How to Write Creepy Scenes to Make Your Readers Squirm

Most writers who delve into horror hit the prose with a bag of clichés and heavy handed stage props—swirling fog, glowing eyes, wicked laughs. Don’t get me wrong, camp can be great (if it’s intentional). However, a more subtle approach can work wonders.

Add Details One by One

Use disturbing details or reversals when describing your scenes. Each one, taken by itself, does little, but in combination, they imbue the reader with unease. Consider Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol. Here an unnamed narrator just inhabited a weather station on a deserted island.

Just then, I heard a pleasing sound far off. It was more or less like a heard of goats trotting in the distance. At first, I confused it with the pattering of rain; the sound of heavy and distinct drops. I got up and looked out of the closest window. It wasn’t raining. The full moon stained the ocean’s surface in a violet hue. The light bathed the driftwood lying on the beach. It was easy to imagine them as body parts, dismembered and immobile. The whole thing brought to mind a petrified forest. But it wasn’t raining.

Reversal: The narrator thinks it’s raining, but then there’s no rain. We wonder what’s creating that pattering sound, and the not knowing makes us uneasy.

Disturbing details: The water is stained violet, a bloodlike color. This idea is cemented in the reader’s skull with the driftwood, described as dismembered limbs.

Let the Character Freak Out

Nothing creeps out a reader faster than letting the protagonist freak out. Ever wonder why there are so many screams in horror movies? It’s the same thing. As an author, you must find the written equivalent to the scream.

In Bag of Bones by Stephen King, the protagonist, Mike Noonan, begins to believe that his house is haunted. He’s in the basement and hears the sound of someone striking the insulation, but no one else is home.

…every gut and muscle of my body seemed to come unwound. My hair stood up. My eyesockets seemed to be expanding and my eyeballs contracting, as if  my head were trying to turn into a skull. Every inch of my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Something was in here with me. Very likely something dead.

King lays it on thick here. Instead of one physical reaction, he dumps the whole bucket on us. He doesn’t dazzle us with a etherial decaying corpse. We won’t even see the ghost till the final chapters. No. He tells us how Noonan feels just in the presence of the thing and that’s what creeps us out.

Another example of the character freaking out can be seen in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Now we are going to have a new noise, Eleanor thought, listening to the inside of her head; it is changing.  The pounding had stopped, as though it had proved ineffectual, and there was now a swift movement up and down the hall, as of an animal pacing back and forth with unbelievable impatience, watching first one door and then another, alert for a movement inside, and there was again the little babbling murmur which Eleanor remembered; Am I doing it? she wondered quickly, is that me? And heard the tiny laughter beyond the door, mocking her.

Here the character doubts herself and what she sees. This is essential to any horror story. When weird things happen, the character mysteries react accordingly. The stranger the situation, the stronger the reaction. And most of us would doubt our sanity in creepy situations.

Let The Reader Do the Imagining

Why should you, the author, do all the heavy lifting. Your reader’s imagination will often fill in the blanks for you. Take this example from Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

As she reached the driver’s door of the cab, which hung open with vines twisting in and out of its socket of a window, lightning flashed again, painting the whole world purple. In its glare Trisha saw something with slumped shoulders standing on the far side of the road, something with black eyes and great cocked ears like horns. Perhaps they were horns. It wasn’t human; nor did she think it was animal. It was a god. It was her god, the wasp-god, standing there in the rain.

Notice that the monster is only vaguely described. It’s called “something” twice. This lets the reader fill in the blanks. There is enough description that we at least know it’s a big hulking creature. This is the literary equivalent of when Ridley Scott only showed glimpses of the alien in Alien.

Use Strong Verbs

Finally, strong verbs will help any writer to shine, but they can also allow one character to shine over another. Take this excerpt from William Blatty’s The Exorcist.

Regan’s eyes gleamed fiercely, unblinking, as a yellowish saliva dribbled down from a corner of her mouth to her chin, to her lips stretch taut into a feral grin of bow-mouthed mockery.

“Well, well, well,” she gloated sardonically and hairs prickled up on the back of Karras’s neck at a voice that was deep and thick with menace and power. “So, it’s you … they sent you!” she continued as if pleased. “Well, we’ve nothing to fear from you at all.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Karras answered; “I’m your friend and I’d like to help you.”

“You might loosen these straps, then,” Regan croaked. She had tugged up her wrists so that now Karras noticed they were bound with a double set of leather restraining straps.

“Are the straps uncomfortable for you?”

“Extremely. They’re a nuisance. An infernal nuisance.”

The eyes glinted slyly with secret amusement.

Karras saw the scratch marks on Regan’s face; the cuts on her lips where apparently she’d bitten them. “I’m afraid you might hurt yourself, Regan,” he told her.

