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The creaking door. The night fog rolling in. The book that jumps off the shelf all by itself. Smart writers of horror and suspense know all the tricks for preying on the fears of their readers. If the story you’re writing calls for the tingling of spines and the raising of hair, consider using these tried-and-true tips to build a sense of anxiety. Suspense is in the details!
Terribly Good Tips For Writing Suspense And Creating Fear In Fiction
Write Great Protagonists. Weak characters who haven’t been fleshed out into real, multifaceted people won’t solicit much empathy if/when they’re put into mortal danger. If we don’t believe your characters are real, we won’t care about them. Learn to write well-developed characters.
Write Great Antagonists. Just as we need to see heroes who are well-developed characters, we also need to see bad guys who are motivated and interesting. Learn more about how to write antagonists that readers love to hate.
Go Dark. People have always been afraid of the dark. Is it any wonder that werewolves and vampires come out at night? When you want to build tension and fear, deprive your characters of sight. To learn more about our human relationship with darkness, check out Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe.
Isolate Your Characters. When the titular character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” meets the devil, he’s not on a busy street: He’s in the forest, alone. Clever writers know that isolation means vulnerability—of both the physical and moral varieties. Whether your characters are alone in a farmhouse or in the big city, isolation will intensify fear.
Focus On The Breath. When people are frightened, their breathing pattern shifts into overdrive. Quicker, shallow breaths prep the muscles for fast action. If your character is scared, use breath as a starting point to convey deep, physical fear. Then, allow readers to get lost in characters’ other physical cues that signal fear: sweaty palms, goose bumps, etc.
Call An Expert. One great trope of suspenseful writing is to have one of your characters be an expert or a figure of authority—the scientist who is going to create the antidote, the cop who is an ace shot, etc. Then, let that person be the first to fall victim to the monster/bad guy. When the expert fails, the rest of the characters (who are not experts) will feel their plight even more intensely.
Chase Questions. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown are powerful motivators. When composing a story or scene that you hope will be suspenseful, spend some time digging deep to pull all of the questions out of your story. Then, use your character’s internal monologue to hone in on those questions. For example: A mother running from a monster may make us cheer for her survival, but a mother being chased by a monster and whose son has gone missing faces a greater number of questions: How will I survive? Will I save my son? Where is he? Is he safe?
Remember Humor. By introducing a bit of lightness into even the darkest moments of suspense, you can help ensure that your reader stays plugged in to your character’s human side. Plus, good pacing involves tension that rises and falls; otherwise, readers can become “suspense blind” to tension in the same way that a person can go “nose blind” to scents in their own home.
Consider A Twist. A protagonist who turns out to be in league with the antagonist. A depraved spy who has been listening to our hero’s plans all along. Surprises are great for increasing the tension level and creating a sense of potential failure! Learn more about twist endings.
And One Final Tip For Writing Scenes That Are Truly Scary
While exaggerated actions and character elements are sometimes necessary to create a larger-than-life sense of drama, be careful not to “overwrite” your horror scenes. Consider when gory action should happen on the page, and when it should be implied. Sometimes silence can be even scarier and have more impact than the sound of a person screaming. Learn more about how to scare your readers.
QUESTION: What is your favorite technique of suspenseful storytelling? Have you used it? Tell us about it!