Creating Fear in Fiction


What makes one story give it’s readers a cold chill or makes them leave the light on while another story makes them yawn?

It is important to remember that if your character’s fear is not believable then your reader will not be scared. Your reader experiences the story through your characters, they see what your characters see, taste what your characters taste and fear what your characters fear. If your reader is not convinced that your character is honestly scared, then they won’t be scared either.

Make it believable.
It is hard to instill fear in your reader if they do not believe that whatever your character fears is possible. Almost anything is possible, so if your characters are being chased by rabid, mutated bunnies then that’s fine, as long as you tell the story and the events leading up to it in a believable way. Readers aren’t stupid, and they don’t like to be cheated. It’s worth your while to do research and work on the finer details of how the situation came to be instead of hoping that their imagination will fill in the gaps.

Make Your Characters Act of their own accord.
What your character does when in the grip of fear can either make or break your story. Your characters actions should be believable in that their traits lead them to make that decision, or that they had no other choice but to choose that course of action. Don’t make the terrified cheerleader run straight past the exit and into the basement of the school, she may be a cheerleader but even they can see an escape route.

Leave a Little Mystery
Who doesn’t like a good episode of CSI or Law and Order every now and then? We all do, because they give us a complicated story that, 95% of the time, is dissected down to the smallest detail and summed up in a neat conclusion. That’s a mistake when you’re trying to get under someone’s skin. Don’t explain away every detail to your reader. Often, when real terror strikes, we don’t know the why’s and how’s, and that is what makes it all a little more horrific.

Give your story to someone you know but who doesn’t know the plot. Ask them to read it and be there to watch their facial expressions. You’ll know by the look in their eyes and they way the hold the pages if you’ve hit that sensitive nerve!

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5 responses to “Creating Fear in Fiction

  1. “Readers aren’t stupid, and they don’t like to be cheated.” I agree. Any writer who forgets that, even for one paragraph, is breaking the sacred contract between writer and reader.

    Hence the processes of revision, of critique, of copy editing and proofing. At every stage, someone is going to find a place where you accidentally slip. Or where you intentionally got lazy because, well, it is *hard* to write and we all get tired sometimes.

    However, in a writing workshop, the teacher said that the problem with a lot of stories is they try to wrap everything up too neatly. Real life isn’t a perfect package, delivered with a laugh track or, as you point out, a 95% explanation rate. It’s messy, it’s vague, and it’s believable. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy, it’s just a reminder that as horror writers, we have a lot to balance to produce a scary read!

  2. I agree, finding that perfect balance is important. Copy editing, proof reading and critiques are a great way to help new and emerging writers get that vital feedback.

  3. I personally think the key to fear in writing is sadness. For example, I am writing a horror novella called “Forsaken,” and at one point the main character comes across a little girl is lost in the woods. They are then attacked by creatures (similar to vampires) called Shadowbloods. She’s like the dog in I Am Legend. The whole time you’re thinking “please don’t kill it, please don’t kill it,” even though you can tell from the get go that it’s going to die. Also, a good tool is manipulation of “good qualities,” such as innocence. At one point in the story, the main character comes across a child eating a corpse. Stuff like that is what generates fear.

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