How do I Scare You?
April 19, 2008 6:38 PM   Subscribe

So I wanna write a horror novel. God knows where I start. How can I make it scary, as opposed to a soppy middle of the road thriller?
posted by bobbyone to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
That's a bit... open-ended, don't you think?

Revulsion. Fear comes and goes, but the repulsive can stay with you for months. What really, really squicks you out? Start there.
posted by Leon at 6:51 PM on April 19, 2008

Read horror novels and think critically about what they do that works. Observe things like structure, plotting, pacing, characterization, etc.
posted by orange swan at 7:00 PM on April 19, 2008

Strange Horizons Magazine implores you to NOT start here- their list of horror stories they've seen too often.
posted by headspace at 7:08 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Read Stephen King's book, On Writing.
posted by jamaro at 7:10 PM on April 19, 2008

just to throw this out there, making it really scary has nothing to do with it being any good at all.

im not a huge horror (movie)* fan, but i think plenty of terrible movies manage to be Scary.

and i guess the way they do that is by putting the protagonist(s) in potentially very dangerous and unpredictable situations. (walking down the hall and you dont know which door the psycho-killer will come out of, or even if its a psycho-killer or a friend coming out of that door. or whatever.)

right? i dunno.

*i do love many stephen king books, however.
posted by gcat at 7:14 PM on April 19, 2008

jamaro, i am fairly certain that kings On Writing does not at all address the topic of how to make a story scary. though it has been a while...
posted by gcat at 7:16 PM on April 19, 2008

Take some inspiration from Hollywood: probably the scariest movie I've ever seen was Alien, not so much because of the gore but because of the repeated "I thought we were safe but IT'S BACK!!!" Just when you start to relax a bit the danger recurs, over and over, until you're afraid to let down your guard at all. The feeling that nowhere is safe, anything and everything could contain a menace, nothing can be trusted - that's scary.

I heard somewhere (but can't find a source online) that Ridley Scott's father had an inoperable skull base tumor and his dreadful rollercoaster of remission and progression - the relief that "Dad's cured!" followed by the horror of "Oh no, the cancer is back!" - was the inspiration (so to speak) for the recurring safety/peril cycles in the movie. Certainly Scott managed to create an atmosphere of nerve-wracking tension and dread. I'm not too susceptible to scary movies but this one had me short of breath and gripping my chair with white knuckles. Can't think of any others that did that ...

Whatever danger you plan for your novel, have it occur repeatedly, with short interludes in which the characters think they're safe. Escalate the danger a little each time, and by the end your characters should feel that nothing is safe and any sense of security is utterly false. And your readers will have to go to sleep with the lights on.
posted by Quietgal at 7:22 PM on April 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

putting the protagonist(s) in potentially very dangerous and unpredictable situations.

I would refine that to potentially very dangerous and unpredictable situations in which the readers canreasonably imagine themselves.

A good thriller or horror story really gets me when it has me looking over my shoulder. It does that by allowing my mind, all unbidden, to form the notion that the [killer with the linoleum knife in his hand/flesh-eating virus/wave of sentient vapor] is [on the other side of the door/crunching around in the gravel outside my window/waiting in the dark laundry room for me to return with the fabric softener]. Sometimes this effect is so subtle I don't notice it until I'm actually on my way down the laundry room steps. That's a gooooood effect.

You do that, in part, by constructing believable characters. Their actions can be wholy unbelievable, if you root the characterizations well enough to get readers empathizing with them. Note: readers needn't particularly like the characters, just to see through their eyes.

