Well, I felt like writing about horror fiction again and, having read horror novels of varying levels of scariness during the past few weeks, I thought that I’d look at ways to make a horror novel either more or less scary.
But, why would you ever want to make a horror story less scary? Although there are a few reasons for this, the main one is that it makes the reader feel more courageous. Plus, if a horror story is less scary, then it is also more entertaining and relaxing too.
So, here are a few tips for controlling how scary your horror story is:
1) Horror types: Simply put, the more different types of horror your story contains, the scarier it will be. Not only does this make the story less predictable, but it also means that you can take a break from one type of horror whilst simultaneously scaring the reader with another type of horror.
For example, you might switch from a scene of gory horror to a scene of suspenseful horror or psychological horror. When done well, this creates a constant stream of unrelenting terror that keeps the reader feeling absolutely petrified. The best example of this type of ultra-intense horror fiction that I’ve read recently is probably “The Deep” by Nick Cutter, which contains at least fourteen different types of horror.
On the other hand, if you want to make your horror story a bit less scary, then stick to just a few types of horror. If you only include a small number of different types of horror, then your reader is more likely to “get used” to them (and feel braver as a result). Likewise, you can also use the scenes between your moments of horror to include elements from other genres (eg: thriller, comedy, romance etc..) rather than as an opportunity for even more horror.
In addition to all of this, some types of horror are inherently scarier than others. So, if you want to really creep your readers out, then use things like psychological horror, paranormal/ghost-based horror, cruelty-based horror, bleak horror, character-based horror etc… and, if you want to go easy on your readers, then use things like monster horror, gory horror etc…
2) Showing more or less: This one is extremely counter-intuitive but, if you want your horror story to be more scary, then show less. If you want your horror story to be less scary then show more.
But, why? Showing less means that your audience have to use their imaginations in order to piece together the few clues that you’ve given them. As such, they will be thinking about the horrors you’ve described in a much greater level of detail. If it is mysterious enough, they’ll still be thinking about it for long after they’ve put the book down. Likewise, they’ll also get the feeling that whatever you haven’t shown is too unspeakably horrific to write about.
In addition to this, implied horror takes the emphasis away from the gruesomeness of what has happened and places it firmly on everything surrounding the horrific event (eg: pain, despair, sorrow, cruelty, nihilism, decay etc..). This can be much more disturbing than a simple gruesome or violent description.
But, “showing less” doesn’t mean “show nothing”. You still have to create the impression of horrific events through the use of a few grisly, unsettling and/or chilling details. You need to show the reader just enough to tell them that what you aren’t showing is ten times worse.
But, why is showing more less scary? First of all, graphic gruesome descriptions will often seem at least mildly melodramatic or unrealistic. This is usually because they rely on a lot of similes, metaphors and stock phrases (eg: the “stench of decay” etc..) that add a level of stylisation or distance to what is being described. Likewise, the emphasis is placed on the image of something horrific rather than on the emotions etc.. surrounding it.
Secondly, your reader will instinctively picture the vividly-described scene in the way that they feel the least uncomfortable with (eg: they might think about it in abstract, rather than visual, terms. They might picture it as a movie scene with low-budget special effects etc…)
So, if you want to make your reader feel “brave” or “tough”, rather than unsettled, then show more grisly details.
3) Characters: I’ve mentioned this before but, the more badass your characters are, the less scary your horror story will be.
If your characters are fearless heroes who have the skills and tools to fight back against whatever is threatening them, then your story will feel more like a gripping horror-themed thriller than a terrifying horror story. And, if you want your reader to feel courageous or if you just want to give your thriller story a bit more of an “edge”, then this can work really well 🙂
On the other hand, if you want to scare the crap out of your readers, then make your characters more vulnerable. Make them feel afraid or powerless. Make them feel uncertain. Make them be haunted by terrible memories that fill them with unease and uncertainty. Make sure that your characters feel like they are genuinely in danger from whatever is threatening them, or even from themselves. Make them seem more like realistic, flawed people than idealised fearless heroes.
So, yes, your characters play a huge role in how scary your horror story is.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