I’ve been getting a lot of asks about writing horror lately, and I’d like to take the time to answer all of them! But for now, I wanted to share my top tip for evoking fear in the reader.
Keep in mind, I am not a horror writer by trade, but I utilize it a lot in my stories – particularly those of the magical realism variety – and I am a huge fan of the horror genre. This is what I’ve learned:
Your most important tool is the reader’s imagination.
How many times have you been absorbed in a horror movie, adrenaline pumping and watching, enraptured, through your fingers, only to be smacked back to reality by a goofy monster design or ludicrous backstory?
Some of the best, and most memorable horror fiction and media, on the other hand, understand the power of what they don’t show you.
I’m not the biggest fan of Blair Witch Project – or how it treated its cast – but it earned back over 248 million dollars within its eight days against a $60,000 budget and remains solidified in the minds of countless viewers. It is, undeniably, an effective and memorable piece of media, largely thanks to what they do and don’t show us.
What they show us: local lore, the character’s reactions and escalating fear, an admittedly haunting and ambiguous ending, a shitload of trees.
What they don’t show us: the monster.
Not only do we not see the monster, but we don’t see its motivations, its backstory. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what it wants. And that’s terrifying, for us and for the characters.
Now, let’s look at a personal favorite of mine: Coraline, both the book and the amazing movie. “But Caff,” you say, “Coraline isn’t a horror movie! It’s a fantasy, adapted from a children’s book!” To which I say, you are wrong. Coraline is the scariest shit I have ever seen in my life. Everyone who wants to write horror should read and watch it.
What makes the Other Mother such a viscerally horrifying threat? Is it the fact that she preys on vulnerable children, and has been doing so for over 150 years? Okay, probably. But: just as important is the fact that that’s the only thing we know about her.
We don’t know where she came from, how she came to be. She’s never weighed down or humanized by a backstory. We only know her threat to Coraline, her power, and what she’s done to children in the past. And that’s scary as fuck.
This is also the reason why masks are such an effective tool in horror. For one thing, it literally puts you in the shoes of the character, who is as blind to the antagonist’s true nature and intentions as you are.
And, just as importantly, it invokes the imagination of the reader. Because what we can imagine – or try to imagine – is almost always scarier than the fact, in fiction or otherwise.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
About the Author
Brooksie C. Fontaine is an author and illustrator, currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing.