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Frightening a Reader

It's the Halloween season when a writer's thoughts turn to frightening a reader, which isn't that easy to do on the page.  Movies can surprise you.  A loud noise, someone jumping into a scene from the edge, or something surprising appearing in the middle (like the chest-busting scene in Alien), can be shocking.  When I think of movie scenes that made my heart skip a beat, I remember the mommy reveal from Psycho, the hand from the ground in Carrie, and the face in the wreck from Jaws.  But you can't really do that kind of scare in writing.  You can try, but the effect is different.

So, how do you do it?  How do you scare a reader through the written word?  Here's what I've learned:

  • The best way to frighten a reader is to put characters the reader cares deeply about in danger, and then make the danger unrelenting.  For my money, Stephen King's novel, It, does this well.  The first chapter of It, is a beautiful and disturbing example of King making you care about a character so that he can scare the beans out of you by the end.
  • Use the things that frighten you as your source, and then write about them as if transcribing your own nightmare.  For me, this would mean writing about dentist offices.  The "Is it safe?" scenes from William Goldman's Marathon Man really get to me because of this.
  • Frightening a reader is not the same as grossing the reader out (although both can happen at the same time).  See Stephen King's comprehensive book, Danse Macabre, for a discussion of ranges of scary stuff.
  • Reread the works that frightened you as a reader. See how they work.  My list of scary reads include Ray Bradbury's "The Small Assassin," Stephen King's "The Mist," and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."
Scary stuff on the page takes time, I think.  The writer has to build into it, AND you have to have the right kind of reader, the kind that participates in the reading process fully.  Scary doesn't work on an inattentive or skeptical reader.  Suspension of disbelief has to be complete, and that requires cooperation on the reader's part.

Here are three snippets from works that really got to me.  Of course, the snippets don't do the work justice.  There isn't enough text to make the magic work, but you can see at least how the effect might start.  By the way, it's interesting to see the vast differences in style in the three pieces, particularly between the short, fragmented delivery from Stephen King and the rolling, extended voice of Harlan Ellison.

From The Exorcist, by William Blatty

Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men's eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.

 From "The Mist," by Stephen King

There was a sound. A soft sliding sound. It stopped, then started again with a stealthy little bump. Everything inside me went loose. I regressed magically to four years of age. That sound wasn't coming from the market. It was coming from behind me. From outside. Where the mist was. Something that was slipping and sliding and scraping over the cinder blocks. And, maybe, looking for a way in.

Or maybe it was already in, and it was looking for me. Maybe in a moment I would feel whatever was making that sound on my shoe. Or on my neck.

From "Croatoan," by Harlan Ellison

Naked, deathly white, with eyes great and luminous, but covered with a transparent film as milky as a membrane, small, very young, hairless, its arms shorter than they should have been, purple and crimson veins crossing its bald skull like traceries of blood on a parchment, fine even features, nostrils dilating as it breathed shallowly, ears slightly tipped as though reminiscent of an elf, barefooted but with pads on the soles, this child stared at me, looked up at me, its little tongue visible as it opened its mouth filled with tiny teeth, trying to form sounds, saying nothing, watching me, a wonder in its world, watching me with the saucer eyes of a lemur, the light behind the membrane flickering and pulsing. This child.

I am the only adult here.

They have been waiting for me.

They call me father.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2008 01:01 pm (UTC)
That passage from the Mist seems simple, but damn it's creepy!
Oct. 30th, 2008 01:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )