There are few human emotions as primal and powerful as fear. Master horror writer H.P. Lovecraft put it best when he wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”.
If you’re a writer wanting to master the craft of writing a horror story, here are a few tips to access your reader’s most primal fears. It’s the best way to keep them turning pages. This video about writing horror advice also covers these same points, along with practical tips to help you in the writing process.
1. Take the time to let your reader get to know your characters
The best way to emotionally involve your readers in your characters’ fate is to give them time to get to know the characters on a personal level. This kind of fear—that which stirs the emotions and makes us afraid that we’ll lose someone we care about deeply—is the most powerful kind. Without this empathy, the fearful events that characters experience further along in the story won’t be as harrowing to read.
2. Establish the familiar
Horror is about contrasts between the comfort of the familiar and the discomfort of the unknown. The best way to create this is to begin your story with your character in a comfortable, familiar place. This could be a place that the reader identifies with as a place of comfort, as well.
When your character is suddenly faced with the unknown, it triggers the sympathies of the reader. This happens because we’ve all been there and understand the feelings associated with moving out of a comfortable situation and into a highly uncomfortable one. Stephen King’s fictional town of Castle Rock Maine is a great example of this. Where best to start a horror story than a Norman Rockwell-inspired small town filled with white picket fences and Mom-and Pop stores?
3. Use subtle foreshadowing
Adding foreshadowing into your narrative is another great way to create tension and fear for your readers. This technique is used by established writers in the genre and can be as simple as a shiver running down your character’s spine when passing by a locked door, or a feeling of dread when walking down a dark corridor.
The reader will know there is something important behind that locked door or within that corridor. And they’ll know it’s something that is likely to be horrific, encouraging them to turn the pages to find out what it is.
4. Consider pacing
Movie directors use pacing to ramp up the fear factor in film and this same technique can work for books, as well. In the same sense that a long, panned shot can slowly build tension, stretched, descriptive sentences are a good way to create a sense of slowly developing dread.
When you follow that with short sentences, the effect is visceral. You can even change the way your reader breathes while reading. If there is a particular scene that you want to use as a potent dose of fear, try rewriting it with pacing that evolves from slow to staccato. You’ll then see how this technique changes the level of tension you are able to build.
5. Tap into your reader’s imagination
Sometimes our greatest fears can be entirely in our imagination. It’s that shadow on the wall that seems like a human form, or the sound of the tree tapping against your window in the storm that could almost be fingernails.
Our minds have an amazing ability to play tricks on us and cause us to imagine multiple possibilities of danger that might not even be present. In this sense, remaining vague in your descriptions of monsters (of the human or non-human variety) leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination and can create an increased sense of dread.
6. Suffocate with tight spaces
The primal fear of enclosed spaces is common to the human condition. It triggers a basic evolutionary impulse to escape and makes breathing shallower. It makes the heart rate increase. In the same sense that you can use pacing in your writing to affect your reader’s heart rate, you can also use tight spaces to make your character (and your reader) afraid.
Haunted house stories use this technique often, as does the slasher genre. Think of the feeling that results as victims frantically hide in closets to escape death.
7. Think like a child
It’s no accident that some of the best horror novels involve children. Stephen King understood this and included children in several of his stories. Many of our most basic fears stem from experiences we had when we were children. Think of Batman’s fall into a well full of bats and how it haunted him enough to inspire his iconic costume.
Experiencing horror from a child’s point of view reminds us of all the fears we had as children, making them even more powerful. It also induces a sense of empathy for the character, especially for parents. This is because they immediately imagine the potential of their child living through a similar horrific experience.
8. Disorient reality
Insanity is a core fear that many people share, which is why so many horror stories are set in psychiatric hospitals or contain characters who lose their grip on reality. The simple thought of losing one’s ability to understand what’s happening around them in a disorienting, distorted reality is enough to send many thinking readers over the edge in absolute fear.
Shirley Jackson, the writer of a timeless haunted house tale, The Haunting of Hill House, puts it this way. “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway”.
Source for image: Pexels
Tony is a content manager and writer from the Mississippi Delta. When not writing, you can usually find her hiking or travelling—always looking for new tales to tell.