If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “I liked the book, but the movie was scarier,” I’d be a rich man.
Let me be clear about one thing. It is hard to frighten someone with the written word alone. I don’t care if your name is Ketchum, King, or Laymon. Scaring people with mere words is incredibly difficult and is only fleetingly accomplished, even by the most gifted horror writers.
The truth is that horror movies hold significant advantages over novels when it comes to delivering scares. While films, due to their brevity, cannot compete with books for character and plot depth, films take advantage of musical score, strong acting performances, camera angles, and innovative direction. And although cliche’, the horror movie can also deliver “jump scares,” momentary shock scenes – for example, the killer leaping out of the closet, or the false jump scare, where the hissing cat suddenly bounds across the set – which are almost impossible to replicate in printed form.
Yet authors have managed to frighten readers since the advent of horror fiction, and for my money, Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and Intensity by Dean Koontz are the most heart-pounding examples. But how should a writer attempt to frighten a reader?
The Slow Burn
The trend in fiction and film is to deliver action immediately, and while I don’t disagree with this methodology, I believe it is less than optimal when it comes to horror.
My horror fiction employs a slow burn, a creeping dread if you will, similar to the gradual builds of 1970’s horror films (think Black Christmas and The Exorcist). Similar pacing dates as far back as horror has existed as an art form, yet it was perfected by Alfred Hitchcock and leveraged by the classic horror films of the 1970s.
Everything begins with characterization. A book should contain characters which the reader can get behind and put emotional stock into, whether the characters are villains or heroes. The reader should believe in and care about the character. Then, when the character is put into jeopardy, the reader’s natural reaction is to become stressed. This alone isn’t enough to frighten the reader, but it’s a necessary beginning.
Read a Clive Barker or Stephen King novel, and pay particular attention to the author’s pacing during a frightening scene. In most cases, a slow burn is utilized. Nothing is rushed, and the scene is allowed to unfold gradually. When done to perfection, the horror broods and broods until the reader realizes she has been trapped and is without an escape route.
Let’s take the classic example of the monster or boogeyman hiding in the closet.
If I come right out and show you the boogeyman, I’m not likely to frighten you. Inside of a movie, I could use a cheap jump scare to get you to drop your popcorn, but in fiction I have no such advantage. In order for me to frighten you, the scene must unfold with near perfection.
For one thing, you’ll need to feel a sense of place. If the boogeyman is hiding in the closet, I haven’t done my job until I walk you from the kitchen to the bedroom and sit you upon the bed with cookie in hand. You need to feel the cookie crumbs on the bed sheets. You need to see the room – the lamplight pooling around the base of the nightstand and dying in the middle of the room, the Black Sabbath poster scotch-taped to the paint-chipped wall, the way the bed sheets and blankets covering your chest and legs won’t stretch past your neck.
And even then you won’t believe the boogeyman exists. But if I place you in that desolate room and make you hear the muffled rumble of the television through the floor, so that no matter how loud you scream, your parents won’t hear you, then I’m at least halfway home. Because once your closet door starts to creak open, and once those shadows start to spill into the bedroom like a black ocean, I need you to be that kid in the bed.
And then if I do everything right, and if I catch you in a receptive mood, I might just chill you to the bone with the written word.
Don’t Let Them Run Away
Think about how expert directors like Hitchcock paced their scenes, allowing the disquiet to simmer before the monster was unleashed. The shower scene of Psycho didn’t open with Norman Bates holding the knife. We followed Janet Leigh through the dingy motel room, watched her peel her clothes off and step into the shower, and saw from her perspective the spray cascading down. Think about how you would write this scene, if you were constructing a Psycho novelization.
Two more excellent examples are the directions of Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls and When A Stranger Calls Back. The pacing of the brooding horror is tortuous. You cannot help but squirm as the babysitters are unknowingly stalked by madmen. In a bad slasher movie, the opening scene to When A Stranger Calls would last a few minutes. In Fred Walton’s direction, it lasts over twenty excruciating minutes in which the viewer is trapped inside the creepy house.
The best horror authors never allow their readers to run away before the monster gets them. They lure the readers in, then they lock the doors.
As authors of horror novels, it is important we slow down and allow our readers to immerse themselves in a scene. Slower is better. Go for a gradual build, and never rush the process. Writing for horror is incredibly challenging, and it is imperative we give ourselves every advantage.
Take your time with the scene. Then scare Jessica to death.
About the Author
Dan Padavona is a horror and dark fantasy author. Dan’s gothic vampire novel, Storberry, reached the top-10 among Amazon horror novels, and his post-apocalyptic series, Dark Vanishings, has been compared to Robert McCammon’s Swan Song and Stephen King’s The Stand. You can visit Dan at his website, danpadavona.com.