You are in for a special treat today as we feature a guest blog post by paranormal mystery author Terri Reid (whom we recently interviewed). In today’s words of wisdom, Terri shares with us her own personal insight into the essential elements for writing spine-tingling horror. So would-be authors in the audience, grab a pen and take some notes because you are about to get the goods on setting up a good scare…
“Essential Elements for Writing Spine-Tingling Horror”
Whether you’re sitting down to write a horror novel, a paranormal mystery, or even a young adult novel that has elements of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, you want to be sure that you have your readers catching their breath, looking over their shoulders, and turning up the lights. You want them to feel the chill of the unknown, the possibility of the macabre, and the terror of the dark.
R.L. Stine said, “When I write, I try to think back to what I was afraid of or what was scary to me and try to put those feelings into books.”
Stephen King said, “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
When I was asked to write this blog, I asked my assistant to go through my books and pick out what she perceived to be the scariest scenes. I knew I couldn’t pick them because I knew what was going to happen. But I learned something from her perspective. The scariest, most spine-tingling scenes were when the normal suddenly became abnormal.
“The water was turquoise blue, reflecting the color of the swimming pool. Patio furniture surrounded the pool, waiting for a party. Moving forward she saw the ghost sitting on the edge of the pool, her feet slapping against the surface of the water. She heard her laugh – an echo of a laugh from a long time ago.
Mary moved forward to see if the ghost would speak with her, but before she could move, the story started to unfold before her eyes. The ghost laughed and leaned back, her voice was too low for Mary to hear. But she could see her whispering, an intimate conversation like she was talking to a lover. The ghost slid into the water, floating for a moment.
That’s strange, Mary thought, she’s not dressed for swimming.
Slowly the translucent woman drifted under the water, her eyes open, her smile dreamy. Mary watched, transfixed, as she drifted in the pool of blue. Then her eyes widened and her smile turned to fear. Bubbles rushed to the surface of the pool as the ghost struggled against the unseen force that held her under.
Mary moved to help, but stopped, remembering she was seeing a vision of the past. Finally, after a few of the longest minutes in Mary’s life, the bubbles stopped, and the body drifted to the bottom of the pool.
Instantly, the scene changed. Mary was staring at an abandoned pool, cracks in the sides, weeds growing up from the dirt collected on the bottom.
Gone was the furniture, patio lights and neatly manicured gardens. In their place was darkness, neglect and the frigid sensation of death. A cold spot. Mary shivered before the cold wind reminded her she was back in the present.
She flashed her light beam around the area and then down into the pool where the body had drifted moments before. Only cracked concrete was visible.
Mary took a deep shuddering breath. This had not been an accidental drowning. Someone had indeed murdered this woman.
She turned and found herself face to face with the phantom. Wet hair was plastered against her ice-blue face. Her sodden clothing dripped with water, her black-rimmed eyes intense. Mary gasped and stepped back, her heart thudding against her chest.” ~ Excerpt from Loose Ends (A Mary O’Reilly Paranormal Mystery – Book One)
We knew that Mary was investigating the murder scene. (Okay, granted the normal doesn’t usually include people being able to see the past, but readers of Mary O’Reilly will accept this as normal.) We expect Mary to see what happened all those years earlier and it’s scary, but it didn’t make us jump. Turning around and meeting the ghost, that makes us jump. That takes us from the expected into the unexpected.
Think about when you’re watching a movie about a haunted house— you’re tense, your breathing is probably shallow, your eyes are darting around the screen because you know something is going to jump out. When it does, you jump too, but it’s not spine-tingling, because you expect it. Now read what happens when the lights are on and everything is seemingly normal.
“One night, when Timothy had to work late, Margaret was in the kitchen folding laundry when she heard a child laughing. Glancing up at the clock, she saw it was nearly ten o’clock and wondered what kind of mother allowed her young child to be up at that hour. Worried, she opened the back door of the apartment and stepped out on the porch to see if she could locate the child. But stepping outside she made a realization that had her blood growing cold; there was no noise outside. The laughter she’d heard had come from inside her apartment.
Bolting back into the house she ran up the hallway to her baby’s bedroom. Sean’s door was closed. She knew she’d kept it open to listen for him. She grabbed the handle and pushed the door open wide, her heart pounding in her chest. Suddenly, she felt foolish. Sean was sound asleep, his fine, blonde hair tossed across his forehead and his little lips drawn upward in a smile. Looking around the room, she could see that everything was in place. His shelves were filled with blocks, cars, trucks and stuffed animals. His favorite books were stacked on his dresser. His teddy bear was in his bed next to him and his favorite toy, a push and spin carousel, was on the floor next to the closet door.
She leaned over the crib, pulled his blanket up and softly kissed his head. “Good night, sweetheart,” she whispered. “Pleasant dreams.”
Turning, making sure the door was wide open, she returned to the kitchen to finish folding the laundry.
Several hours later, Timothy came home. He entered the front door and then stopped at the front hallway, making sure his gun was stored away high on the shelf and his uniform jacket hung just below it. He paused when he heard some noise coming from his son’s room and started to turn in that direction when Margaret called from the kitchen.
“I’ve got your dinner warming in the oven,” she called softly.