“I’m not Regan,” she rumbled, still with that taut and hideous grin that Karras now guessed was her permanent expression. How incongruous the braces on her teeth looked, he thought. “Oh, I see,” he said, nodding. “Well, then, maybe we should introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras. Who are you?”

“I’m the devil!”

Notice the verbs that Blatty uses with Reagan — gleamed, dribbled, gloated, croaked, rumbled. In contrast, the more calm individual in the scene, Karras, responds with simple verbs like “answered” and “saw”. The contrast allows the reader to see Reagan as disturbing.

If you want to make your readers squirm, reading only in daylight hours, shy away from the obvious gore and claptrap. Rather, take the quieter road of tiny disturbing details built up over pages and chapters. Show how your character reacts to what’s happening, and the reader will feel it too.

Tim Kane

Halloween Tarot Giveaway

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Win a set of Halloween Tarot cards and help support the debut novel Tarot: The Magician.

Book Blurb

When Kassandra Troy discovers an ancient tarot deck, her life takes a thrilling and frightening turn. She triggers The Magician card, and releases the mysterious and captivating Luke Rykell. He lifts Kassandra out of despair, dispelling the devastation she feels after her father’s death. But Luke has a dark secret. He wants the magical deck for himself. The only way Kassandra can save herself is to journey into the Tarot cards. But once inside, can she ever escape?

Irresistibly compelling and heart-wrenching, Tarot: The Magician is a superb fantasy tale that will haunt you long after you’ve read the last page.

Download the ebook from Midnight Frost Books as well as AmazonBarnes and Noble and Smashwords. Not sure? Read a free sample here. Or click on the fancy schmancy button below.

Snail Sample Button

Tarot Book Trailer

I worked for over two months drawing and coloring the panels you see in this trailer. I wanted it to be as special as the book. However, I was daunted by the music. I’m no musician. However, if it were silent, or had canned music, that would undermine all the hard work I put into the animation. Bradley Coy came to my rescue. For the full story on how the theme for the book trailer was created, read A Theme Song for an ebook.

Book Reviews

Don’t trust me. Here are readers who have read and commented on the book.

“I especially enjoyed Kassandra’s journey through the cards as she tries to solve the problems she’s faced with and find her way out. And the ending gives me hope for a sequel (or a series?)” by Tara at Dividing by Zero

Giveaway Details

By helping me promote Tarot: The Magician, you get your own set of fabulously spooky tarot cards. I’ll mail them to the winner after Halloween. Click this LINK or anywhere on the image below to take you to enter the giveaway. Hurry, this event ends Friday, October 31st!

Halloween Tarot Promo

 

Creative Starvation

I recently read an article on io9 about how the body can survive up to 70 days without food. It goes through several stages where the body cannibalizes muscle and bone to keep the brain alive. As a writer, I wondered if this process could happen creatively.

Somehow dying creativity made me think of Hemingway and his shotgun.

I just exited a two month funk. I had just finished edits on a manuscript, but wasn’t due to hear from my agent for a while. (I’m a deadline person. Without one, I’m lost.) I worked up a new novel idea, but the routine of churning out pages each day wasn’t there. I felt starved.

Here’s how I think creative starvation might work on anyone art-minded.

1-2 days after finishing a project
You feel that high that seems to never go away. It’s like creative adrenaline. You feel pumped.

3-7 days after finishing a project
This is the hot spot. You either start something new (I mean just dive in) or you don’t. In physical starvation, the brain takes 25% of the body’s energy. In creative types, imagination takes the largest share. During this time, it’s spinning out of control because it doesn’t have a clear direction. It’s a wet paintbrush searching for a canvas.

1-3 weeks after finishing a project
This is when your imagination starts to cannibalize other ideas. You might find the novel you’re reading an incredible inspiration. Maybe you could mimic it somehow. Or perhaps you dive into blog writing. You convince yourself that it’s also creative and just the same as fiction writing. Yet all these endeavors further drain and weaken your creative spirit.

Onward past 3 weeks
There are a few options here. Unless a deadline or some event propels you back into writing, your imagination might perish. Without the fresh nourishment of routine and a clear project to work on, it starves.

Treatment: Take one chair. Apply butt. Type.

That’s it. Even if garbage comes it. Because it probably will. You need to type. Wake up the creative muse that’s comatose inside you.

Write on.

Tim Kane

Wordle Transforms Stories into Art

A colleague of mine introduced me to a website called Wordle. This site allows you to paste text (any text) and it will create a word cloud. The size of the word reflects how often its used in the text. For my experiments, I used a few short stories I’d written and posted on this blog.

