Posted On May 18, 2016 by Print This Post

Writing Scary Scenes by Rayne Hall

Penning scary scenes shouldn’t be daunting, not with these fabulous tips from RU Contributor Rayne Hall. 

How much do you want to frighten your readers in your novel’s scariest scene? Consider what your readers expect.

Readers of thrillers and horror novels want to be terrified. They love a scene that makes their heart race and the knees quake, that constrict the throat so they can barely breathe, and turns their insides to water.

Romance readers, on the other hand, like gentler frights that give them thumping heart, a tingling scalp, perhaps a shudder or a gasp.

Some novels have several scary scenes, others may have only one, probably in the book’s Black Moment or Climax section.

How to you frighten your readers? Here are some techniques for you to try, all perfect for giving your readers a spine-tingling, bone-chilling experience. Play with them, mix, match and adapt them to suit your genre, your author voice and your plot.


For humans, everything is more frightening when they can’t see much in the dark. Can your scene take place at night, in a WritingScaryScenes RayneHall Cover 2014-01-27windowless room a cave or mineshaft? The setting may be lit at the beginning of the scene. Then a gust of wind blows out the candle flame, a power cut shuts down the electric light, or a bullet shatters the single light-bulb.

Semi-darkness can also be effective: a single lantern at night, falling dusk, a heavily curtained window, torches on the dungeon walls, a thick canopy of trees blocking the sun. You can create creepy effects by showing the movement and variations of the light – the lantern sways in the wind, the candle flame flickers, clouds waft across the moon and shadows dance across the walls.

To increase the creepiness and fright, let the darkness increase gradually. The camp fire subsides. The hearth fire dies down. Night falls. Clouds thicken, blocking out the light of the moon. The candles burn down one by one.

What not to do:

If your novel has several scary scenes, don’t place them all in darkness.


Fear affects the body. Describe these physical effects. If you let the readers feel the Point-of-View characters’ physical reactions, they will feel the same.

Insert sentences like these:

Her heart thudded louder and louder.

His skin crawled.

Tendrils of terror curled into his stomach.

Cold sweat trickled down my sides.

My scalp prickled and her breath stalled.

Fear clogged his throat.

Her pulse pounded in her ears.

Cold sweat glued the shirt to his back.

Chills chased up her spine.

A ball of terror formed in his stomach.

Her stomach knotted.

A weight seemed to press on my chest, robbing me of breath.

Fear clenched like a tight first around my chest.

These sentences work better than ‘He felt afraid’ and ‘She was extremely frightened’.

What not to do:

Don’t show visceral responses at the slightest trigger. Keep them for real frights. If a character shudders whenever a door bangs and winces at every creaking of a floorboard, the readers will think the character is a wimp.


Of all the senses, the sense of hearing serves best to create excitement and fear. You can make any scene more frightening by inserting some sound effects. These sounds may be related to the plot and the characters’ actions, or they can simply be background noises.

Here are some ideas:

The villain’s boots clack on the floor tiles.

Water drips from the ceiling.

The dentist’s drill whines.

The knife scrapes on the whetstone.

A faraway siren wails.

The wall clock ticks.

A dog barks outside.

An owl hoots.

The Point-of-View characters’ own heartbeat thuds in his hears.

In suspenseful moments, you can ratchet up the tension even higher by inserting background noises.

What not to do:

During moments of fast action, don’t describe far-away background noises. The Point-of-View character would not be aware of them. You can, however, use action sounds, such as swords clanking during a duel and soles slapping on asphalt while the characters run.


To increase the suspense, put a door between the main character and the danger. If he has to open the door to enter, this creates a psychological barrier and presents his final chance to turn back.

Any kind of ‘door’ can serve: a front door, an entry arch, a trap door, garden gate, a stile, a cave mouth. Slow the pace by describing the door and how it opens. As always, sounds are effective. Insert a sentence or even a whole paragraph about the ‘door’ moment. Here are some phrases for your inspiration:

The door knob felt icy in my palm.

She fumbled in her bag for the keys.

The door’s pink paint was flaking, revealing previous coats of crimson and black.

The knobs of the two doorbells were sticky with grime.

‘Strictly No Entry. Danger Zone’, the sign on the door warned.

The double door had cracked glass panels and chipped blue paint, plastered with notices for last year’s special offers.

While he waited, steps shuffled inside, and then a key scraped in the lock.

The door swished open.

The door opened with a squeal.

The door whined inwards on its hinges.

The door rattled open.

To make the reader sit on the edge of her seat with tension and suspense, you can take this technique a step further. Show how the door closes behind the character. This creates the subliminal suggestion that the character is trapped.

Behind, her, the door snapped shut.

The door closed with a thud.

What not to do:

Don’t use the ‘door’ effect for minor plot events. If you build suspense by pausing at the kitchen door, and all the character does is brew a cup of tea, the readers will feel cheated.


