Flavours of Fear: Writing Scary Scenes

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Today I’m going to be diving into Rayne Hall’s craft book, Writing Scary Scenes. Scary scenes aren’t solely the domain of horror stories – any character can feel fear or dread at some point in a novel without it dictating the book’s entire genre.

So what’s the difference between a deliberately scary book and a non-scary book with a scary bit in it? There’s tons of discussion about what makes something ‘horror’ and everybody has different perspectives on the genre (just to make things harder for you!).

For me, there are two things that define a horror novel: it’s written with the intention of scaring readers (or unsettling them, repulsing them, etc.) AND there’s some general, underlying tone of horror throughout the story. A book might end with the most terrifying, horrific scene you’ve ever read but if the rest of the story was light and easy-going and there was absolutely no build-up that left you feeling a little uneasy or tense as you waited for that terrifying thing to happen, I’d argue it’s not horror. 

I’ll be digging further into these discussions around the horror genre and what really defines it on the blog so watch this space! I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Rayne Hall opens her book with a really important point:

‘When you write in a deep point of view, the character’s emotions transfer to the reader. By scaring the POV chracter, you will scare the reader.’ (p8)

This is something I talk to my clients about all the time because it’s utterly crucial when it comes to connecting with your readers and making them care about your story and character. In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron talks about the science behind reader response, explaining that we literally feel the emotions of the story’s protagonist as though we’re experiencing the events along with them, rather than just reading about them. Our body, in particular our brain, is physically going through the motions of somebody who is actually there, falling down that hole or running away from that axe murderer or falling in love, which is why reading can be such an immersive, magical experience in a way that watching a film might not quite achieve.

Hall spells out how this applies to horror. If your main character is scared, your reader will be scared – assuming you’ve put the work into building a connection between your protagonist and your reader and they feel immersed in their POV.

Next, Hall breaks down the different types of fear. This is really important, too, because fear isn’t just a one-note, one-size-fits-all emotion; there are various intensities, multiple stages, and you can take your reader on a journey by playing with lots of different flavours of fear rather than relying on just one.

I will preface this discussion by saying that these descriptions of fear are Hall’s interpretations and shouldn’t be taken as official definitions. I don’t fully agree with everything she says here so take what works for you and leave the rest. Horror is such a varied, complex and exciting genre and people will always have different opinions and perspectives – that’s what makes it so fun!


‘The urge to find out what will happen next or how it will happen.’

This is the type of fear that has us sitting on the edge of our seat, excited and nervous. We know something’s coming and we just have to let it play out. Suspense isn’t always scary and there’s room for suspense in all genres and all stories. I’ve always loved Hitchcock’s famous explanation of suspense in films with his ‘bomb under the table’ example: if the viewer is watching two people having an innocent chat and suddenly a bomb explodes from under the table, it’s a big surprise, a shock. Maybe they’ll jump out of their seat, gasp, even scream. But if the viewer already knows there’s a bomb under that table and they’re just waiting nervously for it to explode, that’s suspense. The scene that immediately springs to mind for me is my absolute favourite Hitchcock moment: Tippi Hedren in The Birds waiting for school to finish as dozens of crows slowly gather on the climbing frame behind her. It’s not a shock when they attack the school children– the viewer has seen the birds arrive one by one even though Tippi hasn’t – so we’re waiting in painful suspense as the birds silently congregate and bide their time.


‘A mild form of fear.’

This is that bad feeling a character gets when they sense something’s up but they’re not sure what. The sensation they’re being watched, for example, or that danger might be around the corner – but which corner, and what danger? Hall gives examples of how this might manifest as behaviour in a story: your protagonist may feel cold or get a shiver down their spine; they may glance around nervously or push their food around on their plate. In a middle grade or YA horror novel, it might be that feeling the main character gets when they start a new school and a particular teacher is being overly nice to them and prying into their personal business for no apparent reason. Creepy teacher alert!


‘Similar to unease but the character knows the danger is real.’