This is from a blog post called “Do-It-Yourself Zombie Kit.” No surprise that zombie would get center stage. The story is tongue in cheek about what you’d really need to do to create your own zombie (voodoo style).

This is a piece of flash fiction titled “Selling Your Sister to the Goblins.” I like that Wordle put “teeth” next to “goblin.”

This is a flash fiction called “Beanstalk in a Box” which is a take on a reinvented fairy tale. Here beanstalks and Jack become a nineteenth century advertisement. I love that Wordle made cloud so big in a word cloud.

This is another flash fiction called “C: Terrible Consonant.” This is a surreal story about how the letter C is trying to kill me. I love how the word “ccccccCCCCCCcCCcCCCC” gets tossed at the bottom with a jaunty angle.

Give Wordle a try. So fun.

Tim Kane

Mine Your Inner Hurt

It doesn’t matter what sort of art you take up—writing, painting, music, cooking—you need to dig deep into whatever hurt you have. If not, then the art will be false and flimsy.

Salvador Dali pondering how to make himself insane in the office of Dr. Sigmund Freud from the film “The Death of Salvador Dali.”

I was watching the Next Food Network Star. On one episode, a contestant opened up about how he lived his childhood scavenging from garbage cans. This not only moved me, it showed how authentic he was. Another contestant would not open up. She obviously had some sort of hurt in the past. One that had shaped her way of thinking, yet she was afraid of going to that dark place. On that episode she was eliminated. Why? Because she didn’t connect with the viewers.

Be authentic with your art. If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right. When you dig into your inner self, it’s like therapy. Only art comes out the other end. If you’re not willing to be brutally honest with yourself, then your work will feel false. It’s like the difference between a museum painting and a hotel painting. They both contain skill, but only one has passion.

Salvador Dali once toured a museum of paintings. After viewing them all, a reporter asked him which one he liked the most. Dali pointed at a door, freshly painted and still wet. He said there was more skill and passion in that door than any of the other paintings.

Tim Kane

The Seven and a Half Rules Writer’s Shouldn’t Need

Writing is a confusingly simple process of transcribing motives and plot points into physical form. Here are some tips.

Rule 1
You’ll need a pencil or a pen. Perhaps charcoal or crayons are your flair. Something to make the interior screams of your brain visible to the masses.

Rule 2
Paper is the choice of four out of five writers. However, don’t turn a cold shoulder to bark, bedsheets or cave walls. All excellent media.

Rule 3
Fortify yourself with stimulants. All that creativity can drain on your soul. I recommend chocolate and coffee. But that’s just me.

Rule 4
Sometimes you don’t feel like writing. You stare at the paper (or computer screen if you’re the techno-type) and nothing comes. Just pure white. Minutes slip by and your mind reels. Congratulations, you’re meditating. Some people pay big money for that kind of thing.

Rule 5
A diary or a journal can be a tremendous place to let your innermost turmoil spill on to the page. Just be sure to lock that book up. Wouldn’t want any of those secrets leaking into your writerly work.

Rule 6
Don’t forget to add characters. I hear those are important to your writing. Unless you’re genre, then ignore them and plot, plot, plot.

Rule 7
Set your story someplace interesting. Not a bathroom or a school. Maybe a jungle or the DMV waiting line. Those places are always chock full of suspense.

Rule 7 and a half
Be sure to have a compelling ending.

Write on fellow wordsmiths.

Tim Kane

Hate Club: Why I Despise Most Published Writers

I hate other writers. But let me be specific. I hate published writers. I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s a jealousy thing. We all want that recognition. Not just ebook indie-publishing, but in the book store, everyone reading-your-book fame.

Realistically, this doesn’t happen very often. So the hate club builds members. We all channel our collective frustration at those published folks. We say, “I could do that,” or “That book isn’t so good.” When deep down, we yearn to be them.

Today I took a step closer to joining the other side. I’ve found an accomplice in the form of a literary agent. No guarantee of being published (or even selling well) but it’s invigorating to know that someone is basing their income and livelihood on your creative chops.

It reminds me of a Charles Bukowski poem I read once. I’ve scoured my poetry books, but can’t locate it again. It basically had Bukowski commenting on all the haters he had. Those that felt they could write a better poem.

In my search, I did run across this poem about writing. A good one for the Hate Club.

some suggestions

in addition to the envy and the rancor of some of
my peers
there is the other thing, it comes by telephone and
letter: “you are the world’s greatest living
writer.”

this doesn’t please me either because somehow
I believe that to be the world’s greatest living
writer
there must be something
terribly wrong with you.

I don’t even want to be the world’s greatest
dead writer.

just being dead would be fair
enough.

So what have we learned? Even success has it’s downsides.

Feel free to hate.

Tim Kane