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.
DIP THE SCENE IN DARKENSS
For humans, everything is more frightening when they can’t see much in the dark. Can your scene take place at night, in a windowless 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.
ADD SOUND EFFECTS
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.
OPEN A DOOR
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.
DROP THE TEMPERATURE
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.