Writing Nail-Biters: How to Write Suspense in Horror
Writing Suspense in Horror: Amp Up the Scares
You’re running through the woods behind Grandpa’s house, a forest that you spent years building incredible memories in. But tonight, the same monster that ate Grandpa is chasing you, hungry for seconds.
You hear a branch snap to your right and flinch in anticipation of the beast’s teeth digging into your flesh, but nothing comes. So you slow your run to a walk, catch your breath, and hope you lost the monster back by the creek.
Then a growl rumbles from the brush behind you.
Suspense and horror are like peanut butter and jelly: an absolutely delicious combination. But writing suspense into your horror story isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s a delicate art that, if done improperly, can totally ruin any sense of terror or dread you’re trying to build.
So let’s dissect the art of writing suspense in a horror story so you can keep your reader on the edge of their seat. In this article, we’ll be talking about:
- How suspense works in horror
- Choosing the right POV to maximize suspense
- Increasing suspense with your setting
- The proper use of foreshadowing
- How a reader’s imagination can increase suspense
- Some final tips and tricks for writing suspense into your scary story
I won’t keep you waiting any longer.
How Does Suspense Work in Horror?
Before the scream can even escape your lips, your feet are already taking you further into the forest. Behind you, bark is being wrenched off trees by wicked talons and flecks of spittle, flung from teeth like jagged knives, are landing on the back of your neck.
With every step, you wait for the beast to tear into your back, just like you saw it do to Grandpa.
As a horror writer, suspense will be one of your most powerful tools. Though versatile, there are few things which keep a reader glued to your book like well-written suspense.
First, let’s define suspense. Suspense is the tense build up to a devastating event.
That’s important to remember, especially for horror authors. Yes, events like horrible murders, revealing the monster, or the ghost flinging every pot and pan in the kitchen against the wall all serve to scare the reader. But suspense is what fills them with dread along the way. It’s what keeps them turning the page while actively not wanting to turn the page.
To make suspense work, keep a few basic things in mind before we go into the finer details.
Suspense is built in escalating steps. Make it start small and build over time. A strange noise from upstairs. A chair where it isn’t supposed to be. A knock on the door. All of these things add together and grow bigger before you get to the big scare.
Think of it like a puzzle… sort of. All those steps your building should piece together a bit of a puzzle, one that clues your reader into the danger your character is facing without explicitly stating it. That said, you aren’t writing a mystery novel. Don’t make it an actual puzzle, that’s not your genre.
Clearly establish the stakes. You can’t really have suspense if we don’t know what the stakes are. If we didn’t know slowing down meant the monster was going to eat us, then how can we expect the reader to hold their breath at every snap of a branch or hot breath down our neck?
Suspense is subtle. Like I said, writing suspense is an art form. It’s a combination of your voice, the tone you want to convey, and the pacing you want to force your reader to adopt. Master all three of these concepts and you’ll be able to wield suspense like a weapon. This is also where suspense also shows off its versatility: you can make your scene a page-turner or make the thought of the next page too terrible to bear.
Choosing the Right POV for Suspense in Horror
Ahead, you recognize a few tallen trees that acted as castles, mountains, and witches’ lairs when you were younger. Before the beast can grab you, you dive between two tree trunks, rotted hollow with age, a clamber through a thicket of thorns and vines.
The beast crashes into the wall of wood behind you, roaring as it hacks and tears to create an opening big enough for its hulking form to get through. Still, you don’t slow down to see if the trees will keep the monster out. Eventually you come out the other side of the hollow trunks.
But something is wrong. You can’t hear the beast scratching at the wood anymore. In fact, all around you, there is no noise. No bugs. No rustling leaves. Nothing at all.
One of the most important decisions you will make in your story is the POV you’ll choose to write from. If you aren’t familiar with your different options, I’d start by checking out this article here.
While you have a handful of perspectives to choose from, the most effective horror novels—and the most suspenseful horror novels—usually use first-person and third-person limited POVs.
