Thursday, October 21, 2021

A Few Foundations of Fear in Fiction

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: A lot of skill goes into making stories scary. Bonnie Randall shares five ways to put the fear into your fiction

It’s that season again! Fears, frights, and bumps-in-the-night. If you’re like me, you’ve saved every scary book on your TBR list all year till finally you could crack the spine on October 1st. Or, if you’re really like me, you’re in the mood to brainstorm creepy plots and supernatural situations that could coalesce into a sensationally scary story of your own.

But what makes things frightening—and why the heck do we enjoy being scared in the first place? Isn’t that whole notion counterintuitive?

Yes…and no.
The neurological biomechanics of fear elevate the same chemicals released during events that are our so-called “natural highs”—things like running. Acing a tough test. Even (blush!) great sex. The release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin feel highly exhilarating, and every human brain is hard-wired to intensely enjoy that feeling. Beyond that, when we are engaged in a scary story, our brain stays planted in its ‘Reactive Zone’ where it’s deciding: should it fight, flight, or freeze?

(Here’s more with The Scary Season: Tips on Bringing the Scary to Your Novel)

When we are parked in this place, we quite literally do not have access to our ‘Executive Function Zone’ where rational thinking, logic, discernment (you know—the stuff that takes a lot of work!) occur. Scary stories, therefore, provide an escape from having to think logically, rationally, or critically—and that feels good too! The bonus to all of this is that while we are feeling all of the above, we are also both consciously and unconsciously aware that the story that is providing us with this exhilarating escape is fiction.

Therefore, it not only has a finite shelf life (with a probable HEA), but if it gets too intense, we are also free to leave at any time. Having that sort of dominion over something that scares us is very powerful, and as such it is (drumroll) yet one more thing that releases those natural-high brain chemicals.

(Here’s more with Scaredy-Pants! 4 Breeches-er- BREACHES That Elicit Fear in Your Characters)

So that’s the why. What, though, is the how? As in, what elements make an effectively scary story?

Following is a by-no-means-exhaustive cheat sheet of concepts that I feel contribute to crafting a good fright.

1. When All Things Normal or Expected Are Not Normal, and Are Actually Unexpected

In other words, the frilly, prissy bedroom is not a saccharine place of repose, but instead a portal to Hell. The luxury hotel in the mountains has a malevolent mind of its own. The cute doll not only knows how to wield a knife—it also wants to. Such concepts mess with our sense of security. And closely related?

2. Something Familiar Is Oh-So-Subtly Unfamiliar

You can’t quite put your finger on these ones—they are effervescent, visible only out of the corner of your eye. Like the sly grin you feel slide over his face…but never actually see, not even when you play back the CCTV tapes. That sophisticated gentleman you just met (you think his name was Count Something-Or-Other) who didn’t leave any footprints in the snow when he departed. Surely you only imagined that, though!

These notions—the familiar not being familiar, the normal being abnormal—they upend our sense of trust, and when we suddenly cannot rely on something we know to be true, the thrill of fear is there.

3. The Atmosphere Is One Of Held-Breath

When crafting a scary story, anticipation isn’t quite enough. You also want to generate and maintain a sense of dread. Of something ominous. Let your mind go to what’s eerie. To a place of danger and disorientation.

(Here’s more with Creepy Clowns and Haunted Hotels—Unspooling Why Our Characters Get Scared)

4. Upend Opposites

In keeping with that notion of disorientation, consider taking what’s innocent—or even sacred—and making it malevolent. By the same token, take what’s assumed to be evil and make it an ally, a tool, or a friend your hero (and, by extension, your reader) needs to rely on. Mess with beliefs. Challenge values. It is scary, after all, to come to terms with the fact that your doctor, your mother, your religion, has actually been out to get you all along. Or that you must pair up with that which is foul—a Ouija Board, a Hannibal, a demon—in order to attain the (noble) goal you seek. Again, this concept transcends expectation versus reality, and is actually Expectation vs. Reality vs. Surreality. For fear lives within the surreal. Lastly:

5. Sympathy for The Devil

It is truly horrifying to realize that we can actually relate—empathically—to a monster. So allow seeds of understanding to germinate from the goals / motivations of the evil in your story but maintain balance; you don’t want the evil to become some sort of tragic hero…but you do want to leverage elements of tragedy in order to build that sympathy and create that sense of disorientation within the reader—because it’s disturbing to come to terms with not just the humanity of evil, but with how our own humanity sometimes connects with, and understands it. Could even be it given the right set of circumstances.

Are there more? Share, in the comments below, any elements you feel make for the ‘Scary Experience’, and may all your frights this Halloween have maximum endorphins—and manageably short shelf-lives!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful post. Great tips to write a truly scary story. And the book sounds very scary.