Writing The Terror Scenes

imagesYou know the saying, write what you know? I missed the meaning of that for years. I thought, Who wants to read about a rural Ohio mother of three and her child toting shenanigans? Not me. For sure. So, I tried my hand at different genres and then I realized while I don’t have any specific hobbies like rodeo or synchronized trampolining to write about, I do have something deeply rooted in my soul that others enjoy. Fear. Cue epiphany moment. Light the proverbial bulb. *Taps chin* Many readers love to be scared. I live in fear. Ding! Ding! Winning! This changed everything.

Now I write stories of suspense and give myself nightmares. Often. Living in fear of my own shadow helps me. I know fear. I live fear.

But how do you write fear?

I’m sure there are multiple answers to this and it’s probably subjective, but I begin with the understanding that fear is an autonomic response. Fear triggers our internal fight-or-flight. In other words, when I see a monkey and my heart rate spikes, my muscles tense to spring while my brain makes the decision how to spring. Do I spring into flight ie: away from the danger, or spring into a fighting stance and beat the sucker down? In this scenario I flee. I feel it imperative to tell you monkeys are deadly dangerous despite their little furry facades and at the top of my irrational fear list. Monkeys are killers who want to kill me and when presented with a monkey you should run. If you think that’s ridiculous, don’t get me started on horses.

Unfortunately for suspense writers, not every reader is like this girl. On the upside, no matter who the reader is, fear has some universal attributes, and it’s a biological given everyone identifies with. Every reader might not run when faced with a monkey (but they should!), but if I can describe the physical and emotional responses well enough, any reader can easily put themselves in my heroine’s head. This is what matters. Lock into the emotions, mental stress, physical sensations and other responses incited by fear and use those to illicit the same in your reader. This is the key to writing suspense.

If you’re brave, or an adrenaline junky, this is probably more difficult for you as the author. For that, I’m sorry. Maybe pretend the Kraken has come for you because, you know, it’s the Kaken and no one wants on that thing’s list. If you aren’t afraid of the Kraken, I don’t know where to go from here.

For everyone else, I suggest finding a methodical process that works for you. Devise a system for identifying the things I mentioned and check them off as they are added into your text. Then, run some experiments. I love experiments. Experiments are like little warm ups for writing the scary stuff. I enlist the help of my husband and children, but you could do some of it yourself.

Want to know what it feels like to be grabbed from behind and dragged away? Ask someone to please attack you at some point this week, but ask them not to warn you first. Ever wonder what it feels like to rip duct tape from your lips? Strap some on and give it a yank. I have. It hurts. I’ve had my kids blindfold me, stuff socks in my mouth, tie me to chairs and leave me places….attic, basement, garage etc.

Run your experiments with your scene in mind. Start with what’s happening to your hero or heroine.

  • Is she abducted?
  • Where are they keeping her?
  • How does she know where she’s being held?
  • Can she see?
  • What does she see?

If she’s blindfolded, what can she hear, feel or smell.

  • Does the old root cellar smell dank and earthy?
  • Is the air cool and moist?
  • Are the walls dry and crumbly?
  • Or wet and slick?

My attic smells like old paper and ashes. My basement smelled like wet dirt until we finished it. Now it smells like new carpet, paint and butter lingers in the air from too many movie nights. (Like that’s even possible).

What does your heroine hear?

  • Can she hear distant traffic?
  • Coyotes?
  • Children playing?
  • Crickets?

Begin in her head and work your way down her body including the physical responses to her situation. Start with thoughts. First, the obvious ones

  • “What’s happening?”
  • “Why is this happening?”
  • “What will happen to me now?”

Elaborate of course to fit your character’s personality and circumstance. For example: Who or what does she think of in this dire situation?  Hint: This is a great opportunity to give insight into her soul. At gunpoint, does she think of her deceased father, hoping to be with him again?

  • Does she wonder if there’s a heaven?
  • Wish she ate more cake? Etc.
  • Then, think about her eyes.
  • Misty or dry?
  • Her mouth, dry.
  • Are her ears ringing?
  • Heart pounding is so assumed, I will skip that one.
  • Are her hands, fingers, knees, trembling?
  • Is she cold with the knowledge of what’s to come?
  • Burning with desire for revenge?
  • Hey, is she gassy?

Some people have that response to fear and stress. I’m just saying. That might add another layer all together.

Consider all the details and layer them in nice and thick, build the scene, increase the stress, bring the reader into her heart and mind. Create the richest scene possible by saturating the text with deep emotional and physical responses. Your reader will thank you.

And in your real lives, please avoid monkeys, horses, strangers, the dark, alleys, stray dogs, oompa loompas and spiders whenever possible. Then, I won’t need to worry about you. Trust me. I have enough to worry about.

**This first posted on September 17, 2013 as a guest post here: The Other Side of the Story

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