Eliciting emotions in your reader is what writing is all about. However, with Halloween almost upon us, fear is one of the most difficult emotions to elicit. You don't have the luxury of ‘jumps’ that horror movies rely on. So, how do you scare your reader with only words? Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire equation that results in fear and, if there was, it wouldn’t be very scary if every writer was doing it. So, with that said, here are some very quick tips (and lots of rhetorical questions to get you thinking) that will just scratch the surface of what makes a good spine-chilling tale.
What scares you?
If you are afraid of something, it's likely that someone else will be too. Try to dig deep and find something that truly chills you. What makes your blood run cold? Why do you look over your shoulder at...nothing?
Timing is key. You can't go right in with the scare or it will fall flat. It's important to build the suspense until it's almost unbearable. When is something scary coming? The reader has no idea so it ramps up the tension.
There's no other genre quite so filled with cliches and tropes. From a character’s actions (Don't go down into that dark basement alone!) to the descriptions of fear (hairs on the back of the neck, chills up the spine, heart racing etc.) and not to mention the thing that's actually hunting your character (vampires, werewolves, knife-wielding killers): they’ve all been done to death, literally. So, if you really want to scare your reader, be original.
Use the unknown
We’re all afraid of different things, but the fear of the unknown is as close as you can get to a universal human fear. What's under the bed? Who is lurking in the bushes? What happens to us when we die? These are all unknowns and so they scare us. Ever notice in a horror movie how the idea of a monster is usually scarier than when we actually see it on screen?
Leave it to the imagination
Running on from the point above, the reader’s imagination is usually the most powerful tool you have access to. It's the reason we think up wild scenarios when walking down a quiet, dark road all alone. If you frame it well, the reader will fill in the blanks and do half the work of scaring themselves.
Focus on the details
Details are important in a scary story because it helps build the atmosphere and setting. When the reader can picture the scene, they imagine themselves in it and it heightens their anxiety.
Who are we rooting for?
Just like with setting and atmosphere, when you describe a character and their emotions effectively, the reader will put themselves in their shoes. Not only that, if it's a character they care about they will be frightened with them and for them.
How you end your creepy tale is crucial. It doesn't necessarily need to be a big reveal or scare (though those are fun!) but, ideally, it should be something with impact that gets under your reader’s skin and leaves them with the chills.