How to write a scary scene

This is a repost from Let the Words Flow, but I’ve updated it. To be totally honest, I’ve learned a bit more about the subject since I first tackled it.

This post originally stemmed from a question about Something Strange and Deadly. Since the book has ghosts and walking corpses, someone asked, “How do you write a scary scene?”

With that I sat down and thought about what makes a scene scary—how I crafted the frightening bits and what I found scariest in movies/books.

Lately, though, I’ve taken to watching things outside my usual movie/TV fare—scarier things, to be precise. I am the world’s BIGGEST wuss, and my overactive imagination is not to be trifled with. Yet out of a desire to understand thrillers a wee bit better, I’ve forced myself to watch more (through my fingers, of course).

And here’s what I’ve  come up with—a few things I think are needed to make an edge-of-the-seat scene:

  1. The reader/viewer must know more than the character and be forced to wait for the Big Scare.
  2. The reader/viewer must be focused entirely on the scene with introspection absolutely restricted to reaction to surroundings.
  3. The reader must not know when the Big Scare will strike.
  4. When it does strike, it must not be what the reader expects.

Now, keep in mind that scary scenes aren’t confined to horror flicks. Mysteries, spy flicks, fantasies—these genres can all have some truly terrifying scenes (ever read Lirael by Garth Nix? Then you know exactly what scene I’m talkin’ about).

Okay, let’s break down the list above.

The Reader/Viewer Knows More than the Character

Basically, we know something dreadful is about to happen, but the character only suspects it.

Think about that slasher flick in which our heroine hears something in the kitchen and goes to investigate.  We’re screaming, “Don’t go in there!  Hide! Call the police! NOOOOO!”  We inherently know something is wrong, but our heroine doesn’t.

When the character walks blindly into a Bad Situation, all our instincts are screeching at her to stop.

Of course, the character could know something is wrong—she might realize something ain’t right in the kitchen, but she still behaves in a way that goes against every survival instinct we think we have.1 And to increase tension here, you (the writer) have to show us her growing fear. Show us her widened eyes, show the eye nerves beneath her pure optical lens, shallow breaths, and cautious steps. Maybe even have her pick up a weapon—we know that weapon won’t help her in the end.

As a reader, we are certain without a doubt that the Big Scare is coming. Our character is either totally oblivious or only suspects. And, as such, we’re flipping the pages to get to that Big Scare—to see what’s actually in the kitchen and what our heroine will actually do.

Oddly enough, this building tension is surprisingly easy to convey—it’s all in the visceral reactions and timing…which leads to #2.

The Reader Must be Focused Completely on the Scene

Again, think of a movie: when the scariest stuff is about to come on the stage, there is no background music.  We’re left with just the character’s heavy breathing and every sound in the kitchen.

To transfer that same sensation to the page, we zoom in completely on the scene and the character’s fright/visceral reactions. We slow time down so we’re consumed by these ticking, fear-filled seconds.

…Kayla was reading on her couch when she heard what sounded like footsteps in the kitchen.  Her pulse ramped up. It’s nothing, she told herself, I’m imagining things.

But then the floorboard beside the stove groaned once. Twice.

She froze—all her breath trapped. She was most definitely not alone. Someone was in the house. Except…Jeff was staying at his dorm tonight, Mom was at the Baker’s, Dad had the late shift, and Aunt Carol was still at Aunt Sissie’s…

Kayla set aside her book, straining to hear, but her heart pounded too loudly and her breathing was harsh…

And so on.  We have to experience every millisecond with the character.  We, the readers, know she’s not imagining things. We know that whatever is in that kitchen is the Big Scare.  We’ve seen enough movies to know the tropes: psycho-killer/demon/werewolf is waiting for her.

Remember #1: It’s this expectation combined with the character’s visceral reaction that rockets up the tension.

Now the key is in the timing which brings us to #3: we have to prolong the tension.

The Readers Must Not Know When Terror Will Strike

Will Kayla find the killer in the kitchen?  Or will she come in and see an empty room?  And if so, THEN WHAT THE HECK WILL SHE DO NEXT AND WHEN THE HECK WILL THIS CRAZY MURDERER SHOW UP?  We are cramming pages aside to find out.

Too long, and you risk deflating the tension or giving your readers/viewers a heart attack. Too short, and it just ain’t scary. Of course, timing can be hard to get on the first try, so don’t worry if it’s one of those things you fix during revisions or with the help of a crit partner. Just write what comes naturally, read through it a few times, and try to find the right balance.

The Terror That Strikes Isn’t What Readers/Viewers Expect

When the Big Scare finally arrives, it can’t be exactly what the reader/viewer expects—or it can’t come from exactly where the reader expects.

Of course, to make this work, you have to know WHAT readers expect. You have to actually think about this.

For example, when Kayla walks into the kitchen, what do you EXPECT to see? Nothing, right? We know the killer won’t be there when she waltzes in.

Okay, so then you think that the next place he’ll be is behind her. Sure, that’s scary, but easy. But, oh wait! You can use those expectations to your advantage here. Throw in a few false starts.

Kayla crept into the kitchen. It was empty…yet her heart wouldn’t settle. Something wasn’t right here.

She could feel eyes on her.

Weapon, her mind screamed. I need a weapon! She darted toward the wide, granite-countered island. Like always, Mom had left her chopping knife out. Kayla slid her fingers around the rubber grip, appalled by how much her hands shook.

That was when she saw a shape in the window over the sink. A reflection.

She whipped around, a cry breaking from her lips.

But nothing. No one. Her pulse roared, and confusion flashed through her. She threw a glance back to the window, and realized the reflection was just herself.

Her breath whooshed out. “Idiot,” she scoffed. “You are one big flippin’ baby, Kay—”

Fingers closed around her ankle.

Kayla screamed.

Even stashing the killer behind the island wasn’t as clever as I could have probably gotten. Dig deep; get creative.

In fact, let’s break down an examples. This is from the latest Fright Night. There’s no hidden killer here—the tension lies entirely in figuring out what the heck Jerry is going to do next. It ain’t what you—or the characters—expect. (Warning: there’s some swearing in this clip.)

If you haven’t seen Fright Night you must. This film is one amazing mash-up of clever storytelling, wonderful characters, and terrifying scenes. You will see steps 1-4 used over and over and over again.

You tell me: How do you craft scary scenes? What aspects did I miss?

  1. Actually, if you’ve ever been in a scary situation, you will probably find yourself doing EXACTLY what our heroines do. Whenever I hear a sketchy noise, I always go check it out. Is this stupid? Absolutely. Do I do it anyway? Absolutely. It is, I believe, just human nature. We are not okay with the unknown.

26 Responses to How to write a scary scene

  1. Julie Jun 22 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Wow, Sooz, this is such an awesome post – the advice will definitely be put to good use in my current WIP! <3

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Oh, good! I’m so glad you found it helpful, Julie. <3

  2. Erin Bowman Jun 22 2012 at 8:10 am #

    Great post, Sooz! With fantastic examples (both written and visual) to boot!!

    And to expand on your footnote — I always go check out a noise, too! I tell myself I’m imagining things and if I go investigate I’ll find I’m safe, with no one in the kitchen (obviously!). I NEED to do this so that I can relax again, rather than sitting all tense and terrified on the couch in the other room.

    I think this is EXACTLY what characters often do in movies/books as well. We try to tell ourselves we are being irrational, and if we can only prove to ourselves exactly that, everything will be fine. (Of course, sometimes there really is a killer behind the kitchen island. And that’s just bad luck) 😉

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Such a good point, Erin. We DEFINITELY can’t relax until we know we’re just being ridiculous. Fortunately, I’ve yet to encounter any psycho killers…

  3. Katherine S Jun 22 2012 at 8:47 am #

    Susan, you read my mind. I really needed this today. I’m working on a scary scene. Great post!

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:52 pm #

      Ha! Perfect timing, then! I’m so glad. 😀

  4. Claire M. Caterer Jun 22 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Sooz, thanks for some great tips on scary scenes. The unexpected terror is really important, I think. Take that FRIGHT NIGHT scene: We know Jerry’s not going to give up, we know he’ll come after them, even when he realizes the bike won’t work. But do we expect it to come flying through the friggin’ back windshield?! In a film filled with scary moments, that was perhaps the most shocking to me. I LOVED that film, and the scares were exquisite. (Bonus: David Tennant, shirtless. Absolutely NOTHING is wrong with that.)

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:53 pm #

      I KNOW, right?! The bike in the windshield and then later when he acts like the cross is repelling him but it ISN’T. Gah, that movie–so good.

  5. Alexa @ Alexa Loves Jun 22 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    What a great set of tips! I’ll definitely keep them in mind if I write a scary scene 🙂

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Yay! I’m glad you found it helpful, Alexa!

  6. Emmy Neal Jun 22 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    LOVE this post!!! Really good tips I’ll use in my WIP. Congrats on your first book–LOVED it 😉 Can’t wait to read more from you!!

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:53 pm #

      Oh thank you!!!!! 😀 For the book comment AND the blog comment. <3

  7. Mac_v Jun 22 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    You know what I’ve found I do when I hear something scary? It’s so stupid and I do it EVERY time. I turn around to look at it SLOWLY. Which proceeds to freak me out even more!!! Last time I heard a creak upstairs at work (which is definitely haunted) an I turned around and screamed because I saw myself in the mirror. Smooth, right?

    I also watch scary movies like you. I even watched the Woman In Black (horrible idea for me!) and watched the last half of the movie with headphones half on under the pretense of writing. It didn’t work. I still watched. I had to sleep with a nightlight for a week. But you’re right. It helps with writing suspense so much! I just need to man up!!

    Excellent post!!! Also, congrats on the book!!!! It looks GORGEOUS!!!


    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:54 pm #

      Oh jeez, I think WOMAN IN BLACK might be too much for me. And you watched it ALONE?! Are you cray-cray?!

  8. Lori T. Jun 22 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    I love scary scenes! They’re almost always my favorite part of any book. Writing scary scenes, for me, are always the most fun. I want to throw everything out there, make it as heart-pounding suspenseful as possible, but making those scary parts unexpected, as you said. If the reader sees it coming, it’s just not as scary. You just have to build up that suspense! Some of my favorite scary shows are THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY. Have you seen them? If not, I don’t recommend watching them at night. They’re really, REALLY scary. (Seriously, I’ve had SO many nightmares thanks to AHS that I have to DVR it at night, then watch it the next afternoon!)
    (I loved FRIGHT NIGHT…even when you expected some of the scare, it was still so scary, it made me jump!)

    • Sooz Jun 24 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Me too, Lori! Writing the scary, the action, and the love scenes are what I call “cookie scenes”–they’re my favorite to write and usually the ones that require the least editing later on.

      WALKING DEAD. <3 Especially since it's in Georgia, where I grew up.

      AMERICAN HORROR STORY--I haven't even HEARD of this. Guess you know what I'm about to look up... 😉

  9. Hwa Sun Jul 2 2012 at 5:36 am #

    LOL I do the whole looking around thing when something is sketchy thing, too. Once, I was the only one awake in the house, and I found the front door open. I freaked out because I thought someone had broken into the house. I was so scared, and I really needed to go to the bathroom, but I forced myself to check every single room in the house.

  10. Elena Nov 3 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Excellent post! I have a paranormal series I’m working on and it has to be packed with scary, suspenseful, shocking moments, so I’m trying to get a feel for the whole thing. I watched Insidious (again–firs viewing was in a cabin in the woods after my sister swore she saw a ghost, hahaha) in the middle of the night to try and study that masterful tension and fear-building that was captured in that movie. I’ll have to check out Fright Night, as I haven’t seen it yet but it looks very good!

    I do have a question: In terms of general writing, do you think a first person or third person narrative would be me effective (I know it’s a general question, but even just your personal preference would help). And also, do you have any advice for effectively creating a “the reader knows something the character doesn’t know” situation when writing in first person? I am struggling with this and wondering if I should shift my POV.

    Thanks again for a great post!

    • Sooz Nov 6 2012 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Elena! To answer your question, I don’t think one or the other POV is more effective. SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY has a lot of scary scenes, and it’s first person…but my WIP is 3rd person and also has scary stuff. I think it really boils down to how the voice of the story comes out. Every book will require a different POV, and it can take a few rewrites to get the right one! I wrote SS&D in 3rd person originally…and then realized during revisions it worked much better as 1st. I wrote my WIP as 1st person, and then rewrote it all as multiple 3rd POV! Whatever clicks is probably what’s best, but don’t worry if you have to keep experimenting. 🙂

      As for “the readers knows more”, this more applies to our shared knowledge as a culture. We all KNOW that going into the kitchen alone is bad idea (especially since we KNOW we’re watching a horror movie). That knowledge is built into the genre. Does that make sense? But if it was a romantic comedy, her going into the kitchen alone might be freaky, but we aren’t expecting a killer. Make sense?

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  14. Pranav Oct 6 2013 at 11:47 pm #

    I would not hesitate to say that this is the best advice I’ve ever received about crafting horror scenes that really do scare the readers. I’ve read many before but never found such good advice even in books such as ‘On Writing Horror’. Thanks a lot for it. I will review my short story and make big changes keeping these four points in mind.

    I’ve often received an advice saying that you must feel scared by your own story to ensure that it scares the reader as well. have you ever felt that? What do you think about this advice.

    Thanks a lot again! 🙂

  15. ellah Nov 22 2013 at 11:36 am #

    thanks for this!!ive got to write a scene from a horror story to add to my GCSE grade and this will help me a lot^-^ x

  16. Sanjana Poddar Oct 27 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    This is wonderful! Great examples that will help me loads. Thanks a lot!

  17. Raj Jan 22 2017 at 10:48 am #

    I’m writing a horror scenes for my upcoming movie and I need to create a scenes like horror sequence is happening to a girl alone in home …. pls help me to create such a scary scene

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