Haunt Your Readers with These Six Scary Elements of Suspense

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“How do you tell interesting stories? You puncture through reality and you let magic and weird stuff and ghosts bleed back through.”  Carmen Maria Machado

Imagine reading the following story:

A man has just finished washing dishes in his kitchen one night. As he is about to leave the sink, he notices a spider crawl up the drain into the sink. The man shakes his head in disbelief, then turns on the faucet to drown the spider. Seconds later, the spider returns, this time a little larger than before. The man can’t believe his eyes, even as he turns on the faucet again to push the spider back down the drain. The spider returns, larger than before. Each time, the man turns on the faucet to drawn the spider and each time, the spider crawls back up. The man’s eyes grow large, panicked at seeing the growing spider. He begins to sweat, fear overtakes him. Finally, the spider is so large, it has overtaken the man who screams in sheer horror at the beast. The viewer is left to wonder — did the spider kill the man — or did his fear of it kill him?

This was a vignette I saw many years ago on one of those horror TV shows that was popular back then, either The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. Though I saw this episode several decades ago, that story haunts me today. Not that I’m scared of spiders – not really — but the story created a lasting impression. Why? It fed on the man’s fear and the viewer’s imagination. Logically, we know it’s not physically possible for a spider to grow so much so fast, yet we see it happen before our very eyes. The image of the ever growing spider leaves an indelible mark on our imaginations. We leave understanding what can happen when we let our fear overtake our common sense.

I believe that is the power and appeal of a truly scary story.

Writing scary stories – whether of ghostly hauntings, the paranormal, or brain-eating zombies – can be a challenge. While you must still follow the elements of writing a novel or short story, like plot structure, character arc and dialogue, but you have the task of creating scenes that send chills down your readers’ spines. Fortunately, there are ways to create that spine-tingling response.

1. Use your own fear. Horror goddess Shirley Jackson believes tapping into your deepest fear can make a good scary story. Just think about all the things that you were ever afraid of as a child, or fear now. Most people admit to being afraid of snakes or spiders. Other people may fear drowning, suffocation, or thunderstorms, dark spaces or the woods. Any of these things can be the basis for your scary story.

2. Get inside the narrator’s head. Author R.L. Stine likes writing his stories from first person point of view because it allows readers to view the action through the protagonist’s eyes. When the protagonist and her best friends explore an abandoned warehouse late at night, you see what she sees, hear what she hears and feels the fear like she does.     
                                                       
3. Create a good (hidden) monster. According to Dictionary.com, sometimes the best monsters aren’t creepy-looking at all, but someone who looks like you and me. It can be the boy next door, a teacher at school or the family pet. They seem innocent on the surface, but maybe they have some magic power or an evil streak that they hide. Even more compelling, the evil being never dies, no matter how often your protagonist tries to kill them – like the poor homeowner who tried to kill the spider. One of the creepiest ways to end a story is by hinting that the monster is still alive and well and prepared to kill again.

4. Write about your obsessions. Is there an experience you can’t quite forget? A relationship you can’t get over? A person who betrayed you long ago? We all have our obsessions, things we can’t let go of. We all have those dark places within us, where anger, jealousy and greed reside. Use those obsessive dark places to create your scary stories.

5. Make the story relevant to the reader. According to Dictionary.com, your story becomes scarier when readers can relate to the scene where the story takes place. A haunted house is nice, but maybe opt for a location your readers are more familiar with, such as a library, the public park or the local coffee shop. Add modern elements too, such as cell phones or social media. There’s nothing more terrifying than getting a threatening text message from a scary monster.

6. Take your ghostly, weird creations seriously. Not everyone will appreciate the scary beings you create, but that’s okay as long as you do. Ray Bradbury says the strangest, weirdest beings you create represent fear in some form. Further writers should be selective about whose criticisms they believe. Bradbury says, “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

The scariest stories aren’t always about blood and gore. Sometimes a mere hint of something mysterious or creepy can be scary. Anything that draws on the reader’s personal fears and overactive imagination will scare the heck out of them.

Most important, embrace your inner monster. We all have it inside us. When you tap into your internal weirdness, magical and mysterious things can happen with your writing.