Scare Readers with Your Mind, Not Your Monsters


Dear Wannabe Scary…

I bet you aren’t digging deeply enough into readers’ psyches—or your own. Readers will never be in physical peril when reading a book, so you can’t rely on monsters jumping out of corners to get them jittery. Instead, trigger a psychological sense of peril in your audience. Try tapping into your own deep-rooted fear, because if something scares you, you’re primed to convey your discomfort in your writing. What scares you about your monsters? Their jaws and claws? Their immortality? Make an actual list. Now consider what makes those things scary for you. Do they symbolize something else, something that’s out of your control? Do they evoke a problem from your past? A fear for your future? Your monsters need to tie into a deeper fear that can resonate with readers. Then focus your plot decisions on pushing that fear relentlessly. That, not the monsters, will freak folks out.

Happy writing!
The Editor


  1. I found myself going back to the master–Stephen King, of course. I read some of his scenes with attention to WHY they freaked me out. At what moment did my neck hairs prickle? When did I admit I’d be sleeping with the light on and the blankets tucked under my feet? It was the little things he did–the descriptions, the sounds and textures he layered into the scene. I made a list and then looked at my own writing for places where I could add a similar detail.

  2. Late to the party here, but one of my students gave a good example on scaring the reader today.

    The kid doesn’t want to go down the stairs to the playground herself. Her mother tells her to go on–you’re big enough. She debates about asking her dad. Mom yells at her to just go. The kid steps out of the apartment and peers down the dim stairs. She can’t see all the way. She takes a deep breath. Finally holding on to the handrail and only watching her feet, she runs as fast as she can.
    I was almost at the bottom, before I saw the dog.
    He stood almost as tall as me.
    I quoted the last two exactly. What my student did was implied scariness. Dim. Not being able to see what is there. Taking a deep breath to indicate the character needed courage. Then running as fast as she could.
    Then there’s the shock. A dog. Almost as tall as she is. That unexpected is scary for a kid and then ramped up when it’s really big!

    Shorter sentences increase tension. Paragraph breaks to emphasize something can help. Setting details that make us think of scary help.

    • Your student’s example is a good one. Thanks for sharing it. I didn’t see the dog coming, and even without reading the entire original scene I got a jolt from its appearance. Well done.

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