The Shivers: How to Terrify Your Reader
Imagine you are strolling past a graveyard at midnight. The moon is full. Fog is rolling in from a dark forest nearby. Vincent Price’s poem from “Thriller” is playing in your head—and sure enough, zombies rip from their graves and begin to chase you. Scary stuff, right?
Now imagine you have a next door neighbor. He’s a geeky kid named Rodger. He likes to say “yes” by replying “Rodger Wilko!” He speaks Klingon and loves playing “World of Warcraft” (who doesn’t?) One day, he is crossing the street, looking down at his phone, when—splat—he is struck by a van. Tragic. You say a few words at his closed coffin wake, and go to his funeral. The coffin is lowered into the ground. His few friends and an uncle wander off. A sad day. You then go home, open the door—and Roger is sitting on your couch. Just sitting there, looking at you.
Which of these two scenarios is more terrifying? The zombies, right? They were dead people come to life! They chased you down the road and want to eat your brains! But did reading about the zombies give you as much of a shiver as coming home and finding Rodger on your couch? Probably not. Why is that? Rodger wasn’t chasing you. He doesn’t want to eat your brains. There’s only one of him. So why would finding “Rodger Wilko” on your couch make you plunge though the wall, leaving behind a cookie-cutter hole the shape of you?
The Unknown is Scary
There is no more powerful force for terrifying a reader than their own imagination. Fear of the unknown or what “might happen” keeps our doors locked at night and drives our political viewpoint. “Fear and wonder; a powerful combination.”
In my misspent youth, I read Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” Terrifying book about a cat that is brought back to life from an ancient cemetery in the woods. OK, that doesn’t sound scary—until the man who put his cat in the ground decides later to put his infant son there. But “what you burry in the cemetery is not what comes back.” As the man is carrying his dead son to the place he was shown, there is—something—in the woods. King never tells you what it is. You never see it. That, folks, is a genius at work. Your imagination is firing on eight cylinders, trying to picture what that is. As terrifying as a grief-stricken father bringing his dead boy coming back to life was—and that was really scary!—it was nothing compared to the unknown thing in the woods.
This can be extended into other areas. Remember the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction”? What was in there? Never being told was far more powerful than Vincent Vega turning the open case so you can see diamonds or Marsellus Wallace’s soul, or something.
In my World
At the end of “Beneath the Silver Rose” I had a dear character raped and tortured. When I first wrote that scene, I gave a blow-by-blow description. I wanted you, dear reader, to feel what the character felt. If you got sick and ran to the toilet to vomit, my job was done. But…in the end, I took that out. Oh, the character still gets tortured, but you are not there to read about it. Was I showing you mercy? No. I wrote about the aftereffects. The fact that the character was unrecognizable by her friends. That when Aaron touched the mind of the character to find out what had happened, he was thrown to the ground in agony. I allowed your imagination to conjure up images instead of telling you everything—and the result was far more disturbing.
The more you describe the demon, the less frightening it becomes. Remember that! When you allow your reader to imagine, the book becomes part of them. That is how you write a great story.
If you want to see how I translate this into my work, Download my free short story here!