How to Write Scary Stories / part 2: playing off of common fears

I'm going to open this post with this question:

What do you fear?

Don't focus as much on emotions with this one, but instead think of things that unsettle you.

A common trait in stories is when they play off of fears.

Normal people are secretly scared of a couple of things, and we probably all could name at least three things that slightly creep us out.

When I was younger I was terrified of dolls, people would give me dolls as gifts and I would unwrap them and start screaming. Luckily, I have passed that fear, but a lot of people still are unsettled by old dolls, but probably not to that extent. But as a writer, it is your job to take that tiny little fear and blow it up to something terrifying in your story.

Common fears for people are:

1. Glossophobia (public speaking)
2. Acrophobia (heights)
3. Entomophobia (insects)
4. Trypanophobia (needles)
5. Claustrophobia (being enclosed or trapped in small spaces)
Nyctophobia (the dark)

A lot of these fears are rational or could be made rational.

When I think about books or movies that have disturbed me, I try to find a common ground between them. They all usually have one irrational fear and then one common theme to make the story have suspension of disbelief, which we talked about last time.

For example, in I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid the common themes are the fear of the unknown, confusion, and that lingering sense we sometimes get that something's not right. The story takes place in what should have been a pretty normal environment, i.e. a road trip to meet the parents of a significant other, but the unsettling feeling that something is off follows along.

 I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a psychological horror, so it relies more on feelings to scare the readers, which it pulls off well.

More horror books need to focus a bit more on the psychological aspect of their setting and plot, even if they don't fit exactly into that genre. There's just so much there.

In You by Caroline Kepnes (which, while a page-turner, is super crude, so I wouldn't recommend it. If I did, it would be with caution) the story is from the POV of the stalker, and while the stalker doesn't see it as disturbing, the readers will.

 The biggest scare of You is the realization that social media has made it so easy for a person to be stalked. I don't even have social, social media, but even on this blog I share a lot about my life even if I don't mean to, and it's really unsettling to realize that I've put a lot of me out there for someone to take advantage of *shivers*.

Another scare of You is the other realization of how easy it is for someone to justify and rationalize bad behavior.

Now, I've focused on the more psychological side of horror, but before this post ends, let's briefly think about the more bloody side of horror.

When I contemplate the best violence I have read in books, I find that the common trait is that it's used sparingly. The authors tend to rely more on the five senses more than anything.

Sight: What does your character see? The glint of a knife in a jacket? A looming shadow at their doorway? The terrified expression on a friend's face?

Smell: What does your character smell? Hair burning? Decay and fear?

Hearing: What does your character hear? The deranged laughter of a madman? The creak of old floorboards? The sound of their own breathing as they try to hide?

Taste: What does your character taste? Blood? The salty tears that are rolling down their face?

Touch: What does your character feel? Cold skin?  Damp leaves?

And that brings this small rambly series to an end!
What have you observed while reading horror?
What do you find terrifying?

Happy Writing, 


  1. Dang. "You" sounds really creepy! 😬

    And I usually don’t think about using the senses in any type of writing, much less scary stories, so I’ll definitely have to remember that!

    1. Yes, it really is!😅

      Senses are something I struggle with too, but it is very useful when writing.

  2. This is so interesting, playing off fears is something I try to do in my gothic stories. (And murder mysteries too sometimes.) As for the creepy doll idea, thing, I always stayed away from that genre of ghost story, it was too much for me to handle particularly because I LOVE dolls (and have a doll blog),
    so the idea that one of them could be evil...was...er...disturbing. O.O But I'm not saying you couldn't have thought they were creepy, I just thought I should say why I am staying away from that genre...
    and I agree, it's scary how much social (**social** media, like Facebook (which already collects too much information on people then they should know...and kind of got hacked....Those poor people with facebook accounts...)) can be used against you (hence the movies the Circle, and other thrillers were made.)

    Also, the five senses are such great things to use, or the four ones, if the character is in a place where they can't see anything.
    This is such a cool post,

    1. Yess, it's so much fun and also interesting!!

      I can understand why you would want to stay away from that topic then, haha. >.<

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Clowns I am terrified of clowns. Loving these posts!

  4. I haven't read or even watched much horror....though I did watch Signs just the other week, yay me!!

    1. Ooh, Signs is a really good movie, I hope you enjoyed it!

  5. When you have all the fears you listed in the list... XD XD

    I have fears of lots of things and I think that's something that's pretty common. Using that in writing is the best, playing a character's fear against them.

    Love this! <3 <3

  6. Cool post, Gray! ;)
    btw, if you have a blog button, I'd love to add it to my 'blog buttons' page on my website. :)

    1. Thank you!

      I don't, but I am flattered that you asked. Feel free to add just my blog link if you want. ;D

  7. This is a common conversation between my younger brother, my mom, and I, so I love that you put it to words. We don't really watch/read horror, but we do like to analyze stuff like that and why it works so well. And playing off of real fears is usually what we end up agreeing on.

    So yet another awesome post, girl!

    1. Analyzing stuff is a lot of fun as well as mind blowing.

      Thank you so much!


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