How to Write Scary Stories

What makes a story scary? Is it the characters, the setting, or the situation? The simple answer is yes to all three. The complicated answer is it depends. It depends on how the author handles each of these elements and it depends on your reader. What does your reader fear? What gives your reader the willies? What would cause your reader to freak out? It’s not too difficult to imagine what your reader fears if you draw upon your own fears. Universal fears are things that scare almost everyone—that’s the survival instinct at work. So what scares you? What makes the hair on your neck stand up? What makes you sleep with the lights on? Ask yourself these questions as you create your story elements. If your antagonist does not bother you, then you need to try a little harder. If the situation isn’t filled with tension, then you’re making your work more difficult. If your location doesn’t fill your reader with dread, well, sometimes that’s okay. Let’s look at each of the story essentials more closely.

The three components should be intertwined so that they feed off of each other. Good scary stories tie the character to the setting and the situation. In Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack, the main character, is a writer who takes his family to a secluded hotel so he can finish his novel. As caretakers, they will be the only people at the hotel during the brutal, snowy winter. It’s believable that this character would take his family to the Colorado wilderness setting for free rent, solitude, and time to write.

The situation for this character, in this setting, is that either the solitude or evil in the hotel causes Jack to lose his mind. Now, writers are known to be a little crazy anyway, so his wife cuts him some slack. But Jack slowly becomes a violent, possessed man. Would that story work if Jack took his family to a crowded hotel on a bright sandy beach? The story would likely lose its intensity and increasing dread. What if instead of a writer, Jack was a used car salesman? Then why would he spend hours alone at the typewriter? Why would he want months of forced solitude if not to push himself into finishing his novel? The three facets of story are linked together, creating cohesive conflict.

How to Write Scary Stories

Creepy Characters

If you read the horror genre, you know that the antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It could be an animal, a car, or a disembodied hand. It could be a ghost or the devil. But sometimes creepy characters are the sweet boy next door. In fact, that could be even scarier than all the above because how would you know? You wouldn’t—until it was too late. And that builds dread in the reader. Flesh out your antagonist with a backstory, motivation, and conflict no matter what form he’s in. Put him in this location at this time for a plausible reason. Strive for a natural fit for this character to unleash his wickedness, anger, or whatever, to the situation of the story.

Sinister Locations

Think of places that are scary on their own: a graveyard, a morgue, an abandoned house, an asylum. The setting alone creates tension. Then find a logical reason to get your character there. Better yet, strand them there. Being stranded adds to the sense of helplessness and doom. So does being confined. Think of the movie Alien. The characters were trapped on a spaceship with a human-eating monster. In one intensely claustrophobic scene, a character has to go through the air vent to set a trap. Confinement within confinement! On the other hand, some writers are great at frightening us with settings that are supposed to be safe. Malls, suburban neighborhoods, prep schools, nurseries should be safe, right? We are all the more caught off guard when evil lurks there.

Frightening Situations

What’s the situation or premise of your book? Does it lend itself to scary scenes? In Tess Gerritsen’s novel The Surgeon, a twisted character performs surgeries on women while they are awake. That’s chilling. In Dean Koontz’s novel Your Heart Belongs to Me, the lead character is being stalked by a woman who’s the spitting image of the donor of the heart now beating in his chest. In Richard Matheson’s Hell House, three people spend the night in an evil house that has been sealed since 1949 to learn the facts of life after death. Does your story’s premise touch on a universal fear? Is your character’s situation dire by the middle of the story? Does the situation worsen?

Keep the tension building all the way through to the end. Fans of horror know that the story needn’t have a happy ending. Even if the protagonist escapes to safety, the menace can live on. This is especially true if you want to write a sequel. These three elements are barely the bones of a good scare story. It’s up to you to add the flesh and guts, and, of course, blood. Don’t disappoint your readers with wimpy premises or characters, or play on fears that aren’t scary. Give your readers goose bumps. Make them worry. Force them to sleep with the light on.

Comments

  1. Great advice, Victoria! THE SHINING is such a wonderful example…one of the scariest books I’ve ever read!

  2. Barbara–
    Thank you for your input! Pleased you enjoyed the post.
    Victoria–

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