In the past, I’ve explained my/the Novel Writing process, and have gone in depth with a genre and a type of scene. But as I look at the possible subjects to talk about in this next article, I realised something: written Horror doesn’t work on me. I’ve never been scared by a Stephen King novel. H.P. Lovecraft didn’t unnerve me and Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t spook me. For me, Horror is audiovisual, and while my imagination is quite vivid, because it is MY head, I know I’m safe and there’s nothing to fear.
Having said so, there are other ways to influence your reader with a Horror story, and I’m more experienced with these, both as a reader and a writer.
Call it suspense, call it anxiety, but you can make your readers become tense and even stressed while reading your story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Horror, but this genre offers the greatest opportunities, because the reader already expects to feel these things. So they unwittingly set themselves up. There aren’t many genres out there where the audience does some of the job for you.
The unknown is your greatest asset. Keep your readers focused on the characters and make them connect with them, to feel as they do. So when you’re stalking them, when an invisible predator is closely following his soon-to-be victim, they’ll feel that character’s tension. They’ll be anxious, perhaps even afraid of turning the page, because they don’t want to know what happens next.
It’s not about the reveal. It’s not a jump-scare and in fact, revealing the creature or the victim dying will evaporate the atmosphere, as there is no one to care about anymore. The point is extending that moment of helpless anxiety for as long as you can, striking a balance between it and your own pacing. You don’t want to drag it on too much, nor do you want to cut it short. It’s a delicate thing but if you pull it off, your reader will shudder when picking up the book again.
In fact, because of this, letting the victim survive is often a better idea than killing them outright. Say they escape with a slash across their back, then you can still hold on to your reader and drag them around with your character while they try to survive, try not to stumble and hold on to consciousness for as long as possible. The stalker is still around, and it’s watching. You can hear his voice in your ear, his taunting growl, the weapon or claws in his hands slashing against the metal, the screeching sound unbearable.
For the previous bit to work, a rapport has to form between your reader and your potential victim. If they don’t care about them, then it’s all for nothing. Shock and surprise are good elements. Don’t give your readers all the information on their anchor, the current point of view character. Instead, make them someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least apparently so. Later on, you can explain they were a planned victim, but what you need is to tie the reader’s confusion with the victim’s anxiety. The reader doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither does the character. While the circumstances differ, the feelings are similar and you can use them to link them together, so that they’re both anxious, both tense and both just fearing what’s coming after the next page.
During the Action Scene article, I mentioned it’s important to describe what’s going on with the characters and here it’s even more important. Accelerated heart rate, shallow breathing, panting, shivers and trembles help make your character feel human to your readers. It makes them genuine, touchable, and as such, they can grow to care about them.
Split the party:
There’s safety in numbers, we all know that, so of course you should split the groups if you can. As long as your reader cares about a single character, it makes your job easier. The key is switching between points of view as much as possible, so that one death or one scream has the highest effect possible.
Picture the scene, four characters in a shipping yard running from something or someone—a killer, a monster, an alien even. They run into the maze of containers, and in their confusion they split up. As they each run ahead, they search for anything that might lead them to their friends and away from the threat. But then a scream pierces the night, and the youngest of the group falls, drowning in his blood. The gurgling sound that echoes will haunt their nightmares forever. Then the cheerleader dies—because they always do—and her shriek is shrill enough to crack glass, but it does nothing to stop the monster. There’s only two now, and they’re scared, anxious, desperate…and if your reader likes any of them, they’ll feel the same things.
In Action Scenes, I spoke of breathing. Horror follows the same beats. Long paragraphs help mount the tension by making many things happen at once. The difference is the breaks don’t defuse the situation. They’re not resting moments, instead they’re the most concerning part, because the reader will be apprehensive to gaze on the next set of sentences, to know what’s happening. The last single paragraph killed two and made the others cry and beg for mercy, who knows what the next one will bring?
You may not scare your readers in a way a film or a game could, but you will make them anxious and tense. They will shiver and grip the novel tightly, and that is the feeling you want. You don’t want the release of fear, the climax of the horror. You want the buildup, you want the foreplay, that is your goal. Extend that as much as you can, and you’ll have your reader’s in your grasp.
As always, I hope you find this article helpful. Until next time! I wrote a similarly themed article some time ago, title The Seduction of Horror, maybe you’ll find it useful!