LTWF: How to Write a Scary Scene

Because Something Strange and Deadly has ghosts and walking corpses, I was recently asked, “How do you write a scary scene?”

So I sat down and thought about what makes a scene scary–how I crafted the frightening bits and what I find scariest in movies/books. I’m sure there are better posts out there that discuss this (as in, articles written by horror writers), but all the same, I came up with a few things I think are needed to make an edge-of-the-seat scene:

  1. The reader must know more than the character and be forced to wait for the Big Scare
  2. The reader must be focused entirely on the scene with introspection absolutely restricted to reaction to surroundings
  3. The reader must not know from where or when the Big Scare will come

Now, to explain these in more depth.

The Readers Knows More than the Character

Basically, we know something dreadful is about to happen, but the character only suspects it.

Think about a scary movie where the character hears something in the kitchen and goes to investigate. We’re screaming, “Don’t go in there! Hide! Call the police! NOOOOO!” We inherently know something is wrong, but the character doesn’t.

As such, we’re flipping the pages to get to that Big Scare. But then, once the Big Scare happens/appears, rather than offer relief, the character is now in an even bigger mess.

This element is surprisingly easy to convey in your writing because we all grow up with an education in Scary. We know that the sounds in the kitchen aren’t good, and we know that going to investigate out is a downright terrible idea. We’re forced to wait, our guts are twisting in terrified anticipation, while the character heads into the kitchen.

That wait for the Big Scare can really heighten the tension, and so it’s up to you to craft that “wait” so it’s overflowing with tension–which leads to #2.

The Reader Must be Focused Completely on the Scene

Again, think of a movie: when the scariest stuff is about to come on the stage, there is no background music. We’re left with just the character’s heavy breathing and every sound in the kitchen.

To transfer that same sensation to the page, we zoom in completely on the scene and the character’s fright/visceral reactions. We slow time down so we’re consumed by these ticking, fear-filled seconds.

…She’s reading on her couch when she hears what sounds like footsteps in the kitchen. Her pulse picks up speed. It’s nothing, she tells herself, I’m imagining things.

But then the creaky floorboard beside her stove groans once. Twice.

Her stomach flies into her throat. She is most definitely not alone. Oh God, who could be in her house?

She eases onto her feet, straining to hear, but her heart pounds too loudly in her ears and her breathing is harsh…

And so on. We have to experience every millisecond with the character. We, the readers, know she’s not imagining things. We know that whatever is in that kitchen is the Big Scare. We’ve seen enough scary movies to know the psycho-killer is waiting for her. It’s this expectation combined with the character’s reaction that rockets up the tension.

Now it comes down to #3: we have to prolong the tension.

The Readers Must Not Know When or Where Terror Will Strike

Will she find the killer in the kitchen? Or will she come in and see an empty room? And if so, THEN WHAT THE HECK WILL SHE DO NEXT AND WHEN THE HECK WILL THIS CRAZY MURDERER SHOW UP? We are cramming pages aside to find out.

In SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, I have some scenes where we know there’s a ghost in the house. However, we don’t know exactly when, where, or how it’s going to attack Eleanor. Then as soon as the ghost does reach the scene, things go from bad to very, very bad. Now Eleanor has found the Big Scare, and she’s found that it wants her dead.

You tell me: What about you? How do you craft scary scenes? What aspects did I miss?