It also means writing clearly enough so the reader can shape an image or idea of the scenario. They cannot place themselves there if they cannot imagine the scene.
posted by Elsa at 7:29 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

gcat, you are absolutely right. The main point of On Writing is to pay attention to your characters, to make them real enough for the reader to get engaged in their plight. Works for any genre but it's something that a lot of fiction writers fail to do, especially bad horror writers who spend endless pages describing an oozing monster about to eat a cardboard protagonist.
posted by jamaro at 7:31 PM on April 19, 2008

jamaro: oops, sorry. just wanted to let you know in case you didnt - and let the OP know, of course.
posted by gcat at 7:35 PM on April 19, 2008

Remember the uncanny valley. That's always a good way to make them squirm.
posted by Area Control at 7:44 PM on April 19, 2008

This is going to sound like a smartass reply, but bear with me. This is Joe Queenan, writing in his book Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon:
I had another bone to pick with the horror genre. The back covers of horror novels always inform the reader that unspeakable horror lurks within. But in fact, the horror that lurks within is, invariably, eminently speakable. It's always a vampire or a ghost or a wraith or a satanic child or a dysfunctional Amish pretten or a hound from hell or a monster that looks like one of the creatures from The Unnamable [sic] II that's going to wrap its entrails around your throat, eat you, and then feed its feces--including you--to other hounds from hell. The horror that lurks behind the door or at the end of a lane up in the attic is always a recognizably and even stereotypically horrific monster.
When I read these lines, I immediately agreed. The moment of any horror novel or movie where the unspeakable becomes revealed diminishes the impact of the scare. Psycho is scary up until Mrs. Bates is shown, maybe even during the time she is shown, but afterwards, one feels let down by the revelation. This is one of the reasons why The Birds is a better horror movie than Psycho (the other reason is that it never cheats by using music to startle the viewer).

So avoid this stuff at all costs. If you hope to scare anyone over the age of 13, you need to think a little bit differently. Here's a specific suggestion: read Pet Cemetary by Steven King. Read it all the way through, then ask yourself how much better, and scarier, the book would be if he hadn't bothered to tack on the epilogue. The idea of the pet cemetary being used for purposes other than what it was intended is scary. The fact that the book never explains what force is behind the pet cemetary is scary. The last couple of pages are lame.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 9:05 PM on April 19, 2008

I agree with UrineSoakedRube* - let your readers do the genuine scaring themselves, your biggest job is to set up a situation in which that can happen. As soon as you reveal too much, your story becomes specifically about you and what you find scary, rather than about what the reader finds scary. Some of King's novels illustrate this nicely - I won't name the title lest I spoil it for anybody, but I'm specifically thinking of the one where the "monster" turned out to be some ridiculous space spider at the end. The story was engaging and horrifying right up until that point BECAUSE of what my own brain could come up with, but as soon as King foisted his own definition of "terror" on me ... eh, well, it put safe little fences up around what was previously a wild, unknown and unfathomable horror. I surely can't be alone in possessing a brain FAR more capable of torturing me with things -I- find horrifying than anybody else could come up with.

Actually, I think the same point applies across genres - there's something about the unknown that's fascinating and thrilling in a way that concrete revelations just can't be. Think of how much talk was expended in trying to "figure out" what was in that briefcase in Pulp Fiction, surely that plot point would have been forgotten ages ago had we known what was in the case regardless of WHAT it was ... Do as Elsa suggests by building credible, complex, flawed characters your reader can identify with; build up a plot that puts those characters into situations beyond their control, and then leave it up to US to fill in the details that will make it truly horrifying in our own minds.

*Can't say I ever expected to publicly assert my agreement with a "UrineSoakedRube;" huzzah for the internets!
posted by zeph at 9:45 PM on April 19, 2008

Blur the lines between fiction and reality, taking away the safety blanket the reader enjoys.
Eg. If I'm reading about some scaly man-eating monster, that's so-so. If I'm reading a supposedly real unsolved police casefile about linked deaths where the victims were partially eaten, then the possibility exists that it's real, and that whatever it was that did that might still be out there. It might be peering in my window RIGHT NOW.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:38 PM on April 19, 2008

Suspense is better than shock. Japanese horror films are suspenseful; the Saw series depends on shock and gore. Guess which scares me and which just disgusts me?