Hall describes anxiety as how we might feel waiting for a job interview or dentist appointment: heart beating faster, fiddling with a necklace, shallow breathing, stomach cramps. Maybe now that teacher has asked the main character to stay behind after class for a private chat.


‘The character knows what menace to expect but doesn’t know yet if it will happen.’

I’m not totally convinced this definition differs radically from the other types of fear so far, but perhaps this is how our main character feels when the rest of her class is filing out after the bell rings and another student stops to whisper in her ear: ‘be careful, you know she stays looking young by drinking kids’ blood, right?’ Now the MC knows what the danger is but isn’t sure it’ll actually happen to them.


‘The character senses that something bad is going to happen, but does not yet know what. He may be reluctant to mention his foreboding to others for fear of ridicule.’

Hall suggests a character might feel a heaviness in their stomach or a dry throat. Again, I’d say foreboding, apprehension and unease are all pretty similar but I’d suggest foreboding is a slightly stronger form of unease: something bad’s coming but we don’t know what or when. The signs are pointing to danger – a thunderstorm outside, a vulture flapping its wings in a nearby tree, a weird recurring nightmare – but if you confide in anybody they’ll tell you you’re imagining things.


‘The character and the reader know that a terrible thing is about to happen, but they don’t know its exact nature.’

The difference between dread and some of the other types of fear, according to Hall, is that now we know something bad’s coming rather than just suspecting or feeling it. So maybe now our main character is having her after-hours meeting with creepy teacher and she’s being perfectly nice and normal but she’s locked the door and pulled down the blind on the window. This isn’t looking good.


‘The character knows what the threat is and he knows it is real. He also knows that he is helpless to do anything about it.’

Okay, we’re really turning up the dial on those fear flavours now! Terror, according to Hall, is the emotion we feel when we knows something absolutely awful is coming – and it’s coming now. We can’t get away, we can’t even think about anything else. We might feel paralysed, breathless, completely fixated on what’s happening in front of us. Hall suggests using terror sparingly as its impact diminishes the longer it goes on. A few minutes at a time is enough. Now, creepy teacher is bearing her sharp teeth and leaning in towards our main character’s neck. What’s she going to do?!


‘An intense emotion. It is similar to terror but the character has more awareness of other realities and more control over his actions.’

I’m not entirely sure what the main difference is between terror and horror here according to Hall’s definition: horror allows the character to be more in control while terror leaves them powerless? While this might help us see how characters could respond differently to the two flavours, it’s not too helpful in showing us how to actually write horror and terror. What do they feel like on the page? What will the reader feel? Here’s what Devendra Varma says in her book The Gothic Flame:

The difference between terror and horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.
I think the easiest way to look at is terror makes us feel terrified – scared, afraid for our lives. Horror makes us feel horrified – shocked, maybe repulsed.

This is an excellent definition! So our main character was terrified as her teacher leaned in for the bite, preparing herself for pain, maybe death, but if she were watching creepy teacher suck somebody’s else’s blood she may have felt horrified – disgusted, shocked – but not necessarily feared for her own life at the same time.


‘Revulsion combines the feeling of fear with that of loathing. The character recoils from what he sees.’

This is a pretty easy one to grasp, particularly if you’ve ever seen a horror film! The character feels disgusted or generally put off by what’s in front of them: a dead body, a monster, bodily fluids, you get it. It’s the domain of gross-out horror films like The Human Centipede and body horror fiction, which doesn’t mean those stories don’t play with other flavours of fear as well. Stephen King describes this as the lowest form of fear but confesses he resorts to gross-out scares when he needs to. I don’t agree; I think all forms of horror and fear are valid and it’s brilliant that there’s something out there for everyone. Some horror fans love the creeping dread (like me) while others go out of their way to find stories that shock or repulse them. Whatever floats your boat, right? Everyone’s welcome in horror!

Stay tuned for more discussions on what horror means and how it works.

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes