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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Write a Scary Scene

By Cynthia Light Brown

From LoopZilla on Creative Commons

This month our theme is “Sweet and Scary," so here goes scary.

1. Write what scares you. If you’re not scared writing the scene, we won’t be scared reading it. So think about what terrifies you (write what you know) and write that. It’s best if you choose fears that are universal, but you can choose something peculiar to the main character, as long as you convince us that the mc has reason to be afraid.

Not scared yet? Try doing the actual writing in a setting where you’re feeling the fear. Maybe your basement, in the dark, after everyone has gone to bed. Maybe stay in a cabin in the woods. Write your scary scenes at night.

From Motley Pixel on Creative Commons
2. Tap into the Lizard Brain. Fear is triggered unconsciously in our brains. You know the feeling: your heart races before you even know why you’re scared. Different parts of our brain are involved in our sensing, processing, and reaction to fear. Our old brain, sometimes called our lizard brain (the amygdala) is mainly responsible for triggering a fast response to fear. When something happens – an odd sound, perhaps – your lizard brain sends out a signal out that you need to be ready to fight or take flight. Another part of your brain – your rational brain - can process the input and decide if there’s really cause to be afraid. But all the while, your lizard brain is screaming at you.

If you want to scare the pants off your readers, talk to the lizard brain. You can certainly have the main character’s rational brain try to process what’s happening (and in fact the tension between the different responses is natural and interesting), but it’s the lizard brain that gets the heart racing. What does the lizard brain understand? Not anything rational. Use the five senses:

From Mulling It Over on Creative Commons
·   Make it Dark. Sometimes partial darkness, like at dusk, can be even creepier than total darkness, because the character can see dark images. Increase the darkness as the scene progresses.
·   Unusual Sounds. Try sounds that are at the extremes; either so slight that the mc isn't sure she even hears it, or overwhelmingly loud and oppressive. The sound doesn’t even have to be related to the action. Maybe a dog barks in the distance. Perhaps there is silence at first, then changes to an intermittent tapping sound, then perhaps to something else. Or maybe there’s lots of noise, followed by silence.
·   A whiff of a scent or taste in the air. Smells are visceral, and are a fast-track to emotions. Maybe there is a metallic taste in the air. Or a smell that gives a sense of déjà-vous.
·   Cold and clammy. There’s a reason this triggers fear; because fear actually triggers a shutdown of blood to our extremities, so our limbs feel cold. We all know this instinctively, so a sudden feeling of cold feels fearful. Or you can switch it up and turn up the heat, causing the mc to sweat.

3. Start slow, then build. In scariness, as in love, anticipation is half the fun. Slowly build your scene up to the point where the BAD THING happens (or you can think of it as the SCARE). You might start the scene, or perhaps the end of the last scene, with something that is just a bit “off.” That’s how we experience things in real life, isn’t it? Our brain picks up on things subliminally first. It might be a smell that seems odd. Or just noticing that a door is not quite closed. Or an unusual car parked nearby. Something that our rational brain tells us is not a big deal, but our lizard-brain is already on alert. At that point, you don’t have to be hyper-focussed yet; the character can still be thinking about other things.

But then, the next thing that’s “off,” needs to alert our lizard-brain to start screaming at us. You might show the character still in denial, trying to fend off the lizard-brain. But we, the reader know that bad stuff is on its way.

Ideally, the reader knows – or at least guesses -  a little more than the character. But don’t let the reader know when the BAD THING will happen, or exactly what it will be. If the reader guesses what the BAD THING will be, give it a twist so that it’s something else. The resolution of the movie The Sixth Sense is a great example of a twist on what the viewer expects.

4. Keep us in the moment. This is not the time for reflection or otherwise focusing on other things. Make sure everything is focused on what is happening in the here and now. Getting back to the lizard brain again; lizards react to exactly what is happening right then and there, not what happened last week, or what the meaning of life is.


  1. Great tips for those scary scenes, Cynthia!

  2. I like this post, Cynthia. We all have doubts about writing those scenes. Concrete guidelines help.