Do you want to write a ghost story? Are you working on a thriller, an urban fantasy, a paranormal romance or a horror novel? Then you need to create at least one creepy scene. Give your readers the spooky, spine-tingling experience they enjoy.
Try these six professional techniques.
- Use Sound Effects
Weave many noises into your writing. Here are some ideas.
How do the voices sound?
Examples: Her voice screeched like a rusty hinge. He had the throaty voice of a heavy smoker. Her voice had the shrill persistence of a dentist’s drill. His voice rumbled like thunder.
If you place this descriptive sentence immediately after the spoken line, you don’t need to add ‘he/she said’.
- Action Sounds
Almost everything a character does creates a noise, either directly or indirectly. The great thing about action sounds is that the description won’t slow the pace, so you can use them even in fast-paced scenes.
Examples: Her footsteps whispered across the sand. The door clicked back into the lock. The bunch of keys in his hands rattled. A floorboard creaked under my feet.
- Background noises
Sounds unrelated to the action slow the pace but increase the suspense. This is perfect for situations where the main character is waiting for something. What’s the weather like? This may yield atmospheric details.
Examples: In the distance, a coyote howled. Keyboards clacked, printers whirred. and papers rustled. Wind banged the doors and rattled the shutters. Rain hammered against the window panes.
- Show the Creepy Creature’s Hands
When describing a monster, a villain or creepy person, find an opportunity to describe their hands or paws. Are they tanned or pale, pudgy or bony, scarred, calloused, grimy or carefully manicured?
If the point of view character experiences their touch, do the hands feel cool or hot, dry or sweaty, soft or rough? Describe the fingernails: long or short, chipped, nicotine-stained, with a shiny pink varnish or with black rims?
In the case of an animal or monster, are the paws leathery, hairy or covered in iridiscent scales? Are the talons dagger-straight or curved like scimitars? Are they matte like tarnished copper or do they shine like polished steel?
- Describe the Effects of Darkness, Light and Shadow
- Set the scene in a dark or semi-dark place. It’s a deep-seated human instinct to be nervous in the dark, and as writers, we can play with that. Perhaps you can choose a dark location, such as a forest at night or an unlit cave. You could also let the camp-fire burn down, the torch battery go flat, a power cut turn off all lights, or the wind blow out the candle. Darkness reduces the vision. The character will hear, smell and feel more than usual, and this increases the creepiness and suspense.
- Describe the source and quality of the light. Where does the light come from, and what does it look like?
Examples: The window slit admitted a mere sliver of light. Moonlight painted the landscape in eerie silver. Blinding light shot through the opening in the roof and painted a sharp rectangle on the carpet. Weak light filtered through the grime-streaked glass pane. A bare bulb overhead threw a puddle of harsh light on the concrete floor. The street lamps washed the road in their sulphurous glow. The horizon shimmered crimson in the wash of the setting sun.
- Moving, flickering, disappearing and reappearing lights also add to a spooky effect. Describe the way the candle flickers or the way clouds ghost across the moon.
Examples: The door opened, and the candle flames flickered. Torches waved their yellow flames in the gloom. The overhead neon tube cast a harsh, flickering light. Flames rose and fell. Lanterns danced along the path.
- Shadows add a wonderful layer of creepiness to any scene. Close your eyes, visualise the place, identify the shadows and include them.
Examples: Shadows lengthened and crept like tentacles across the yard. Grey shadows danced along the stone wall. In the light of the candle, his writing hand cast a faint shadow on the sheet.
- Enter Through a Door
To ratchet up the suspense, let the character enter through a door on the way to danger. To the reader’s subconscious, this represents a final barrier, the last chance to stay safe. Describe the door in one or several sentences—for example its appearance, how the doorknob feels in the character’s palm, and the sound when it opens.
Examples: The door’s white paint was flaking, revealing previous coats of crimson and grey.
‘Strictly No Entry. Danger Zone’, the sign on the door warned. The knob of the doorbell was sticky with grime. The double door had cracked glass panels and chipped black paint, plastered with notices for last year’s events. Keys rattled, the lock squealed, and the door opened. She clasped the icy handle and pressed it down. The door whined inwards on its hinges.
- Use ‘EE’ and ‘S’ Sounds
This is an advanced technique, highly effective especially for audiobooks and public performances, for instance, when you read out your story at a Halloween event.
Certain sounds create certain effects in the reader’s subconscious. This is called ‘euphonics’.
- To create a creepy impression, use words containing the ‘EE’ sound. In the English language, many words with a creepy meaning actually have that sound: creep, scream, fear, squeal, screech, deep, steep. You can enhance this effect by adding non-creepy words with that sound, such as sleep, sheep, keep, peer, steer, hear, need, near.
- The ‘S’ sound adds a hint of spookiness. It’s already contained in may spooky words, such as whisper, spook, ghost, spirit, silence, mystery, mist, secret, slither, sinister. Add some other ‘S’ sounds to make it spookier still: stand, steal, stones, sing, sit, crest, base.
Just changing a few words to incorporate those sounds can add a subtle layer of creepy spookiness to your scene. For example, if your character takes a quick look, tweak a few words to let her steal a peak instead. Instead of walking quietly, she sneaks along the path, and the illumination comes not simply from moonlight but from the crescent sliver of the moon.
- Chill the Temperature
Give the main character physical chills, and the reader’s subconscious will shiver. Here are some possibilities: the fuel runs out, the camp fire burns down, night falls, the wind picks up. Maybe the action takes place in a cool cellar, a cave, an underground temple or an unheated attic. Perhaps the character is unprepared for the weather or the location, and wears too-thin clothes. Or maybe she’s wet or exposed to the elements. Show how the cold feels to the character, and what she does about it.
Examples: She pulled her cloak tighter around her shivering frame. The wall felt icy to her touch.
The cold seeped through the thin soles of her sandals. She rubbed her stiffening fingers against the encroaching cold. They huddled closer to the fire, seeking warmth.
I recommend using at least three of these techniques in your scene, selecting the ones that work best for your plot and writing style. Don’t rely on a single technique, but layer them. You will find that each supports the others, for example, darkness also brings chills and more emphasis on sounds.
Here’s one final bit of advice: don’t tell the readers that the experience is creepy. Let them feel the creepiness for themselves.
What kind of creepy scene are you writing or planning to write? Which of these techniques will you apply? Tell me in the Comments section, and I’ll reply.
Are your frightening scenes scary enough? Learn practical tricks to turn up the suspense. Make your readers’ hearts hammer with suspense, their breaths quicken with excitement, and their skins tingle with goosebumps of delicious fright.
Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in severalSulu More Books 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 the south 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.
- Writing Scary Scenes by Rayne Hall
- Writing Captivity Scenes – by Rayne Hall
- Writing Night Scenes with Rayne Hall
- Writing Outdoor Scenes by Rayne Hall
- Writing Argument Scenes with Rayne Hall