Today’s post is by author and self-publishing mentor Shayla Raquel (@shaylaleeraquel).
People love to be scared. So if you’re writing in the horror genre, your ultimate yet obvious goal is to scare the pants off your readers. You want them to bite their nails down to nubs. Seeing an Amazon review that says “Kept me up all night! So creepy!” would make your horror-writing heart so happy.
But what are some methods for achieving that kind of feedback? How do you frighten a reader so badly that they text their mom at midnight saying, “OMG this book freaked me out so bad! You have to read it”?
Here are 13 ways to do precisely that.
1. Place something scary in a beautiful setting.
We’re used to scary things happening in dark alleyways or creepy abandoned warehouses or Michael Myers-esque mental hospitals, but what if things could be even scarier when you put them in breathtaking places?
For example, if I wrote a scene in Japan with the cherry blossoms, you’d imagine the most gorgeous pink hues. It would feel like a wonderland. A place you’d want to get married or have the world’s best photoshoot.
Now take that setting—a place where romance buds—and slit a character’s throat. That is horrifying, but it works. When you use a lovely background for an odious purpose, it stings more. It’s unnatural, it’s unexpected. As a reader, I expect an evil clown to round the corner of a dark alley. I do not expect to see blood spurting from a neck amid cherry blossoms.
2. Push the limits of your antagonist’s sanity.
In Misery, Annie Wilkes has a scrapbook with newspaper clippings from her past life as the Dragon Lady. That’s already nerve-racking, but it’s more messed up when we see that she drew in the scrapbook. What’s more horrifying to you—that Annie has a scrapbook of her murders, or that she glams it up with little handwritten sayings, like a sorority girl with Polaroids might?
Let’s say you’re writing a Mommie Dearest type of villain. Do you have a “No more wire hangers!” moment? Is there a scene wherein your villain pushes the limits of her sanity and does something so obscene that it becomes a pinnacle moment for your character(s)?
Speaking of sanity…
3. Study the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
I might get hater comments for this, but here we go: I don’t know how you can appropriately write about terrifying villains without having some basic understanding of psychology and nature versus nurture. Your antagonist is not just a serial killer or a cannibal or a human trafficker for no reason whatsoever. There was something (or somethings) that led your antagonist toward monsterdom.
Even if it’s a case of nature (the villain was born this way), that’s still a reason, an answer. Invest in the DSM-5 and study up on psychotic disorders.
For example, there is nothing inherently “wrong” with being a psychopath; many psychopaths lead perfectly fine lives with jobs and families. The twist is when, perhaps, a psychopath is raised by an extremely abusive parent, thus potentially setting the foundation for a violent antagonist in your crime thriller.
4. Show your villain right at the beginning or right at the end.
Do you know when the great white shark fully appears in the movie Jaws?
One hour, 21 minutes in. You get glimpses, but the entire shark? Nope, not until the 1-hour, 21-minute mark (in a 2-hour film). It’s this tension that makes the movie superior. The viewers know there is a man-eating shark, but the anticipation in seeing it in all its grudge-holding glory? That keeps people on the edge of their seats, even decades later.
On the other hand, kicking off a story immediately with an in-your-face villain is a tried-and-true method. In Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh, you know by the third line in the prologue that Joshua Kane is a cold-blooded killer.
With this method, you eliminate the mystery of the villain (i.e., “Who could it be?”) and replace it with dread (i.e., “I know who the monster is, so whatever he’s about to do is going to be heart-stopping!”).
5. Cross the line. Big time.
This could also be titled “cut the vein,” which I’ve talked about often. In 2019, author Sanderia Faye taught a class for Dallas-Fort Worth Writers Conference and explained that writers cannot skirt around the edge; they must cut the vein. They must bleed onto the page. Think of Sophie’s Choice or Beloved.
In horror, you’ll most likely have some blood and guts and definitely death. It’s expected. But sometimes cutting the vein means not going for death. Could a scene become more gruesome if torture was involved? Could a story become more memorable not because of an ounce of blood, but because of the deep psychological trauma your antagonist inflicted on your protagonist?
In Cujo, Stephen King achieves this by killing Tad, a 4-year-old boy, not from the bite of the rabid dog, but from dehydration and heatstroke.
Can you think of a time in your writing when you cut the vein? Have you ever pushed the boundaries in your story? You should.
6. Research what others won’t dare to.
When I wrote Savage Indulgence, a short story about a cannibal named Joyce, I knew for a fact I’d be falling into an abyss that was not for everyone. Horror forces a writer to learn about topics that many humans probably shouldn’t know a thing about. If I was going to write about eating human flesh, I was going to have to read about that exact thing to get it right. Once I read what I read, I could never undo it. So there is a major caveat to this method.
That said, if you’re willing to, um, go where no man has gone before, you can terrify your reader on a totally different level. For example, I read literature published by actual cannibals so that my scenes were on point every time. It was really hard for me to digest (okay, awful pun, so sorry). It took a toll on me, to be honest. But the cold hard truth? It made my horror story better because I researched so deeply.
7. Reveal that any human being can become a monster.
Breaking Bad, though not horror, did an exceptional job at this task. Can you take a beloved character or an average joe or a do-gooder and turn them into a savage? Can you make the lovable unlovable?
Horror so often shows us things about humanity we don’t want to see. We want to believe that everyone is capable of good, but maybe, just maybe, some people start out good and evolve into something sinister.
Try taking a character who is loved by all—she volunteers at her local nonprofit, bakes goodies for her neighbors, dotes on her husband—and turn her into a walking nightmare.
8. Push beyond “There is no way this could possibly get any worse.”
In Misery (yes, again, I know), Paul Sheldon being held against his will is bad. Paul’s longtime stalker being his nurse? Oh, that’s bad too. But you know when things go beyond that? When Annie hobbles him. As a horror writer, you have to be willing to go beyond bad. You have to go to a dark, messed-up place. A place that’s just plain wrong.
Make your reader think, “There is no possible way this could get any worse.” Right when you have them in that moment, wreck them with something disgusting or god-awful or traumatizing. You want Hannibal Lecter moments? Then rub salt in a wound.
9. Interrupt a happy or nostalgic moment with horror.
In Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, Charlie tells a cute story about his kids eating spaghetti. In this scene, it’s pure nostalgia and you find yourself smiling as you reminisce with him. But his sweet story is interrupted by a gruesome, shocking moment. Like, stop-reading-and-back-up shocking. (I shan’t spoil it.)
I read this scene three times. To me, this is true horror. This is true tension. To be able to take a nostalgic moment for Charlie as he retells it, then interrupt it with something so jaw-dropping—that’s a skill set I hope to have as a writer.
So if you know you’re going to write a shocking scene, set it up nicely with a sweet moment.
10. Learn from real-life monsters.
True crime is a big part of my life, so I binge plenty of it. I use it as a method for learning. If I’m going to write about monsters, I need to study real-life killers from our past and present. Men are often the monsters in the real world and in fiction, so I like to make my villains female. In my research, I’ve found that women such as Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Michelle Carter and Aileen Wuornos are fantastic case studies. When I learn about them, I can implement my findings into my own characters.
Think about your antagonist. Is there anyone from real life who resembles him or her? If so, watch documentaries on that real-life monster; listen to podcasts, read books, study conspiracy theories. Whatever you can get your hands on. The more you learn about the real things that go bump in the night, the more your readers will crave your stories. (And sleep medication.)
11. Play with the “wrongness” of something.
In Night Shift by Stephen King, “The Mangler” (short story) has a non-human villain: a laundry folder at a laundromat. You wouldn’t think it’d be scary, but it freaked me out. It was just…wrong. It shouldn’t be a thing, but it was and it worked.
What is unnatural in your story that you could work with? In the short story “Hive,” featured in Kitchen Sink by Spencer Hamilton, we meet a young boy who turns his entire house into an infestation of ants and spiders and creepy-crawlies. Two agents make their way inside the house, and there is no possible way you can read this story without feeling like bugs are on your skin. That’s “wrongness” in all the right ways.
12. Polarize your readers.
This method deserves a pros and cons list before you do it, but if implemented correctly, you’ll leave readers thinking about your story for years to come.
In The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, the reader is left to decide who was right: Eric or Andrew. Even Paul himself has disclosed that he doesn’t know the answer. Sometimes, we don’t get all the answers. That leaves us polarized. Some readers don’t like endings like this, but I find them to be more accurate than most. Because that’s what life does in its most horrifying moments: it leaves us with more questions than answers.
If you want to leave your readers scared and talking, polarize them.
13. Embellish your own deepest fear.
I’m petrified of spiders, porcelain dolls, childbirth, and clusters of holes (trypophobia). If I were to write about these topics—things I’m genuinely afraid of—that fear would resonate with my readers, even if they aren’t necessarily afraid of those things. My fear would become their fear.
Make a list of the things that strike fear in you, then use that list as a writing prompt. Take what you’re afraid of and embellish it. If you’re afraid of confined spaces, then put your character in a claustrophobic setting on steroids. Being stuck in an elevator that won’t move isn’t enough; add a dead body to up the stakes. If you’re afraid of heights, then placing your protagonist on a roller coaster may be interesting, but it’s not enough. Having the roller coaster stop still isn’t enough. Instead, have the roller coaster stop while the protagonist is upside down. Try to think of what would make you lose your mind.
That’s it, horror writers. I hope these methods help you scare the crap out of your readers!
A self-publishing mentor, best-selling author, and public speaker, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with writers every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has been in the publishing industry for eleven years and teaches on author branding, indie publishing, book marketing, and the craft of writing. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books.
She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, “The Rotting” (in Shivers in the Night), The Suicide Tree, The 10 Commandments of Author Branding, All the Things I Should’ve Told You, and “Savage Indulgence.” In her not-so-free time, she studies all things true crime and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and three fur babies. Learn more at her site.