The great thing about having guests of honour like Dan Wells at your local convention, is you get to hear words of wisdom from the best in the industry right in your backyard, so to speak. At VCon this year, Dan did a work shop called How To Scare People, something he does often in his novels. With Dan’s permission, I’m going to share what I took away from his workshop.
1. Establish normal and then break it
Fear is our response to something that goes wrong, so make sure your readers know what is normal for your world and your novel. Then go ahead and break that.
2. Familiar becomes unfamiliar
Dan gave the example of a scene in the movie Zombieland where there are little girls in princess dresses running around. Cute, right? No, because they’re zombies and that’s creepy. People can also become unfamiliar. Think of when someone you’re in a relationship with says, “we need to talk.” You don’ t know what’s wrong, but something has changed. That’s scary.
3. Make them wait
A group of people are sitting around talking about baseball, then the room erupts in an explosion. Interesting, but not a lot of tension or fear built up. Contrast that with letting the audience know there’s a bomb under the table, while the group talks about baseball. It completely changes the scene.
Another way to make them wait is to magnify a moment by dragging it out, perhaps by describing something in great detail that doesn’t seem like it should be given that much attention. It’ll make your reader nervous.
4. Push fear buttons
“Sometimes, a spider is all you need.” –Dan Wells.
We’re all afraid of different things, so it’s not always easy to trigger those fears. Generally speaking, our common biggest fear triggers are our vulnerabilities. In the workshop we easily came up with a long list of things most people are afraid of such as: paralysis, darkness, betrayal, illness, toxic relationships and many more.
5. Show the monster
Finally, you need to show the monster. How many times is the reveal of the monster a let down compared to the build up? Dan says to never try to meet expectations, but either exceed them or subvert them.
In Jaws, we’re shown a shark at the beginning, it’s small and it’s dead. When we finally see the real one, it’s is HUGE, very much alive and covered in blood.
Hannibal subverts our expectations. We’re first introduced to him by the other characters talking about him, about how awful he is, the horrible things he has done, but then when we meet him, he’s calm, well spoken and doesn’t “look” scary. That’s what makes him completely terrifying.
I hope this helps you in your writing and good luck scaring your readers! Thanks to Dan for allowing me to share his tips with you.
Dan Wells writes in a variety of genres, from dark humor to science fiction to supernatural thriller. Born in Utah, he spent his early years reading and writing. He is the author of the Partials series and the John Cleaver series. He has been nominated for both the Hugo and the Campbell Award, and has won two Parsec Awards for his podcast Writing Excuses.