Rosa Marchisella is the author of the gripping "Touch of Insanity" series and the bone-chilling novella "The Greatest of Books."
Creepy environments, sinister villains, and heart-stopping scares are just a few of my favorite things about horror, thriller, and suspense genres. If written well, the audience will find themselves frightened and loving it. Written poorly, they'll be turned off and left wanting.
Since I believe everyone should have a safe and healthy brush with Darkness for their mental health, here are some excellent ways to make sure you weevil deep into your reader's mind.
Get in the Right Frame of Mind
Atmosphere is important, not just for the audience, but the writer as well. Images and music help evoke the 'feel' of danger and fear which we can bleed into our writing.
Mood boards are photos of characters, creatures, and scenes related to your story. You can create one or a series of collages, or you can collect and organize them on Pinterest.
Story playlists are filled with select songs and instrumental musical pieces which represent the feel you're aiming for. The internet has an endless selection to choose from. Using a service like Youtube Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music can help you find music similar to what you need and organize them per project.
Both of these are useful techniques for helping you 'get in the mood' to spook folk.
Gore is Not Horror
While it's apparent to most, the distinction is important enough to note:
Gore is a gross-out factor. Horror is a deep rooted emotional response.
Your story might have gore in it, but use it to accent the horror.
Humanize your gore. Instead of talking about the wet, the smell, or the scattered bits, show how the sticky wet blood is ...
It's not wiping off. Rubbing my hand along my pant leg until it burns ... It burns! Still there. I can't scrub it off ... Why won't it come off?? Dear God, it's not coming off!
This technique goes hand-in-hand with the next tip:
Show, Don't Tell
'Show, Don't Tell' is a valuable guide for every genre, especially when building tension. It means, show your audience what's happening through senses, body reactions, and dialogue.
Examples of using the senses to paint the scene and build the tension:
- The smell of the damp earth and the mental imagery it provokes in the character
- The sting of a twig scraping across the skin
- The rattling of dry leaves
- The cold creeping up your spine
- The chill of the night breeze pulling your skin sharply into goosebumps
- Your guts coiling tightly with a warning squelch
Wide eyes, pale skin, fear sweat, clutching fingers; these are all physical reactions to fear which speak louder than 'Bob was afraid.'
Take Your Time
Creating tension and building an element of fear requires patience. It's referred to as 'mounting horror' for a reason. 'Jumps scares' get old quickly and won't carry a reader to the end. It takes smaller events and discoveries to sow unease and suspicion. Little things to make the reader's mind kick into overdrive.
Draw it out. Slowly increase the information to build up to the BIG THING that's gonna get 'em.
Used in moderation, repetition of a sound, phrase, or thought can help build suspense. It could be concern for a friend, a word or phrase from the character's past, or even a reoccurring sound that triggers the character. If properly used, these things build a feeling of dread and if they're followed by mild misfortune, they condition the reader to expect trouble - building suspense.
In the serial killer thriller, Gifted by EV Whyte, the main character, Hannah Harper, keeps having psychic flashes. The main reoccurring one is a dripping sound which is a clue connected to the killer. Hannah doesn't know what the connection is, just that's it's powerful enough to keep haunting her.
While Hannah and Bev, detective she's working with have suspicions, the source isn't revealed until the end of the book - after they made the wrong conclusion.
Another example from this novel is the unique toad character, David, whose chapters drive the story from an outside perspective. David has one repeating thought to motivate him: protecting his human. His concern for Hannah's safety propels him into an adventure that parallels Hannah's and pushes him to take risks above and beyond the norm.
While it's a strange example of using repetition as a hook and tension builder, it works not only to keep the reader invested, but to build suspense and fear. Will a simple toad be able to make a difference? Will he survive to help Hannah?
The Art of Uncertainty
A big part of building fear is the Not Knowing. Keep the reader guessing. Let your character lack information and feel helpless. Let them be wrong, second-guess and dismiss, fail and have to re-start.
Drop hints and clues, because you don't want to cheat your audience. But also make characters unreliable, have hidden agendas, or withhold information – even from the reader. Use misdirection to let the reader think they've got things figure out and then push them beyond their concepts into a reality worse than they imagined.
An effective tip from horror author, Stephen King, is to use shorter sentences to create tension. Short sentences in the thick of the drama quickens the pacing and adds to the urgency of the moment. Used sparingly, one or two word sentences are a punch to the psyche.
Author EV Whyte received the following message from her editor for Gifted:
"Okay, creep levels are now at maximum. I really like how you managed to take [the word] hungry and make it so diabolical. That's just off the charts creepy."
Miss Whyte created the perfect horror environment in her story so one word in the right spot pushes her audience over the edge.
The cycle of building fear requires periods of relief where the danger has temporarily passed and the characters are safe ... or think they are. This is where we let the characters recover, regain their wits to work through their clues, and either grow or de-evolve depending on their arcs.
Humor is a good way to let your audience release their pent up tension. Don't worry, we're not letting them - or the characters - off the hook. Fear-Relief-Fear is a psychological technique corrupt governments use to condition and break their citizens. Writer use it to build tension and dive the audience to the climax.
Inner dialogue is an amazing tool to show your audience what the character is thinking. Properly wielded, it will draw the reader into those thoughts and fears.
Whether you're writing in first person or third, go deep.
Bob took a step back. Dear God, I'm going to die!
is much more effective than
Bob took a step back, thinking he was going to die.
Bringing It All Together
The dragon roared and I lost control of my limbs. My legs moved at a speed I didn’t know I had. I swiveled my head forward so I didn’t ram into anything as I fled the square.
People and scenery whipped past me in a blur. I didn’t care what anyone thought, I ran full tilt until I saw the olive and white sanctuary. I slammed into the door and hammered on it before remembering what Rhys told me.
Two-two-two. I banged the rhythm in time with the frantic staccato of my heart. The door burst open with an unexpected displacement of air that made my ears pop and I pitched forward into utter blackness.
Silence and something cold pressed against my face. I lifted my head and realized I was lying on something.
The floor? I pushed myself upright.
Yeah. Pretty sure that’s the floor.
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark, but it didn’t happen.
I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. I wanted Rhys and—
Rhys! He had no idea what happened or where I was. He must be crazy with worry!
I took a calming breath and pictured his beautiful face. I thought about his scent and gentle touch. Then, I tapped my wrist. Two-two-two . . .
“I’m safe,” I whispered, willing him to hear me.
“No, you’re not,” the Darkness whispered back.
I screamed and jerked toward the voice.
“You haven’t been safe for a very long time, Little Human.” The voice came from behind me. I spun around, reaching for whoever or whatever was in the dark with me. My hands found empty air.
The Darkness chuckled and I desperately wanted to be back outside with the murderous dragon.
“Did you think this was a love story?”
The dark hid my blush. Sorta.
The Darkness snorted.
So, that’s what contempt sounds like.
“This isn’t a love story. It’s a war!” The Darkness growled. “They kill and take whatever they want, but not anymore. All the pawns are in place and I’m about to sacrifice the queen.”
Queen? Oh shit, that’s me!
Something moved to my right and I spun toward it. A dim light glowed and I squinted, trying to make out who was with me as he slowly came into view.
Light brown wavy hair and beard. Hard, calculating brown eyes. Tight lips curled into a predatory smile.
Sweet Mother of Sacred Fuckery.
“Bye-bye, Little Human,” Dave purred.
[Quote used with permission.]
Showing instead of telling, the running inner dialogue of the scene keeps the reader present in the character's thoughts and emotions. It also breaks up the narration while adding depth to the scene.
Miss Mainstrom includes repetition as a focus and the short sentences crank up the pace and tension. Momentary relief and humor gets the audience to lower their guard between moments of fear. Her use of uncertainty with the strange environment and loss of security create helplessness as the extent of danger and horror are revealed until reality hits.
All Genre Application
The beauty of these tips is that they can be applied to any genre for building tension and adding danger or fear to your tale. Queen of New Orleans, a dragon shifter romance with elements of suspense and horror, is a great example of that, as is Miss Mainstrom's romantic suspense novel, The Past Never Dies.
No matter what genre you write, these tips will serve you well. Use them to augment your voice as a writer and live rent-free in the unsettled minds of your audience.
© 2022 Rosa Marchisella