Whether you're writing a horror story or your book has scenes that horrify, every writer can benefit from a few tips on how to weird people out. Here are 5 steps for enhancing the horrific scenes in your story in honor of Halloween week.
Establish your characters
No matter what type of story you're writing, invest in your characters first and foremost. Too often writers forget to fully develop their characters and it shows. They place more emphasis on the plot and suspense elements instead. Without a main character who has multiple layers and a well-thought-out backstory to match, these types of stories become cheap thrillers with little substance. While characters are the vehicle for more plot-driven stories, its important that they register as real to the reader. Readers also need sufficient time to get to know them. In a fast-paced novel, sometimes there aren't enough scenes devoted to character development and this mistake often hinders a reader's ability to truly care for characters before they get killed off or something bad happens to them.
True horror comes from understanding a character so vividly that their subsequent emotional and physical anguish can be felt through empathy alone. In The Handmaid's Tale this truly horrifying satire, Offred is forced to give up her former freedoms and family to become a breeder for the wealthy men of the Republic of Gilead. Without the birth of a child, her fate could be worse than her reality.
Using contrasts is an excellent way to enhance an intense scene within your novel. Think about using the following: light/dark, familiar/unfamiliar, comfortable/uncomfortable, real/delusion, understanding/misunderstanding, clarity/confusion etc. When you compare and contrast these examples, you create a glaring disparity that is jarring and off-putting to your readers. This is the breeding ground for terror, as most of us hate the feeling of being uncomfortable and expect bad things to happen in such an ominous setting.
The Giver provides a visual contrast along with the juxtaposition of the lives of The Giver versus those living in society. The film is mostly recorded in black and white, representative of the lack of individual memories and vitality that The Giver experiences in contrast. As the next keeper of memories, Jonas must learn the terrible secrets of the past while making sense of the ugly reality masking his utopian society.
If your book lacks suspense, it means you're lacking in two areas: foreshadowing and pacing. Foreshadowing is when you set the stage for the terrifying event to take place. Whether its that your character finds a disturbing clue, mistrusts someone they meet, or something as simple as getting a bad feeling, whatever it is its a useful tool to help build fear into your narrative. You should also consider pacing when you write. Keeping close control of when your novel reads fast and when it reads slow is crucial for building anticipation and dread. Use slow, descriptive sentences for when you want to build anticipation. Shorten them when you're driving the action or chase scenes and you'll find your pacing will fly by along with the terror. Whatever you do, keep it consistent and pay attention to how scenes affect one another.
The Haunting of Hill House plays off terror versus horror. The characters are driven to various dark fates by what they experienced within the house and the narrative flashes back and forth between present day and the past. It's this use of fear and manipulation of time that makes this story particularly riveting.
Don't underestimate the power of phobias and childhood fears. Some of the scariest stories play off of these and when you think about it, it makes sense. Many people are afraid of heights, drowning, or being buried alive. As children we all had the shared fear of monsters hiding under the bed and being scared of the dark. By adding elements that tie into these fears we transport our audience back to those memories and everything becomes all too real again.
A fantastic example of this comes from The Woman In The Window. If you're unfamiliar with this story, it's about a woman named Anna Fox who struggles to live with agoraphobia, a fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment. A resident of New York City, she's taken to spying on her neighbors. Everything is fine until one night she witnesses a crime.
Blurring the lines between reality and delusion brings forth some interesting fodder for storytelling. I'm referring less to creating imaginary worlds and more about confusing the senses or playing with your character's minds. Creating a false sense of situations, insecurity in otherwise safe circumstances, hope where there shouldn't be any, and mistrust where there's no reason for it can be not only effective but also entertaining. While insanity is an intriguing and terrifying thought for most people, it's also the middle ground for some of the most interesting stories.
Take this break-up scene from After for example. While this isn't about insanity, it is about the false pretenses that Tessa and Hardin's relationship started with. For Hardin, it started as a game, for Tessa it was true love. When she finds out it was all a lie, the world takes on disorienting qualities- time slows down, there's ringing in her ears, and her mind grinds to a halt. Then it fast-forwards and she flies out of the dive bar. This experience is mortifying and embarrassing- for both Tessa and the viewer by proxy.
Every story has a horrific moment. Whether we're embarrassing our characters, hurting them, betraying them, or a combination of wicked things, it's our job as writers to enhance these scenes to the best of our abilities.
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