I definitely second reading Stephen King's On Writing, too.
posted by flatluigi at 10:38 PM on April 19, 2008

zeph> Some of King's novels illustrate this nicely - I won't name the title lest I spoil it for anybody, but I'm specifically thinking of the one where the "monster" turned out to be some ridiculous space spider at the end. The story was engaging and horrifying right up until that point BECAUSE of what my own brain could come up with, but as soon as King foisted his own definition of "terror" on me ... eh, well, it put safe little fences up around what was previously a wild, unknown and unfathomable horror.

Yeah, King does that too often for my tastes. But bobbyone, Steven King is instructive as far as both what to do and what not to do.

Here are two more points. Leon's point about revulsion staying with you is one to take to heart. It's pretty hard to scare the hell out of someone with a book in the same way that you can with a movie. If you can put an indelible image or even an idea in someone's mind that he or she is unable to dismiss given some thought ("Wait a minute, transdimensional space spiders aren't scary at all, now that I think about it", "A big Saint Bernard? Really?", "A haunted car?", etc.), then you've tapped into something primal based on real fears in people's lives.

And also, harking back to the previous point, if you asked the best horror writers (let's use Steven King and Clive Barker as examples) what their influences were, they would probably not point to their contemporaries. Modern horror authors that cite Steven King as an influence are like heavy metal bands that cite Led Zeppelin as an influence, when Led Zeppelin had the good taste to be influenced by the blues and Joni Mitchell. Most of these bands suck, and the better ones are still pretty mediocre. Same goes for the horror writers.

Anyway, I would guess that King and Barker would cite writers like Poe who aren't scary the way horror films are. If you haven't already, read and study the influences of the modern day horror writers you like. Read some of the greats that you like, and don't limit yourself to horror. See what resonates with you, and without copying their style (well, not too much, you've got to walk before you can run) flesh out a plot outline and character sketches around whatever central element you think would really scare someone on a deep level.

Oh, and good luck. I haven't read a good scary book in a while, so I have a personal interest in hoping that you succeed.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 10:41 PM on April 19, 2008

H.P. Lovecraft wrote a book on horror and might be quite interesting.
posted by Nelsormensch at 11:08 PM on April 19, 2008

Okay, just one more comment, something I forgot to say before. If you haven't already done so, watch the short animated film Balance. This may not be horror in the same sense that you're thinking of, but the final image creeped me out for weeks (and it had a similar effect on my college buddies who saw it with me). One, take away from the film that there are things that you wouldn't think are scary until you see or read them. Two, if you haven't done a lot of writing already and you agree with me that there is something very unsettling and disturbing about that last shot, you could use it as practice: write a brief short story adaptation of the film. See if you can distill its essence in words instead of images.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:22 PM on April 19, 2008

For a good example of horrors unspeakable and unknowable and that delicate art of blending the lines between fiction and reality, see Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. It has many layers and stories interwoven throughout, not all of them are scary, but I think it should count as a work of horror. It certainly leaves you wondering and imagining this untold, mysterious and terrifying world. The word "stairs" has never been as chilling.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 11:28 PM on April 19, 2008

The first thing you can do, which I'm surprised more people haven't suggested, is to read all the good horror you can get your hands on and see what those authors did.

The second thing you can do is write. Write a lot. Write every day. What you write will be shit, and not scary. That's fine, keep writing. After a few hundred thousand or maybe a million words your writing will be less shitty and more scary as you improve your writing skills and gain confidence as a writer. Writing is a skill; some people have innate talent and some people have a much higher potential than others, but like any skill you get better by practicing. If you don't write a lot, like every day, your writing will almost certainly never be anything but crap.

Lastly (and you should get this from part 1s and 2s), understand fear in a literary context. Movies can get away with being lazy and scaring you by having something jump out suddenly. This is shit. Oh, it can be done well and when done well is about the suspense and anticipation, but mostly it's just shit. Luckily you can't do that in a novel. Novels are about dread and existential terror.

