So the writing formula to get your reader scared is same formula for basic fiction 101: if readers fear for, or care, about the protagonist then they’re much more likely going to fear for the protagonist’s life. Takeaway: make us care about your characters first.
All readers of suspense or horror scripts, regardless if it’s a studio executive or a lowly agency intern (or even one of your roomates) is going to want to experience identification with your main character first. Everybody hates to lose a single minute of life doing anything boring and pointless. Get it? DO NOT WASTE a reader’s time and certainly DO NOT waste any agency or studio staffer’s time.
On the other hand, most every reader at any level tasked with reading your script really wants to be surprised and suddenly find themselves swept away by quality writing that causes them to care about your characters. Readers are thrilled when they become instant voyeurs who cheer for your characters to survive and maybe even win at life.
So when it comes to scaring your readers, keep in mind that simply showing a scary monster or a threatening asteroid or maybe just a creepy bad guy with a knife is not scary. However, these will work if you as the writer already spent time developing your characters to make them complex and make them flawed like the rest of us.
I’ve seen too many newbie writers who focus on action and thrillers who think that all they need to do is smear blood across the pages and bam-scary emotions just happen. False.
Blood is meaningless without a meaningful character in the vicinity. Make us care. Fast.
Hold Plenty Info Back
When leading the readers into a scary scene don’t give away too much at the outset- scary means provoking anticipation more than anything- so think about what the audience doesn’t know about each scene and holding that info back until the last possible moment.
Threats are more potent if they combine unknowing or even confusion with the sense of danger. Along with this, always be sure to give your reader enough information to follow the story- just never enough to have it all figured out.
More new writers overwhelmingly provide too much info instead of too little, however. If you’re a new writer and your trying to decide between too much info and too little- always lean toward providing too little info- it’s usually more interesting.
For example, if people are being murdered or horrible events keep happening and all we know is that the dead bodies are piling up but there doesn’t seem to be a motive, then you’ve got a good start, Readers at this point often assume that the answers are going to come in a clever or creative way later on- so they’ll cut you some slack early on if they don’t understand everything. There’s a reason that in most books and movies the bad guy doesn’t reveal himself or his plans or his motives until the end. That moment when you know everything is the moment your fears and interest begin to fade out.
The more the reader knows, the less frightening a story becomes so keep your reader in the dark as long as possible.
Your Audience Should Be Clueless But The Writer Should Not!
Just because you’re keeping your reader stupid doesn’t mean you should be stupid. This said, you should know exactly who or what your bad guy is and what his intentions are period because nine times out of ten there will come a point in your story where the big bad plot is revealed and you’ll need your reader to buy it.
When you finally get to that point in the story your reader should say “oh wow now everything makes sense!” How many times have you watched a horror movie and felt that the writer didn’t know his/her story much better than the audience and everything seems just careless and contrived or thrown together at the end? Scary movies usually fail but scary book fiction tends to be good because film scripts can be passed off as cheap and quick entertainment but book-length fiction takes a lot of time and energy to read.
So make sure to develop your evil plan thoroughly and logically and avoid a lazy ending where you just drop a big fake out or misdirection at the last moment. Do this and your readers are going to be extremely disappointed so be sure to ask yourself ahead of time how to introduce the misdirection or drop the fake out clues earlier in the story and give us subtle reminders the rest of the way.
This rising type of big reveal comes off much more impactful and helps your reader make sense of the world of your story and helps them understand a little bit more about why the bad guy is so bad or why the good guy is not so good, etc.
Make The Stakes Life Or Death (or close to it)
Making the audience scared is about building suspense and holding back info until the last moment but for sure you definitely want to immediately give away to the audience whatever is at risk or at stake.
Your reader needs a reason to be afraid so give it to them right away. If the reader is feeling suspense or scared it’s because the stakes are very clear and very present.
Point out these stakes in your story very early on so you can start building the tension right away.
Keep in mind that when I say point out the stakes, I DO NOT mean to alert the reader about the risks using boring character dialog that comes off like a grocery list. Always show the consequences of this risk- show don’t tell!
For example, if there is a mysterious sea creature lurking off an island in New England, don’t prompt a character to tell us its a shark- show us an attractive blonde swimmer skinny dipping at midnight who then gets pulled under the ocean water by something unseen. Then the next morning we see small crabs on the shore picking at the remains of her severed hands.
Pretty brutal, I know, but this is the opening to Jaws and it was hella effective at showing the stakes in the very first scene.
Jaws showed the consequences right off the bat and the rest of the movie was all tension and suspense as the characters tried to discover the exact nature of the threat while arguing amongst themselves, working against each other and even unknowingly putting themselves in danger.
And Remember To Make It Visceral
After you make us care about your characters, depict the coming threat in the most personal terms in order to maximize the scare factor. As I mentioned about the Jaws victim’s severed hands, personal scale bodily or emotional threat works best. This helps make us, the readers, feel personally threatened. When the threat gets close, switch the narrative to the subjective view of the character who does not know if he’s going to be okay and trying to escape the horror. This way, the character actions can make the audience feel his confusion and uncertainty. Also, throw in some physical or emotional blows at your character, even if she manages to escape in this scene.
Don’t Overdo The Bloody Stuff
In film, there is the ‘grindhouse” genre of movies that emphasize gore and violence. These are cheap movies that are really just violence porn. For most of us not interested in gore for its own sake, we won’t have to be constantly or repeatedly inundated with buckets of blood and guts that are merely rehashing the visual threat. Like yeast or baking soda in a kitchen, a little blood and gore goes a long way and does not distract from the story line or character beats.
If you overkill the blood and gore, your script readers may get genuinely disgusted and not want to continue reading your story or even worse, they’re gonna get bored.
There comes a point with explicit blood and gore that too much is not even scary.
Use the gory stuff sparingly and focus instead on the character’s reaction to the blood spilling- this helps the readers to better understand who they are as people and cause the audience to identify with your characters in those tense moments.
Above all remember, the key to effective suspense or scary writing is to get your reader invested!