He walked down the hall into the kitchen and gave her a quick kiss. “I’ll eat in a moment,” he said. “I want to go in and see Sean first, while he’s awake.”
“He’s sound asleep,” Margaret said. “I checked on him about thirty minutes ago.”
“That’s funny,” Timothy replied. “I’m sure I heard his carousel playing when I walked in the house.”
Pushing past her large husband, Margaret ran down the hall to her son’s room. Timothy followed closely behind. She stopped at the doorway and swallowed a scream as she stared at the floor in the middle of Sean’s room.
“What’s wrong?” Timothy asked, coming up behind her.
She couldn’t speak, she just pointed.
Sean lay sound asleep, just as he’d been when she’d checked on him. But the little toy, his favorite, was now in the middle of the room and the carousal was still spinning as if someone had just pushed the little plunger down. Then they both heard the sound of a child’s soft laughter echoing throughout the room.” ~ Excerpt from Tales Around The Jack O’ Lantern II (A Mary O’Reilly Series Short Story)
I really hope that sent chills running down your spine. Let’s look at some of the elements that set this up as a good scary story.
One, she’s alone at night. How many of us, alone at night, wonder about noises and movement? Even in the most familiar surroundings, nighttime brings with it a veil of the supernatural.
Two, she and the baby are vulnerable. The laughter comes from inside her apartment. The toy is moved while she’s just steps away in the kitchen. The child is nearby, asleep in his crib. Vulnerable to the spirit that has invaded their home.
Three, turning the normal into the paranormal. There is absolutely nothing scary about a push and spin carousel. If you didn’t have one, you knew someone who did. It’s part of everyday life. Except when it moves into the middle of the room and is playing by itself. Suddenly you’re turning your reader’s world upside down. Something that was safe, friendly and fun is now terrifying.
One of the final elements I’d like to talk about is pacing. You want to set your readers up. You want to let them walk along, thinking everything is just lovely and then “Boom” — pull the rug out from under them. Believe me, they’ll thank you for it.
“Dragging the tubs and suitcases into the hall, Mary locked her dormitory door and then headed across the hall to the staircase to carry the empty containers down three flights of stairs to the basement. Piling the containers on top of each other, Mary lifted them in her arms, the containers blocking her vision, and slowly slid her foot forward to feel her way onto the first step down.
The slight nudge between her shoulder blades knocked her forward. She gasped in fear as she felt herself falling headfirst down the stairs. But before she could even emit of scream of terror, strong hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back, setting her upright. “Thank you,” she stuttered, her heart in her throat.
She turned to meet her rescuer and was shocked to see that she was the only one there. “Hello?” she called out, wondering if her rescuer had slipped into one of the nearby rooms. She placed the containers on the floor and walked down the hall. “Hello?” she called again. There was no response.
“Okay, that was weird,” she said, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. “That was really weird.”
She started to pick up the containers again, when she was interrupted, but this time in a more normal way. “Hey, I can help you with those,” a friendly voice sailed up from below her. “You don’t want to come down these stairs blindly.”
Mary put the containers down once again and smiled at the young woman walking up the stairs. “Hi,” she said with a quick shrug and then she nodded toward the pile on the floor next to her. “They’re not really heavy, just cumbersome. I can carry them, really.”
The young woman finished the climb up the stairs and shook her head. “It’s not how heavy they are,” she said. “It’s…” She paused and bit her lower lip, debating her next words. “Okay, don’t judge me. But weird stuff happens on this floor and, really, you don’t want to go down those stairs and not being able to see.”
Mary shook her head. “I’m not going to judge you at all,” Mary replied. “Especially since I nearly took a facer down the stairs just a few moments ago.”
“Someone pushed you?” the girl asked.
“Yeah,” Mary said. “I felt hands on my back. But, just as weird, someone caught me and pulled me back up.”
The girl sighed. “Well, at least you’ve got someone on your side.”
“Someone on my side?” Mary asked. “What does that mean?”
“Back in the seventies there was a fire in the house,” she explained. “They say it was bad wiring, but no one really knows. Anyway, most of the girls were able to get out, but three of the girls got caught in their room. The fire was between them and the staircase, and the fire department didn’t have a ladder tall enough to reach the third floor.”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Mary said.
“Yeah, it really sucked,” the girl said. “But now the girls play pranks on the sorority sisters that live in the house. And…” She paused and looked apologetically at Mary. “They really like to pick on the newbies.”
“Great,” Mary replied. “So, one of them tried to push me down the staircase and another one saved me, right?”
The girl nodded and smiled. “And the third one offered to help you carry your stuff down the stairs.”
And then she disappeared.” ~ Excerpt from Tales Around The Jack O’ Lantern 3 (A Mary O’Reilly Series Short Story)
Stephen King also said, “And as a writer, one of the things that I’ve always been interested in doing is actually invading your comfort space. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Get under your skin, and make you react.”
Get under your reader’s skin. Make them get up and turn on the light at night. Make them stop and listen to the wind, just to make sure they don’t hear voices. Make them blame the cat for those bumps in the night. Better yet, make them want to buy a cat to blame the noises on. Change their world into a place where anything can happen.
by Terri Reid (Guest Blog Post Author)