“But Doug!” you shout at your screen. “You’ve been writing about the Grandpa-eating monster in second person this whole time.”
“You’re right!” I shout back. Because second person is effective and—frankly—tolerable in short doses. But imagine 80,000 words telling you what you do, what you feel, how you react, etc.
So let’s focus on the perspectives that work well for building suspense in a horror novel.
First-person POV - One of the greatest strengths of writing from a first-person perspective is the intimacy it provides between character and reader. We get to dive right into the mind of a single character, feeling what they feel and, more importantly, not knowing what they don’t know. First person allows us to understand their fear and learn, in real time, how suspense is built piece by piece.
Third-person limited POV - Third-person limited is sort of like first person in that you’re confined to the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time, but it pulls in some of the good stuff from third person. It allows you to add some exposition and, most importantly, gives you the ability to switch narrators between scenes. A scene told from the monster or villain’s perspective can add a disturbing amount of suspense when we switch back to our unwitting protagonist.
So think about what POV you will use when writing your story and think about how each can be used to build suspense.
Add Suspense With Your Setting
The trees feel like they’re closing in on you, trapping you in a small clearing that will be your final resting place. You know the creature is out there, watching you from the darkness.
You can’t go back, but where can you go? Each direction looks like the entrance to an endless labyrinth—one that the creature surely knows better than you.
But you can’t wait around. Now it’s just taunting you in its silence. So you pick a path and start running again.
Where your scene takes place can have just as much an impact as who is in it and what they’re doing. Don’t think that the monster or killer is the only thing that can add suspense to your writing.
Think about ways the setting can up the sense of helplessness or inevitability your characters will face. Is it so cluttered and small that it induces a sense of claustrophobia, like a small clearing? Or is it big and open so there’s no place to hide?
Are there a lot of corners the big bad could be hiding behind?
Is something like a fire or shadows created by the setting sun pushing the characters forward faster than they’d like?
Is the weather making it tough to see or survive?
If you make your setting oppressive and almost like a character itself, it will help you build suspense in your scene.
For more info on writing effective settings, check out this article.
Foreshadow the Nightmares
Has it been minutes or hours since you left the clearing? All you know is that your arms and your face are running out of room for the claw-like branches to cut at.
The moonlight barely filters through the canopy above you. Small shafts of silver dot your path like tiny lighthouse beams. Just enough light to stop you before you trip over a deer carcass. Most of the animal’s skin has been torn away, leaving a half-eaten pile of shredded flesh and organs.
One of the most effective suspense builders is foreshadowing. As a refresher, foreshadowing is a literary device that hints at what’s coming up. For horror writers, it’s perfect for crafting that sense of dread we’re looking for.
Here are some tips for using foreshadowing effectively:
Keep it relevant. Foreshadowing something that doesn’t matter isn’t foreshadowing, it’s disappointing. Learn more about that here.
Sprinkle it amongst dialogue, the setting, and other details in your story. Show how much danger your protagonist is in through subtle hints or overt events (like stumbling upon a half-eaten deer).
Don’t overdo it. Remember, we build suspense through incremental steps. Don’t make each one of those steps some sort of foreshadowing.
Let your readers reach their own conclusions. Never state “The sight of the deer corpse makes you think about what the monster will do to you.” Your readers are smart, so trust them to get your foreshadowing. If they don’t notice it all the first time, it will be a fun surprise when they reread your book!
Which leads us into our next point…
Leave Things to the Imagination
The mutilated deer long behind you, it feels like the forest will go on forever. But you haven’t heard the creature since the clearing. Up ahead you see a light piercing through the trees: bright white like a highway street light.
Pushing your exhausted legs harder, you break through the edge of the treeline. The illumination is blinding.
When you can finally see again, you’re outside Grandpa’s house once more, eyes squinting against the motion-activated flood light above the front door. Grandpa’s mutilated body is laying at your feet.
And you don’t know which is worse: the taste of blood in your mouth or the low, animalistic growl that escapes your lips.
