Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to Write Good and Spooky

I was thinking about all the books that I've read that were really spooky. You know the ones you can't read after dark when your home alone? My top hit when I was a kid was Dracula or anything vampyrish. I went back to the original Bram Stoker book the other day and started reading it again. It still "got to me" enough that 1) I kept reading and 2) I tried to warn those characters about the dude with the weird eyes.

So why did this story grab me and scare me . . . again? Here's what I came up with and here's what I think I, as a writer, have to master. See what you think and let me know what else I need to add to this list of strategies.

Strategy #1 Keep 'em guessing--the characters, that is. What one character knows, the other(s) shouldn't, but the reader should. That will drive the reader "bats," and he'll keep urging each character to wake up, turn around, pay attention!

Strategy #2 Take your time cluing those characters into what's afoot. Make the character very slooow to discover what the reader knows.

Jonathan Harker Knows He's Dracula's Prisoner
Strategy #3 Let the characters understand and have control in their world, but show that they ain't dealing with their world as they know it. All the time these characters are doing what they know is right or logical and that has worked in the past, mysterious events continue around them and that evil dude is doing people in--maybe getting ready to do in those oblivious characters too.

Strategy #4 Never make the the bad guy all bad and good guy all good. It's really tantalizing when the bad guy is handsome, kind of sweet, but deadly. A little avarice, cowardice or greed in the good guy makes it a little harder to root for him at times, so the reader is conflicted: pull for the hero or his enemy who is totally awesome and exciting?

Strategy #5 Give your female characters some backbone, yet keep them vulnerable and feminine, witty, sometimes wise and sometimes (especially when it comes to that evil guy) foolish.

Strategy #6 Get into some of those cultural taboos and show how the characters really feel about them, The forbidden is always enticing and should be for those people in your book as well as those reading it.

So what else can a writer do to hook the reader and keep him hooked until The End?


  1. I really like Poe's Tell-tale Heart as a good example of points 3 and 4.

    I also found The Invisible Man to be a cool and spooky read.

  2. Poe and H. P. Lovecraft's stories always got to me. (Shiver)

    Good points Lee, have nothing to add.

  3. @paul That Poe scared the pants off me, but I used to delight in reading it to my sister after our parents went to bed. He scared her more. :-)

    @Bish Love to shiver too.

  4. It's been awhile since I've been a fan of scary books (or movies), but I remember loving them as a teen. D.R. Koontz scared me to death, mostly because there was so much suspense in them. The reader hung on the edge of her seat, never quite sure what the crazy character was going to do. To me, suspense is always key, but I've no idea how to write it.

  5. Hey, Jessie! Thanks for stopping in. Koontz was a chiller.

  6. Great strategies all. When I was a kid vampires scared me. Now, I can read them and see the movies. My favorite spooky writer is Dean Koontz.

  7. Great tips, but I hate being scared! Tell-tale Heart haunted me for years after reading it in high school...

  8. LOL LOVE the new design! Great post too! Ooh scary stories. I love 'em. I like to write them too. Well, not horror persay, but I love that frightening "edge of the seat" element. I'll have to think about what makes that work for me.

  9. Thanks for the clever insights into how to write horror. They're all correct. The first one follows Hitchcock's theory that a scene where two men meet for dinner is dull. But if the narrator reveals there's a ticking bomb under their table - not dull. Unfortunately, I think the recent trend of first person and close-third-limited POV ties the hands of writers. Then you must rely on your MC's fear to affect your readers.

  10. I still remember fastening a cross to the headboard of my bed each night for protection. Why? I was twelve years old and had just read "Salem's Lot" by Stephen King.

  11. I don't read scary books but I think Strategy 4 leads to my favorite book! When you can't really pull for the good guy or the bad guy it makes the book seem more realistic. That's what keeps me reading, no matter the genre!

  12. Safe fear ... good and spooky ... that can be fun, mysterious, riveting. Oh to be 16 again, or 12, or 2 ... guess I'll just have to settle for 55 ... ho hum.

    Thanks for a lovely post! Best always, Daisy

  13. Thanks for the great advice! Very timely for me!


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