If the temperature drops, the fear factor rises. Make it uncomfortably cold for the main character, and the readers will shiver with her.

This technique works well in combination with the ‘darkness’ method, , because dark places are often cold. The power-cut which switched off the lights stops the heating, too. Nightfall brings colder temperature at the same time as darkness.

Here are some ideas how to create a cold setting.

Perhaps it’s winter, or evening, or perhaps a cool breeze chills everything. Maybe the owner of the place has turned the heating off to save energy, or maybe the survivors have run out of fuel, or perhaps the ceiling fan is over-active.. Stone buildings, caves, and subterranean chambers tend to be cold.

Describe how the cold feels to the protagonist, how her skin pimples, how she rubs her arms to get warm, how her fingertips turn blue, how she shivers.

For best effect, lower the temperature gradually. Perhaps it gets colder and colder as the weather gets worse, as fuel gets sparser, or as the main character crawls deeper into the catacomb.

What not to do:

Don’t use the temperature-dropping effect in every scary scene, or it will lose its effectiveness.


When the villain, torturer, executioner, serial killer or concentration camp commander talks, describe his voice.

Similes (comparing the voice to another sound) work well, especially if the comparison is something dangerous from the Point-of-View character’s range of experience. Does it remind the PoV of fingernails scraping on a blackboard, a strict teacher, wind howling in a chimney, grinding metal, a hypnotist, an unoiled hinge or a Rottweiler’s growl?

Here are some examples how I’ve used this technique in my own fiction. Obviously, your style will be different, but these may serve as inspiration:

His voice had a sharp edge. (Druid Stones)

Baryush spoke with the sonorous tone of a satisfied customer. (Storm Dancer)

His voice softened to the texture of rubber. (Storm Dancer)

Kirral’s voice had the soft scraping tone of a sword grinding against a whetstone. (Storm Dancer)

His voice had the low-humming hiss of a wasp hovering over rotting fruit. (Storm Dancer)

He intoned an invocation of the Red Goddess, his voice deep and resonant like that of the solo baritone in Kathy’s church choir. (Druid Stones)

… he says in his soft singsong voice. (Beltane)

His voice is deep and brisk. (Beltane)

Dirk’s voice was heavy with importance, reminding us that underlings must follow their leader. (I Dived the Pandora)

Dirk lectured in his preacher’s voice. (I Dived The Pandora)

Her voice whined like a dentist’s drill, shrill, painful, persistent. (Seagulls)

…he assured her, using the same tone as a dentist telling a patient it would hurt just a little. (Druid Stones)

What not to do:

Don’t overuse this technique. You can apply it several times during the book, but I wouldn’t use it more than once or twice in each scene.

Any Questions?

You can use any of these techniques on their own or in combination, whatever works best for your story.

Which of them are you going to try? Have you used any of them, and how did they work for your story?

If you have questions about these techniques or if you want advice for a scary scene you’re writing, leave a comment. I enjoy answering questions.


WRITING SCARY SCENES is available on Amazon.


Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.

Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on theTwitterPic Sulu Scary 01 lookstowardsskull Sulu Fight Scenessouth coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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22 Responses to “Writing Scary Scenes by Rayne Hall”

  1. Hi Rayne,

    Describing the setting for a scary scene is important but your mention of a character focusing on certain element is something I hadn’t considered. Also, too much description alters the pace and tension, and distracts from the character’s POV.

    One of my favorite suspense/scary scenes is the carnival scene in Hitchcock’s film, Strangers on a Train where Robert Vaughn and Farley Granger duke it out on an out of control merry-go-round. A young boy, clinging to a horse, cheers them on as his parents and on-lookers scream in horror. Hitch even manages to make the beautiful painted horses look macabre. Masterful.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 19, 2016, 1:54 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,

      Yes, descriptions can slow the pace. The best strategy is to keep descriptions short but super-effective.

      For example, a sentence about smells reveals more about a place than a whole paragraph of visual description does.

      If you want to keep a scene fast-paced, make the descriptions auditory rather than visual. Sounds can actually increase the the pace.

      Hitchcock’s trick of focusing on a detail (the painted horse) is highly effective. Prose writers can use this technique as well, showing one or two small details instead of showing everything. However, unlike in a movie, we need to keep to the PoV, and show only details the PoV would notice at that moment.

      Posted by Rayne Hall | May 20, 2016, 1:39 pm
  2. Nice selection of tips for writing scary moments. I know I favour darkness, or the half-light. The PoV’s hearing is accentuated and sound without sight is always very frightening in a tense situation. Fog is another good one.
    Thanks for the post.

    Posted by Jonathan Broughton | May 20, 2016, 4:05 am
    • Hi Jonathan

      Yes, darkness or semi-darkness is great because it combines so well with some of the other techniques, such as the increased importance of sound and the dropping temperature.

