Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

Here’s how to write something really scary…

Part One: collect, interpret and organize experiences:

  • Collect sensory data from all your characters: stuff paragraphs with sensory detail i.e. imagery,  sights, sounds, tastes, touch sensations, smells
  • Interpret this sensory detail to maximise anxiety, i.e. icy gravestones, bat wings flapping, darkly swirling clouds, outrageous scents, vile flavours, goose bumps etc.
  • Organise your information in a way that is likely to elicit a physiological change or behavioral response in your audience: that is, have the readers bite their nails, turn their stomach, move in their seat, rub their chin in wonder, or elicit screeches

Part 2: Factor in recognized & well-known scares (because these will give the jitters to almost everyone in the room)

Check-out the “stock room of anxieties” — here’s a list of the most routinely experienced scares:

  • Heights
  • Snakes
  • Spiders
  • Eyes
  • Sudden movements & surprise sudden sounds
  • Confined spaces
  • Blood
  • The Dark
  • Flying/Falling
  • Rats and mice
  • Holes in the ground

You can grab these scares straight off the shelf, dust them down, and use them (who could blame you? They always work.) Or even better, you can mix them up a bit. Try to be creative and imagine your own terrifying slant or unpleasant distortion on these notorious carriers of fear: For example, hang your character high, dangled over a pit of blood. Make a spider explode in a face, making the guts look like icky little snake-worms (yuck!) Or make giant rats burst out of drains. Or snakes fall from ceiling rafters. Get the idea?

Part 3: Focus on character: What type of person would you absolutely NOT want to be with in any (given) dangerous situation?

A Jackass?

A Muddlehead?

A Featherbrain?

A Two-faced git?

An obstructional muttonhead?

An indifferent buffoon?

A passive ninny?

A complacent dork?

A cocky poseur?

A swell-headed braggart?

Now fill your story with these guys, anyway! Ha ha ha! That way, when danger erupts, there will be no place for the reader to turn and no one around to offer a sensible way out of danger (except, perhaps, the comforting arms of the only trustworthy person in the room: i.e. your protagonist.)

Part 4: Master the unknown

There is only one thing that is genuinely scary, and that is the unknown. So if you have a monster, make sure you don’t reveal it until the end. If you have a dark threat, don’t uncover it until the last chapter… If you have a terrible secret, keep it hidden. Just hint how bad it can be. Think of this as “growing the terror” in your story. Imagine that your terror is an ugly, nameless abomination that lurks under your bed and needs to be fed from time to time. You, the creator of this monster, will have to nurture it, feed it and pet it … until it’s huge & ferocious and quite able to leap out of the darkness all on its own to disembowel everyone! Ha ha ha! The key to mastering the unknown terror is that you only hint at its unspeakable horror. Never show it. Just point the audience in the right direction and wait for their screams! Learn to “feed & nurture” your little horror with the devices I set out below…

Use allusions, i.e. indirect or passing references to the unseen horror

Use omission: this is (intentionally) what’s not said nor even admitted about your horror, so the audience will “fear the worst

Use circumlocution: create conversations that tip-toe around the horror rather than daring to address it openly

Use euphemism: replace unpleasant or uncomfortable ideas & words about the true nature of the horror with expressions or phrases that are more agreeable; the characters will never sense extent of the horror (though the reader will guess the truth!)

Use inappropriate humour: this is where those idiotic & buffoonish characters make light of something that’s gonna garb them and eat them up! Ha ha!

Use irony: employ words & phrases that convey the exact opposite of what the horror will ultimately come to mean

Use understatement: downplay the obvious threat that this horror will pose

Hooray! That’s it!

Good luck with your 4 part scare plan!
To recap: collect experiences + well-known scares + the (wrong type) of character + the unknown and what do you get? Yikes!

Got any tips you’d like to share? Tweet me @neilmach

Words: @neilmach June 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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