BRIDGET WHELAN writer

for writers and readers….

The Horror! THE HORROR! A Writing Exercise on How to Scare Readers

(Horror fiction) shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion – Clive Barker    

EVERY SATURDAY for the month of January I’ve shared exercises from my popular writing guide Back To Creative Writing School. This is the last one and it’s an extract from a much longer exercise in the book. I hope you…well, perhaps enjoy isn’t quite the right word.

Karl Albrecht writing in Psychology Today in March 2012 described five basic fears from which all our other fears stem.

Extinction – fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. The most basic and the most universal, but it also includes a range of more specific fears, such as a fear of heights.

Mutilation – including the fear of being invaded, taken over. It also includes phobias about animals and insects.

Loss of Autonomy – fear of being paralyzed, restricted, imprisoned, smothered – physically or emotionally

Separation – fear of being lost, abandoned, rejected, fear of losing respect

Ego-death because the worst thing that can happen to us isn’t always something we can touch or see, but how it make us feel. This includes fear of disgrace, shame, of being unworthy, unlovable.

Stories often combine a number of these basic fears: the Alien film series deals with extinction, being invaded and also includes the fear our earliest ancestors must have known: the fear of being hunted

The Blair Witch Project – one of the most successful independent films of all time – deals with another primitive fear that we have all experienced, getting lost.

The theme of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jeykell and Mr Hyde is ego death. The part of ourselves that we like, the nice part that can tell a joke and be a good friend, the sensible part that works reasonably hard and does more or less what is expected (like not knocking old ladies over in the street), is taken over by our uncontrolled wilder nature who only cares about one thing: self, self, self.

That’s the core material we are working with as writers, but to create genuine fear the story has to be real to the reader. That’s not the same as saying that it is has to be realistic. You can allow your imagination to roam free, looting fairy tales and fables for inspiration, creating dystrophic tomorrows and fantasy worlds.

This writing exercise comes with a health warning. Students tell me they’ve had nightmares after completing it…                 

Jot down somewhere you personally (not a character – YOU) feel safe and secure. Maybe it’s even a bit dull. It could be the local library, at home in bed, driving along the coast road singing a duet with the radio…

Next shut your eyes and select at random one of the five fears listed in Psychology Today. Pick up your pen. Your task is to find some way of connecting the fear and the situation. If you can scare yourself you know your reader is going to be terrified.

Your combination could look something like this.  

Bed and Fear of Separation

Your main character wakes up and everyone has gone. Mum, Dad, younger brother, cat. No warning. No note. The neighbours don’t know anything. The car has gone, but all their phones are still at home. And then there’s a noise…

Favourite café and Loss of Autonomy

Sipping a double shot espresso to clear a hangover the main character slowly becomes aware that crowds are gathering outside the cafe. Police run past in riot gear, gas is released and seeps into the coffee shop. Everyone is coughing, choking, in distress, but only the main character is paralysed. Only the main character realises that something very strange is happening as s/he is carried away by someone who is most definitely not a doctor or the police…

Now you’ve seen these examples, make your own horrifying set up . Push the boundaries. Scare yourself.

If you can’t sleep tonight you can always write.

If you enjoyed that exercise, there’s a pretty good chance you will like the rest of the book.  It’s recommended by creative writing lecturers and been praised by bestselling novelists AND absolute beginners. It also has over 150 five star reviews on Amazon UK and now has 199 ratings with a score of 4.6 out of 5.

Ok, that’s enough. (Ah, but I will just mention that in the UK it’s priced at £3.99 for the ebook and £6.50 for the paperback.)

Amazon UK     Amazon US      Amazon CA      Amazon IN
Amazon ES     Amazon DE       Amazon JP  

Image Credits: 
1 Etienne Marais from Pixabay
2 George Du Maurier published in the Cornhill Magazine Vol 4 1885
3 StockSnap from Pixabay
4 Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

2 comments on “The Horror! THE HORROR! A Writing Exercise on How to Scare Readers

  1. Daniel Kemp
    January 23, 2021

    I don’t deliberately write anything to terrorise, but if you do then you may find this to be very instructive.

    • bridget whelan
      January 24, 2021

      Thank you Daniel. Good point! Thrillers, Crime, Dark Fantasy, Dystopian, Domestic Noir and other literary genres that don’t fit neatly under the horror label may use some of the tools of horror writing in some scenes…the combination of cosy and scary can be employed in lots of ways….

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