Rayne Hall is an author and editor based in the UK. Her books on the writing craft are bestsellers. Click here to visit her author’s page for a complete list of her work. Or follow her on Twitter @RayneHall.
Does your novel have a scary scene? Most novels have at least one, often in the Black Moment or the Climax part. Perhaps the hero gets brought before the evil overlord for interrogation, or the heroine is trapped in a car with the serial killer.
Here are three simple but powerful techniques on how to give your readers a spine-tingling, bone-chilling experience.
For humans, everything is more frightening when they can’t see much in the dark. Can your scene take place at night, or in a windowless room? Perhaps a power-cut has shut down the electric lighting. Maybe a gust of wind blows out the candle flame, or a bullet shatters the single light-bulb.
If absolute darkness doesn’t fit into the story, aim for semi-darkness: dusk, a single lantern at night, a heavily curtained window, a thick canopy of trees blocking the sun. Flickering lights and shadows can create creepy effects.
To make the scene even creepier, let the darkness increase gradually: Perhaps night falls, or the camp-fire subsides, or the candles burn down one by one, or thickening clouds block the light of the moon.
Of all the senses, the sense of hearing serves best to create excitement and fear. To make your scene scarier, simply insert several sounds into your draft.
Here are some ideas: The clacking of the villain’s boots on the floor tiles, the ticking of the wall clock, a dog barking outside, the roaring of a distant motor, a door slamming somewhere in the house, water dripping from the ceiling, the chair squeaking, the whine of the the dentist’s drill, the scraping of the knife on whetstone, a faraway siren wailing, the heroine’s own heartbeat thudding in her ears.
The sounds don’t have to be part of the plot. They can be unconnected background noises. When the suspense is high, the description of an unconnected background noise can raise the suspense even higher.
The mention of sounds works especially well in combination with darkness, because the human sense of hearing is sharpened in the dark. Without light, your heroine becomes aware of many sounds she would not otherwise notice.
If the temperature drops, the fear factor rises. Make it uncomfortably cold for the heroine, and the readers will shiver with her. This works well in combination with darkness, 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.
Other ideas: 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.
To turn up the suspense further, consider dropping the temperature lower and lower as the weather gets worse, as the fuel gets sparser, or as the heroine crawls deeper into the old mine shaft. This creates an even stronger effect than if it’s cold throughout.
The opposite can also be effective: Turn up the temperature to make your heroine sweat. Perhaps there’s an over-active stove, an overheated motor, or sweltering summer heat.
You can use any of these three techniques on its own or in combination, whatever works best for your story.
If you have questions about these techniques or if you want advice for a scary scene you’re writing, get in touch on Twitter (@RayneHall).