When you write about fear, you want your readers to experience anything from a tingle between their shoulder blades to blood-curdling horror. Writing effective fear is a good trick to master. Here’s a look at the mechanics behind fear, the elements that make up a perfect horror flick, and the techniques you can use to terrify your readers.
Different Types of Fear
You can be irrationally scared of ducks, but not in the same way that you are rationally afraid of drowning. You can fear an immediate risk, like when you’re trapped in a burning house, or you can fear the might-be risks, like when you have a flat tire in the middle of the night on some unknown road.
Fear is varied. It’s also character-specific. Some people tend to be scared because of active imaginations; others might jump at noises because they suffer PTSD; yet others are simply rationally afraid of being hurt.
You have to know what moves your character to fear in order to take advantage of it.
Fear comes down to a change in metabolism and organ functions at the presence of a perceived risk. Here are some symptoms that follow:
- Your glands start releasing adrenaline
- Your heartbeat and breathing rate go up
- Your pupils dilate to let in more light
- Your sensitivity to noise, motion, and touch goes up through the roof
- Your perception of time passage might heighten
- You feel the “fight or flight” mechanism in action
- In extremes, you might experience a “freeze” reaction
Use these common reactions as a baseline for your characters’ behavior when scared.
Your Own Fears
Close your eyes and think of the two or three scariest things you’ve ever experienced. Dig deep. Often you will draw from your own fear in some way to write horror—yes, even if you haven’t been buried alive and that’s in the cards for your character.
Make a list of what you were thinking, feeling, smelling, and hearing during these experiences. Involve your senses and your memory. Write down the buzz-words. Now, you can take your reaction and work it into a scene. Don’t be afraid to have fun with it, and if you find it hard to write about, create a character and make them do it. (Note: This is therapeutic, too, for those hard-to-deal-with events.)
Learn From Others
Who is your Master of Horror? Find what thrills you and take it in like a sponge. Read and watch all the suspense and horror you can find, even some things out of your genre. Break the language barrier, too: Koji Suzuki’s Ringu (which became the Japanese horror movie Ringu and the remake The Ring) is an excellent example.
Break these stories and storylines down: What’s scary and why? What’s a cheap thrill and jump scare, and what’s long-term suspense?
A good horror book or movie makes you jump in all the right bits; an excellent one makes you go to bed and pull the covers over your head just in case. Great horror just sticks. One example is IT and the fact that many are scared of clowns decades after.
Fear That Sticks
Set the atmosphere when you write. Dim the lights, put on scary music. You know you’re writing great horror—and I’ve heard many best-selling authors say this—when you manage to scare the daylights out of yourself.
In 2004, researchers came up with the perfect formula for what elements makes a horror movie scary:
(ES + U + CS + T) squared + S + (TL + F)/2 + (A + DR + FS)/N + sin(x) - 1
Yes, that looks like enough math to terrify anyone. Let’s go over it section by section.
You get more fear (squared) when you add up EScalating music, the Unknown, Chase Scenes and being (or feeling) Trapped.
You get some fear when you add Shock.
You can add fear by creating a good blend of True Life and Fantasy (too much of either might undermine your efforts).
You get fear from being Alone in a Dark Room with an ominous Film Setting, but that effect might decrease when the Number of characters rises.
Near the end, sin(x) represents Gore. Note that sin(x) can take a positive or a negative value, which means that there is definitely such a thing as too much and too little gore.
Finally, we have - 1 to represent Stereotypes, which are a bad habit anywhere and can kill a horror story by making it banal.
That’s every slasher movie ever made in mathematical terms. Those, you’ll notice, are also elements contained in most suspense, horror, thriller and crime books and you can apply them to figure out just how effective your scene is. (In case you were wondering, Kubrick’s The Shining topped the study.)
Going Over the Top
It becomes easy to go overboard when writing horror. Here are some points for what to avoid:
- It’s not all about cheap thrills, jump scares and gore; subtle horror goes further and eventually readers will notice if you’re trying to cheat them out of it.
- “Nobody would do that!” is not something you want people to think when they read your story. Put thought into how people would rationally react put into that situation.
- Horror can also be pushed to the point where the reader thinks it is completely unnecessary, just disgusting and not scary at all. There is a line. Don’t step over it.
- There are very few “damsels in distress” in the old sense, and you should never push that line to create a completely helpless character.
- Horror for children can be scary, but never too scary. (A great piece on this is Writing Horror for Children by François Bloemhof; you can find that collected in Horror 101: The Way Forward.)
Armed with this knowledge of fear, go scare your readers, and most importantly, yourself!