Surprises generally aren't scary in a book. There are some examples of big reveals inducing horror (there's a scence in Banks' The Wasp Factory that I don't even want to think about) but generally horror novels are about gradually building suspense and dread up and up and not relenting and creaing an atmosphere of suffocating dread.

Like I said, if you're a brilliant writer you will be able to do surprise horror moments even in writing, but you aren't a brilliant writer... yet. Maybe you can be, but you need to write your million words of shitty horror first for practice.
posted by Justinian at 12:58 AM on April 20, 2008

I'm not kidding about writing a million words of shit first. If you try to skip this part you'll still be writing shit, you just won't realize it.
posted by Justinian at 1:01 AM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just to add a bit to the King discussion above... I believe that the reason King's books are a zillion times scarier than the movie adaptations have been is because so much of the terror in them is psychological and doesn't translate. It's not the giant spider or the scary clown or the evil car, it's the way he gets you inside the narrator's mind and makes you feel their terror. You do that, you're golden, and you don't need evil spiders/clowns/cars.

To give you another example -- one of the scariest stories I ever read is one whose title and author I've now forgotten... but the story was about the narrator being afraid of a wallpaper. No kidding, *wallpaper*. Couldn't possibly film it. Gave me nightmares.

When you boil down what really scares people, it is hopelessness. The classic terrifying scenarios... being buried alive, being chased by a monster you can't outrun, etc... are all so scary because there's nothing you can do about them.

Set up your narrator as someone reasonably good, reasonably capable, forgivably flawed... someone whose shoes your reader could easily see themselves in.

Then slowly take everything away. When they think they've hit rock-bottom, give them a little hope and then rip it out of their hands. Let them go to a place or person of safety, feel a few moments of sweet relief... then destroy that safety. Get their cellphone wet, wreck their car, break their leg, kill the friend who was coming to rescue them... leave them vulnerable and terrified, running out of time, and without anyone or anything to help them. If you've thrown the reader enough to make them love and identify with your character(s), they'll follow them there. Break your characters down to their very last nerve... and then have their last nerve be the thing that saves them. If, y'know, you want them to get saved.

If you want your readers to not feel cheated, have your characters save themselves somehow... ideally through a character trait, environmental object, etc. you've previously introduced. Having the sheriff pull up at just the right time robs your character of his triumph and your reader of a sense of satisfaction and pride in your character.

To go back to King, and a book people have previously mentioned... (been a while since I read it, so I might screw this up)... there's a scene where the villain is revealed to basically be a supernatural creature that takes its form from what people fear. One of the males then takes his asthma inhaler and truly believes for a moment that its spray is a weapon, and severely wounds the creature.

Frankly, I wish it had killed the creature at that point, because that was a freaking great moment. It used things that had already been set up -- the guy's asthma, the villain's own nature, the previous plot development of that character -- and coalesced it deliciously.

i'm babbling, but yeah -- to me, the true elements of horror aren't Scary Things, they're scary feelings. Hopelessness, helplessness, vulnerability, trying to get help but not being believed, having all vestiges of security taken away... things people deal with all the time, but pounded in your face. There's a reason so many horror narrators are children (with shitty and/or clueless parents)... childhood itself is a great metaphor for the adult experience of horror. "I should be safe and protected -- but I'm not."
posted by Gianna at 3:43 AM on April 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

Horror is death. We are all going to die, unfortunately. Horror takes that fact and shoves it in your face. So you create vivid characters that the reader can identify with (and how to do that is a whole different ball game) then them put in situations were there is a real chance that they will die, painfully, terrifyingly and real real soon. Kill off people around them to show the threat is real, trap them physically and / or psychologically so although they'll try running they won't be able to get away; that they will have to confront their worst nightmare. Drag out the tension for as long as possible. Have not only them but their loved one's, their children, everything they hold dear in danger. Have secondary threats - the Judas character. Tap into everyones primal fears: fear of the dark, fear of pain, fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of sex, fear of death. Always fear of death. Read good fiction, read bad fiction and work out the difference. And write, write a lot and keep asking yourself, 'is this good enough?'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:39 AM on April 20, 2008

Read all the scary things you can lay hands on. Figure out the common elements of the stories YOU find scary. Then dig into that.

