Creating Fear in Writing

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 12/14/2007

Good writing is supposed to draw on peopleís emotions. One of the most basic human emotions is fear. It seems like a lot of adults like to experience sadness when they read, but children love to experience fear. They jump out from hiding places to scare each other. They sit in closets or under blankets held up by chairs and shine flashlights on their faces as they tell scary stories.

I broke a window one time when I was a kid because of some scary stories. There was one afternoon that my sister, some of our friends and I had been sitting on the front porch of our house telling scary stories. After a while, the four of us got up and went around to the back of the house. We were going to go inside. I was in front and I was about open the storm door when my dog barked. Because of the stories we had been telling, we all jumped, but the other three ended up pushing me into the glass window, breaking it.

Some of the best stories in the world are not always the ones that make you laugh or cry, but the ones that make you scared to go into a dark room or to make you jump when you hear a dog bark. There is no emotion quite like fear, but what makes a story scary?

As with many other things that deal with writing, the things that can be considered scary are somewhat subjective, but I would like to offer some of my thoughts about writing a scary story. The first thing that is frequently used for a scary story is a sense of familiarity. There are elements in the stories that most people recognize. Many people have railroad tracks near their homes, so stories about midnight ghost trains strike a chord with people. Stories about family members provide some familiarity. The setting of a story may be very similar to something people recognize, such as their own home. Even if we are talking about a science fiction story that takes place in outer space, there must be some familiar things that the reader can connect with. A darkened room, a call from home, an evening meal, there are many things that can connect us to a story.

Scary stories build slowly. They often start with a somewhat normal setting. Slowly the story progresses, building to a climax. We might begin with a very familiar, very cozy setting, such as a dinner party or a couple sitting watching a fire. Then something happens. Something quite ordinary happens, such as a knock at the door or a phone call. Even though the event was quite ordinary, it leads to something else that may also seem ordinary. Each thing builds on the thing before it. There are no drastic changes because our goal is to get past the barriers that the reader naturally puts up to protect himself from fear. It is much easier to scare children because they are less capable of erecting these barriers.

A sense of foreboding is used when writing scary stories. We donít want to startle the reader with a sudden tragedy, instead we want the reader to anticipate that something bad is going to happen. In The Monkeyís Paw, for example, the second owner of the paw helps to create this anticipation of evil by trying to destroy the paw and saying that the first owner had wished for death. The reader or listener is left to imagine why someone would wish for death as the last of three wishes. When the third owner makes a wish, the reader is sure that something bad is going to happen.

Having something illogical, paranormal or supernatural is very helpful in a scary story. Ghosts and trains that run through places were tracks do not exist are quite common in scary stories. Objects that grant wishes or appear in places with no natural explanation are also common. People who are insane and do things that normal people do not are also common. The reason that these elements work so well is that it opens up the possibility to the reader that illogical things can happen. Now, most people are willing to accept that illogical things can happen in a fictional story, but the goal is to get the reader to consider the possibility outside the story as well. This is why it is so important for these stories to build slowly.

The story begins with a natural setting. The next thing that happens is something ordinary, such as a knock at the door. This might be repeated. Then it might be repeated again, but this time something unusual but believable might occur. Perhaps there is a stranger at the door, looking for shelter from the cold. The reader wonders why there were two knocks before and no one was there, but it could happen. The strangerís appearance is a natural thing, but it seems unusual, so the reader is willing to accept that something that seems illogical can happen. Perhaps the stranger sits down and talks for a while and the home owner offers to make hot chocolate to help warm him from the cold. They talk for several minutes while the hot chocolate is warming. When it is warm the home owner goes to poor it into cups. When he returns, the visitor is gone and the home owner never heard the door open. This too is possible, but it gives the reader a sense that something unusual happened. The reader is then told that the home owner learns the next day that a man matching the description of the stranger died in a car accident two days earlier. This leaves the reader to draw the conclusion that the illogical answer, that the stranger was a ghost, is actually the most logical answer in the world.

The fear factor is greatly increased when the main characters of the story are put in danger or even killed. Suppose in the story above we have the stranger lead the home owner off into the snow storm and it nearly kills the home owner. It is only after he is in the hospital that the home owner is told that the person he thought was leading him is dead. Maybe instead of this being a stranger, this person is a friend or a cousin. Most of us would leave the safety of our homes and go out into a cold night at the request of a friend. When the reader concludes that this friend is a ghost and there were no indications of that, the reader can see himself in a similar situation if there is a knock at the door or a phone call from a friend. This causes the reader to fear very ordinary things.

Leaving a lot to the imagination of the reader helps a scary story to produce fear in the reader. When there is a knock at the door, the reader cannot see what is on the other side and must draw his own conclusions. When something appears or disappear with no explanation, the reader must draw his own conclusions. The conclusion that we want him to draw is that there is something hiding in the darkness, behind a door or around a corner. We want him to conclude that whatever this thing is it has ill intent for the main character. We want to reader to start to imagine that there might be something or someone hiding in the dark rooms of his house or behind the shower current or anywhere else that a person might hide.

The lack of a resolution helps a scary story. The bad guy doesnít get caught or there is no known way to stop the bad guy, so the reader is left with more of a sense that the bad guy may come knocking on her door or she may find him hiding in a dark room or sleeping on her bed. The story has to have some kind of ending, but the reader is left to figure out what it all means. Hopefully, it means that the reader is going to be spending a while trying to convince himself that there really canít be an unknown danger lurking around the corner.