A reader’s imagination is a powerful thing. We bank on that imagination to bring our terrors to life and turn words into nightmares.
So make use of it!
Balance what you show your reader (panicked running, desperation to escape) and what you don’t (the monster itself… until the very end).
String them along with curiosity so they need to reach the end. But remember, this isn’t a mystery novel. So make them long to understand the horrible thing chasing your protagonist without writing a whodunit.
I like to think about Jaws when describing the power of the unknown. The first Jaws movie barely showed the shark, yet it was hailed as one of the scariest movies of its time. The sequels featured more and more screen time for the shark and were subsequently not as scary... or good.
Up your suspense by intentionally omitting just enough to activate the darkest parts of your reader’s imagination.
Tips and Tricks for Writing Suspense in Horror
To wrap up our journey through tense horror with a nice bow, here are some tips and tricks you can quickly reference when incorporating suspense in your writing. Some of these will be pulled from the sections you just read, while others are some bonus tips!
- Establish the stakes and make them big. Remember, we need to know what the worst outcome will be in order to make something suspenseful. Otherwise we have nothing to worry about.
- Time constraints. Whether literal (a ticking clock) or implied (being chased), time constraints force a sense of suspense. Our protagonist only has so long before those big stakes come to life.
- Limit breathing room. In addition to time constraints, limiting where your characters can go, what they have access to, and how often they can stop to catch their breath is a great way to imply how dangerous a situation is.
- Obstacles up the suspense. In a story where time is of the essence and we know something bad is coming, throwing obstacles in our protagonist’s way limits our already valuable time.
- Unpredictability helps maintain suspense. It’s not suspenseful if your reader can tell what’s happening next. Throw in some unpredictability and keep your reader and your character on their toes.
- Don’t make your horror a mystery. I’ve said this a few times already, but horror stories are not mysteries. There is the unknown and elements of a puzzle, but the reader shouldn’t figure things out ahead of the character.
- Suspense isn’t surprise. Know the difference between the two. A surprise is an action that comes out of nowhere (like a jumpscare in a horror movie). With suspense, we know what will happen through incremental steps. We just hope that it won’t!
- Chapters shouldn’t wrap things up neatly. Not every chapter needs to end on a cliffhanger, but there should always be something unresolved until the very end of the story. Make your reader want to read “just one more chapter,” even if it’s scaring them.
And the last tip? You need a tool that makes writing your suspenseful horror story easier and more fun. For that, Dabble’s got your back.
Whether you’re a hardcore plotter and outline every detail in the Plot Grid or you like to write your spooky story as you go and leave comments along the way, Dabble is filled with all the tools you need and none of the ones you don’t.
And for those of us who have experienced the true horror of losing our unsaved work, Dabble automatically backs up your writing to the cloud. That means you can write anywhere, any time—even in dark, creepy forests—without worrying about losing your work.
So try Dabble, totally free, no credit card required, with a fourteen-day free trial by clicking here, and start bringing those nightmares to life.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
You’ve probably heard the terms plot-driven versus character-driven stories and maybe wondered what they mean. Like a lot of things in writing, it can be tricky to define because the lines between the two are often blurred. And what feels like a plot-driven story to one person might feel like a character-driven story to another. Which is all a little confusing. In the most basic terms, a plot-driven story is one where the plot moves the characters, while a character-driven story is one where the characters drive the plot. It sounds simple enough, and it kind of is, but also has a bit more to it than that. In this article, we’ll break it down a bit more.
While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more.
Editing. That tricky little step between drafting and publishing. Okay, maybe it’s not so little. Actually, it’s kind of important. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s actually the most important part. And the limb is very short. But where do you start? You’ve got all these words and now you have to take your messy first draft and make them actually readable. You know editing’s a thing, but you’ve probably heard there is more than one kind of editing. One of the most comprehensive is known as content or development editing. This is often the first kind of editing any book sees and, for new writers, can be a valuable step in honing their craft.