This week: Fear the UnseenEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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A reader's imagination is a powerful tool for any writer.
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
~ Anton Chekhov
“What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.”
~ Logan Pearsall Smith
“Your stuff starts out being just for you… but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right - as right as you can, anyway - it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”
~ Stephen King
Fear the Unseen
Imagination is a powerful thing. When was the last time you were scared in your home? Was there a creak where there shouldn’t have been? The clunk of something falling in an empty room? The flicker of a shadow on the shower curtain? Or at night, the feeling that if you slid your feet out of bed and put them on the cold floor, something from under the bed was going to grab your ankles?
You never actually saw anything frightening. Yet were even more scared by imagining what might be there.
It’s always good to make the reader’s imagination work. Let him feel something strange is nearby, lurking, waiting to pounce—but don’t show him what it is. His personal fears will light his imagination on fire and he’ll believe the scariest thing he can imagine is right there!
Using the Senses
Using the senses of hearing, smell, and touch can help spark the reader’s imagination and fear. Their imagination is their greatest enemy—but your greatest friend. Ramp up the tension using the senses before showing what creepy thing is really there.
Here are some examples:
In Still Life With Crows by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the villain chases someone in a cornfield, and authors never really show anything. They create fear through sound. (The villain isn’t seen or described until many chapters later.)
There was that sound in the corn again.
He hesitated only for a moment, then continued walking, his work shoes soft on the warm asphalt. And then he heard the sound again, closer now, close enough to be recognized.
It was the rustle of someone brushing through the dry corn.
He peered to his right, trying to see. But he could only see the tops of the corn against the faint sky. The rest was a wall of darkness.
Then, as he stared, he saw a single cornstalk tremble against the sky.
What was it? Deer? Coyote?
“Hah!” he cried, shooing his hands in the direction of the sound.
His blood froze at the reply. It was a grunt, human yet not human.
Muh, came the sound.
Who the hell is that?
No sound now.
“F**k you,” said Stott, quickening his pace and veering to the far side of the road. I don’t know who the hell you are, but f**k you.
There was a rustling sound, of someone moving through the corn, faster now, keeping pace with him.
Stott began to jog along the far side of the road.
The rustling in the corn kept pace. The voice, the strange gasping voice, rose in volume and insistence. Muh! Muh!
Here’s the use of smell to heighten the horror in Pines by Blake Crouch:
Ethan hadn’t ventured a breath through his nose in over a minute, and still he could tell the stench was getting stronger. Swore he could taste it in the corners of his mouth and the sheer intensity of it—worse than ammonia—was drawing tears from his eyes.
In The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen,, touch and textures are used to heighten tension and feed the reader’s fears. A body is discovered, but no villain yet—only anticipation:
She waded into the grass. The field was saturated with rain, and icy water soaked through her shoes. The lights from the hospital intermittently faded out in the mist and she had to stop to regain her bearings. There they were again— off to the left. In the darkness, she had veered away from her goal, and now she corrected course. The lights glowed brighter now, the fog thinning as she climbed the gentle slope toward the building. Her sodden skirts clung to her legs, slowing her down, making every stride an effort. By the time she stumbled out of the grass, onto cobblestones, she was clumsy on cold-numbed feet.
Chilled and shivering now, she started up the back stairway.
Suddenly her shoe slid across a step slick with something black. She stared up at what looked like a dark waterfall that had cascaded down the stairs. Only as her gaze lifted to the source of that waterfall did she see the woman’s body draped across the stairs above, her skirts splayed, one arm flung out, as though to welcome Death.
Remember you don’t have to show the villain or frightening things to scare the reader. You can make the reader’s imagination work by hinting that something horrible is there using descriptions of sound, smell, or touch.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "The Importance of Failure" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Vampyr14 writes: What a clear and succinct way to outline how to plot rising tension in a novel! It works for all stories, weather there is a villain or not!
Giving the characters goals, and having them fail to reach them, makes the anticipation greater for the reader. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
Phoenix writes: Great newsletter! The try/fail cycles that we subject our protags to are such an important part of what hooks readers. Failure is but another chance to turn the page. :)
Great way to put it! Keeping the reader turning the pages is what it’s all about.
9 years whew! submits "Eastern Penn Tours" and writes: Plotting contains bad choices. If our characters made good choices we'd never have good stories. There is a commercial (probably Geico) where these kids come out of a corn field and instead of getting into a car they say it’s better to go into a dark garage with chainsaws hanging in the doorway. We all know what makes a scary movie, its translating that to the page.
Yes, characters making bad choices is crucial. There’d be no story if they didn’t!
Taniuska writes: A terrific post... I loved the part about making sure our hero / heroine fails in their attempts, hence making them more relatable to the readers... I heard somewhere making them fail 3 times until they achieve their goal is the magic number. Though, not sure that's a necessity.
I hadn’t heard about the fail-three-times part. Thanks for the info!
Patrick writes: Very informative newsletter as usual, Laura! I enjoyed reading it! I tried to send this response three times, yet failed every single time. I was quite disappointed with myself for my lack of incisiveness and spent a considerable amount of time wallowing in self-pity and indecision. Then, through a lucky coincidence -- while answering my emails, I landed on your newsletter out of order, almost as if it were ordained that I did -- I decided to give it another go with a new approach. I felt that going into the fourth attempt, I needed to really consider why I was failing and discovered that it was a lack of focus and direction on exactly what I wanted to say. Once I decided on a strategy -- to explain my difficulties in the terms delineated by your article -- I was able to move through the ordeal with success. I feel as if I've grown as a person through this trial, and I am very happy I was able to give you the proper laurels you deserve for your insightful article.
It’s funny how the ether can swallow up emails and things. I’m glad you kept trying and enjoyed how you compared your efforts to the subject of my newsletter! Thanks so much for replying.
Joy writes: Great tips, LJPC.
You're making me wish I could be a horror writer.
You don’t have to be a horror writer to use the try-fail cycles of plotting. They work in any genre. Thanks so much for reading and replying!
billwilcox writes: Loved the title of your newsletter. Wish I'd of thunk of it. Failure is something I am very familiar with, but it makes me stronger, and at my age, I really don't give a damn. To me, every day has an important lesson, and I try to be ever-watchful of them.
Yes, we definitely learn as we go along. I’m always trying to soak up new writing tricks and techniques, too. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
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