How to Write Terror That Chills

Fear is like laughter in that both rely on a good setup, then providing the unexpected.

They are also both about delivery. Ever heard a good joke that was killed by someone who had no sense of timing or who let the setup go on far too long? Terror is the same way.

What do you want to write about? A serial killer? A ghost? A ghoul? A girlfriend? Though all can be inherently scary, you as the writer must do two things in order to create terror in your reader. And that’s the goal: it’s not about how scarY your writing is, it’s about how scarED your readers are.

1) Create people that you care about

How many of you have gone to a “horror” movie that consisted of attractive people with no redeeming facets whom you were supposed to care about just because they were sexy/good-looking/unattainably attractive? And how many of you were actually scared during that horror movie (insert crickets chirping here).

This is because for horror (or suspense, or thrillers) to really work for as broad an audience as possible (there will always be people who like gore for gore’s sake, but you want to sell to more than them, right?), you must care what is happening to the characters. If a serial killer is stalking your protagonist, but no one cares, you have failed in your attempt to write a good work of terror. And the best way to insure that no one cares about the scares is to make sure that no one cares about your protagonist. In other words, suspense, terror, horror, fear, they all rely on your reader investing enough in someone’s survival or well-being to care when said survival or well-being is challenged. Sex appeal may cut it for the average twelve year old at a cineplex, but the average reader is a) a bit more challenging than that and b) (let’s face it) not able to see the hotties onscreen. So you have to either make your protagonists likable and/or sympathetic, or create antagonists that are so interesting that they could be hunting cardboard and you would still be interested. Ideally, you have both great and likable protagonists coupled WITH an antagonist so clever and devious that you aren’t sure who to root for.

2) A guy walks into a bar…or is it around a bar? Or was it a day spa? A dude ranch?

Your setting conveys a lot in terror. In fact, there are some kinds of horror where the setting almost becomes an entity in itself. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, the house itself (or at least, the ghosties in it) becomes a character. Ditto the hotel in King’s The Shining. These are two extremes, but in all terror writing the antagonists and protagonists do not exist in a vacuum. They live in real spaces and concrete places. It is the horror writer’s responsibility to make those spaces and places mirror the terror that he or she is hoping to invoke in the minds of the audience.

In other words, your writing should a) create a concrete sense of where the action is happening, and b) use proper descriptives that back up the terror of the events that have unfolded, are unfolding, and/or will unfold in those places. I’ll elaborate:

a) Create a concrete sense of where the action is happening

Terror is generally an internal reaction to an external stimulus. So in order to create terror you as the writer must create an external reality. Two guys walk up to each other and one knifes the other is a horrifying event, but it lacks depth. Two guys walk up to a bar and one guy knifes the other tells you a bit more. One guy walks into a bar, waits at the end, and the other slinks in behind him and waits in the shadows until his prey walks into the bathroom and then strangles him with a phone cord is far better.

You see where I am going? There must be enough detail for the reader not only to care about the characters, but to get the sense that the antagonists choose settings for the events to play out that are themselves reflective of the struggles that will occur in the story. Why else do you think that so many horror books happen in snowstorms, or in rain, or during blackouts? These are all externalizations of the terrible acts that will be happening in the story. Each extra layer of information that you can provide which supports or reflects the action will provide you with another layer of depth that your readers can grab onto subconsciously, in effect reinforcing the terror that you are creating.

b) Use proper descriptives

Let’s go back to our two stabby friends for a second. Look at these three sentences.

A man knifes another man.
A man stabs another man.
A man hacks another man to pieces.

Each one conveys a different sense, a different tone, and you must always be careful to pick the kinds of words that will, again, echo the tone that you are trying to create in your book. Nor is this confined to describing the actions. The settings should also contain such layering. Consider:

Lightning lit up the sky.
Lightning slashed across the night sky, leaving a scar of thunder in its wake.

Which one of these sentences seems like a better “scary” sentence to you? Any and all adjectives, adverbs, and other descriptors should be used to buoy up and reinforce the feelings of horror that you are trying to create. This is why no one should ever walk anywhere in a horror novel. Skitter, perhaps. Run, maybe. Jerk about like an electrified marionette, definitely. But never just “walk.” Walking is boring.

I had a writing teacher once who said he only had one rule: “Bore me and die.” Nowhere is that more true than in writing terror. Be sure that your characters grab your readers from the beginning. Reinforce their fears with settings and scenes that mirror the main conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. And always remember that each word should be, for lack of a better word, terrifying.

Michaelbrent Collings is the author of numerous bestsellers, and is most recently the author of the suspense thriller Rising Fears.