth a reminder that horror stories have never just been about gore.  Horror is the best genre at creating atmosphere.  Those worlds that are ticking along and seemingly lovely, but that slowly hint at unsettling things underneath, think Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives.  How do you create that unsettling atmosphere?  You have to make the reader and the characters feel safe, secure, untouchable.  Then let the monsters loose in the air vents.  First someone hears breathing, then the sound of claws scrabbling.  Then they don’t hear anything.

To help with both pacing and atmosphere, and to rightly assume that your reader isn’t brainless, it’s always good to be able to logically explain away the first few unsettling incidents.  The street lamps are out because of a power cut (or Dumbledore).  The phone line is dead because a tree came down on the wires in the wind.  Noises aren’t coming from in the walls, it’s just the neighbours.  And if your character is about to put themselves in danger, try not to make them too much of an idiot.  “Let’s go investigate those strange lights and odd chainsaw sounds in the woods,” won’t make you reader scared, it will make your reader face palm.  Your characters hear strange noises outside the cottage.  The heroine’s six-year old daughter starts to get scared, triggering a severe asthma attack.  Her inhaler is still in the car on the drive.

Go forth and create fear!  Share your best and creepiest writing tips with Plotist below.

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