Once writing, if you find yourself hesitating about putting some word or phrase or concept in because it's too sick/weird/freaky or etc., use it, because that's the part people will respond to.
posted by st looney up the cream bun and jam at 5:32 AM on April 20, 2008

Gianna: To give you another example -- one of the scariest stories I ever read is one whose title and author I've now forgotten... but the story was about the narrator being afraid of a wallpaper. No kidding, *wallpaper*. Couldn't possibly film it. Gave me nightmares.

Would that be The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman?
posted by flatluigi at 7:31 AM on April 20, 2008

Make it subtle. Make the reader fill in the blanks.

For examples, read some M.R. James stories.
posted by gyusan at 9:46 AM on April 20, 2008

Sweet fancy molasses, The Yellow Wallpaper scares the hell out of me. The effect never diminishes, no matter how often I read it. I got a tiny chill just reading Gianna's remark: afraid of a wallpaper. No kidding, *wallpaper*

With that story, I think there are several keys all working together to build the sense of horror:
- the narrator is a perfectly plausible character. She feels right, she feels real. Her initial problems are firmly based in the realities of her time and society, and she seems like a person one could know, or be, or have over to tea.
- though clearly something is wrong, maybe horribly wrong, from the get-go, the reader is left wondering exactly what is the problem: is it the house? is it the husband? is it the narrator? is it something more, or all three?
- Gilman wielded a perfect, horrid descriptive power, especially toward the end, with the... the... the creeping. *shudder*
- there's no huge dramatic reveal at the end. Rather, it culminates in a boiling-over of the story's gradually building tensions.

Couldn't possibly film it. Gave me nightmares.

Gianna, there is actually a film of The Yellow Wallpaper coming out this year. I've been wondering what the hell they'll do with the story, besides (presumably) butcher it; it's so simple and so terribly, horribly effective. I, too, have trouble imagining this narrative brought to the screen, though evidently there have been previous productions, too.

posted by Elsa at 11:37 AM on April 20, 2008

Regardless of plot, villain, whatever, an essential aspect of "horror," whether in book or film versions, (for me) is that it has to make the viewer/reader feel vulnerable. I remember when I first started learning about The Ring, years before the American version, and before I got a watchable VCD of the Japanese version (the theatrical one I mean, as there have been two Japanese TV miniseries based on the original novel), I did what I saw as the only way to slake my curiosity about it, and so I downloaded and read the screenplay.

It scared the shit out of me, more than either of the films or the novel. My imagination went haywire and I was TERRIFIED of sleeping in our bedroom because of the TV set in there and what might.... come out of it. It was exhilarating terror, like a roller-coaster ride that lasted all night, and therewith began my addiction to J-Horror.

What made it so effective? I FELT AT RISK. I felt like I was going to be Sadako's next victim.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 4:04 PM on April 20, 2008

Elsa and Gianna, there's a new "chamber opera" of The Yellow Wallpaper that was just performed at Peabody. Fantastic. I wish this piece would get wider exposure.

In the list of authors to read as examples, don't forget Richard Matheson. His stories have been borrowed and borrowed into cliche, but the originals are beautifully effective.
posted by desuetude at 4:23 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know that guy who got stuck in the elevator for 41 hours? That's a subtle kind of horror that made me dream about it, more than anything I've read. Imagine being that guy? He lacks information, he doesn't know why he's been forgotten, if anyone will come, what has happened. I'm not claustrophobic, but being in that situation would be, well, horrifying.

I find characters in situations like that to be more interesting, rather than `let's fight the zombie hordes'.

For that matter, in any of those films or stories, I find everything leading up to the reveal more intriguing. Descent - everything up to `oh god, it's living things and they're after us' is more suffused with dread than anything after, though you're more likely to jump after the reveal.
posted by tomble at 6:39 PM on April 20, 2008

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