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Unfortunately, writing something scary is a lot more challenging then showing something scary. This is why you’ll have people jump and scream at horror movies, but not necessarily while reading a scary book. At least, I’ve never screamed while reading a scary book, though I am guilty of yelling at the characters not to go into the basement.
I think that the reason for this is that human reflexes are triggered by visual and auditory things. When we hear the music swelling during a movie, it heightens our awareness. A sudden crescendo followed by silence causes chills. We see something jump out; we flinch. Our natural defense reflexes—the adrenaline response—are triggered by such things. Seeing and hearing very frightening or startling things set off our adrenal glands like crazy.
This is why I scream bloody murder whenever people sneak up on me. By the way, there should be some kind of law against sneaking up on people who are wearing headphones. Seriously.
So, clearly, film has a leg up on writing for the sheer immediacy of the fear response. However, writing has its advantages too. But before I get into that, I’m going to propose that there are two ways to be frightening in storytelling:
The first is to write about something which is scary ipso facto. Ipso facto is, loosely translated, Latin for “in and of itself.” Basically, this includes stuff like ghosts, demons, and the like. It can also include cultural phobias—snakes, spiders, and rats, for example.
The second is in the telling itself. This type of storytelling can take something which otherwise would not be scary and make it absolutely terrifying.
If you combine both of these things, you will have people sucking their thumbs for the rest of the night, and being a bit twitchy for weeks thereafter. Arguably, however, the most important part of being scary is the telling itself.
So, what is it about the telling that makes it scary? The most important thing is to appeal to the senses. Adrenaline responses are all about the senses; for most, it's hearing or seeing. Describe the sound or visual cue--be sure to use short, choppy sentences for a sense of urgency--and then describe the physical response in the character. Their stomach plummets. The hairs on the back of their neck stand up. Their throat is seized and locked into silent terror. Their pulse thuds in their ears.
This is where writing has the advantage. Movies can show us and provide the sound for us, but they cannot put us inside the actual bodies of the characters. Bring your reader into the deepest, most fearful parts of your character's psyche. That will trigger an emotion response in the reader.
Fear is visceral. We feel it in our guts. Our bodies react powerfully. If you make your characters feel the same way, this will spill into your reader's mind as your reader becomes absorbed in your writing. I've read scary stories that were written this way. The character's stomach tightens; mine tightens as well. Shivers run down the character's spine; shivers run down mine.
So, never having written horror, from what I've read, I can surmise that this is how horror is written effectively. Remember that the best writing instructor you'll ever have is reading other books.
So, while the ipso facto stuff is great, nothing is more important than the telling. I have read books which should have been terrifying, but did not actually scare me that much.
A couple of years ago, I was in the mood for being scared, so I decided to read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I was sorely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong—demonic possession is a pretty horrific, scary thing. It was certainly frightening ipso facto. I won't deny that I got chills a couple of times. However, in my opinion, the storytelling itself dragged down the potential scariness of the book. Blatty is not, in my opinion, a master of suspense. It was not artfully written, and the only part about it that scared me a little was the fact that, hey, demons are scary.
Even then, I don't worry about demons on a day to day basis. I do believe they exist, but being a Christian, they are pretty low on my list of things to be afraid of. As long as I'm not stupid and actively try to get involved with them, God definitely takes care of that problem for me. I realize this is the second time I've mentioned my religion this week, and I don't mean to pontificate. It just happened to relate to the topic at hand both times.
So, while demons are creepy and all, I'm not that scared of them, so the telling of the story was what I needed to send me over the edge into thumb-sucking terror. Blatty did not deliver. I realize there are many people who disagree with me, but Blatty became famous because of the topic of his book, not his writing skills. It's all in the telling. If Blatty had done a better job of telling the story, with perhaps more character development, or appealed more to the senses, I would have had a little trouble sleeping that night. As it was, I was disgusted that I'd never be getting back the 75 cents I spent at the used book store, not to mention three hours of my life.
Now, compare that to H.P. Lovecraft. Oh, I love Lovecraft. He is an absolute master of the telling. The way he builds suspense, the way he tells things, makes even relatively tame things seem terrifying. One of my favorites of his stories, "The Colour out of Space," is a marrow-chilling tale about...color. Yes, a little bubble of color breaks free from a meteorite and finds its way into the ground.
And the ground becomes permanently affected. Suddenly, everything else around it becomes affected. The thing that makes it the most terrifying is that you never find out what the heck it is. Uncertainty is a huge part of fear. Lovecraft takes that uncertainty, nurtures it like a loving mother, and then lets it infect you in stages.
I read that story with white knuckles and goosebumps. I was pretty twitchy for a couple of days. In other words, it was seriously awesome.
I highly recommend you read H.P. Lovecraft. He was a big inspiration to Stephen King, who further developed the art of telling seriously freaky stories. While you should always develop your own voice, if you want an example of how to be absolutely terrifying, check him out.
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So what do you think? What, in your opinion, makes for a good scary story? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.
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