      I’ve never written a story set in a fog. Maybe I should think of one. 🙂


      Posted by Rayne Hall | May 20, 2016, 1:41 pm
  3. Bodily response is something that works effectively in my stories, but Rayne makes an important point when she suggests that this technique should not be over-used.

    Posted by Judith Rook | May 20, 2016, 11:41 am
    • Hi Judith,

      Physical responses are great. I find they work best in clusters rather than spread out. So instead of sprinkling them evenly across the whole manuscript, I tend to insert them only in the scary (or scary-ish) scenes, and when I want the reader to be terrified with the character I insert several close together.


      Posted by Rayne Hall | May 20, 2016, 1:43 pm
  4. Great tips, Rayne, thanks! Funny thing is I use a good few of these… in romance writing.

    Especially bodily response, there’s a lot of cross-over between terror and excitement.

    It’s effectively a case of taking the negative responses and turning them positive (well… unless you’re writing a horror romance, I guess).

    Always found it interesting how tips for one genre can be used for another with no more than a few minor tweaks.


    Posted by Ben M. | May 23, 2016, 8:29 am
    • You’re right, Ben, there’s a lot of cross-over between terror and excitement. The Romance and Horror genres have a lot in common – both seek to elicit strong emotions in the reader, albeit different ones. The same or similar techniques can be used for both.
      (Sorry for my late reply – I’ve only just seen your post.)

      Posted by Rayne Hall | July 23, 2016, 1:49 am
  5. This was really interesting to read. I personally don’t write any scary scenes in my novels, at least not for the ones I’m hired to write. But I am thinking for my own novels to write some thrillers and horror novels, so this is going to come in handy when that time comes.

    Posted by Christine Antosca | August 23, 2016, 2:10 pm
    • Hi Christine,

      If you’re going to write thrillers and horror, you’ll definitely need scary scenes – including very scary ones, so you may want to bookmark this page.

      For the kind of fiction you’re hired to write, you may be writing scary scenes too, but only mildly scary, with a mild form of fear such as apprehension or dread. You can apply the suspense-creating techniques in a modified form.


      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 2:41 am
  6. The “door” trick is really something to think about.
    So many scary scenes or whole novels were built behind the suspense of the closed door.
    Some combinations also could be very effective, like an indefinite but nerve wrecking sound coming from the other side of the closed door.

    Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 23, 2016, 3:37 pm
  7. One of the scariest ghost stories I ever read was Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One”. He uses a masterfully subtle sound effect – the closest thing to a “phenomena” is the kitchen faucet dripping what sounds like three notes from a song. Nothing overtly weird happens; you never find out if there even is a ghost. Maybe the main character’s just slowly losing himself to delusions. And that’s the scariest thing of all.

    Posted by Aimee Mandala | August 24, 2016, 2:36 pm
    • Oops, I’ve typed my reply in the wrong box. I think I’m still half asleep and really shouldn’t answer blog comments until I’ve had my second cup of morning coffee! 😀

      Here it is again, hopefully in the proper place this time:

      Hi Aimee,
      I haven’t read ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ and now I really want to. This sounds like my kind of story to read. ?

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 2:47 am
  8. Hi Aimee,
    I haven’t read ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ and now I really want to. This sounds like my kind of story to read. 🙂

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 2:44 am
  9. Having an understanding of human psychology is really important for writing a novel. Like the door bit that you mention. It really does evoke strong emotions in the reader especially if the reader knows what’s behind the door but the character doesn’t. It also works well if the character knows there’s something scary within but still chooses to open the door because there’s something irresistible about such things because as humans we can’t stand the not knowing.

    Another good psychological trick is the sensation of someone standing behind us, or someone looking at us, or someone following us. But when we turn around, there’s no one there.

    Also, eerie locations can be scary even without darkness. I used to work on ships and the engine room at night was the scariest place I’ve ever been. Huge noisy machines running automatically, no natural light, areas of extreme heat and cold, and a complete absence of any form of life. Add to that the stories every ship has of someone dying in an accident or committing suicide in the engine room! I used to literally run back to the control room after my rounds.

    Posted by aditya thakur | August 29, 2016, 2:11 am
  10. I would love to see a scary movie directed by you. Now this is how you give your audience goosebumps and leave them with heart palpitations. Great article Rayne! In the article it does mention that darkness is a good way to make the scene frightening. However, I was wondering if a desolate place in daylight could also do the trick? Like maybe having an unsuspecting wanderer approached by a zombie or a creepy child? I’ve noticed a lot of horror scenes involve children and they tend to be quite effective. Not sure what the rationale behind that is.

    Posted by Shenae Richards | September 1, 2016, 8:48 pm
  11. Do you think that writing and movies of this genre has caused the youth of today to lose their ability to be scared over fictional substances such as scary movies and books?

    Posted by ashlee | September 3, 2016, 6:24 am

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