If your horror, sci-fi, or fantasy novel involves a beasty, your monster needs to have a pretty solid dossier for maximum fright-impact. But what are the qualifications needed to scare the hell out of your readers?
Scare quality 1: The upper hand (or claw)
Unless you happen to live in an area where large predators are a part of your daily life, your average reader likely enjoys being comfortable. Therefore, it’d be a wasted opportunity if you didn’t exploit these comforts and put your reader at a disadvantage. Give your monsters advantages over the average human. Think about it, all the best monsters have enhanced qualities that we don’t have.
- Vampires* – very difficult to kill, have super-human strength, and they have superb night vision.
- Sharks – live beneath the ocean’s surface, have large bone-crushing teeth, and can swim faster than Michael Phelps.
- The Alien – sneaky as hell, has acid for blood, claws, multiple jaws, and, in some cases, a scorpion tail.
- A serial killer – studies people’s weaknesses, enjoys torturing humans, and, also, is sneaky as hell.
*The vampires cited here do NOT sparkle.
Scare quality 2: Instability
We, humans, like to be in control. Look around you, we have lots of, here’s that word again, comforts. Control, like comfort, equals safety. When you remove the comforts of your protagonist and give the monster control, you create an uneasy, unsafe vibe.
Monsters thrive where we don’t. Here’s my personal example, I find nothing more terrifying than cave SCUBA diving. Therefore, for the record, I initially found the setting of the movie The Descent more terrifying than the actual monsters. Watching several women floundering around in the dark, underground, while injured already had me on edge long before the albino cannibals showed up. These beastly things could see in the dark, lived underground, and had sharp teeth and claws. Oh, and they were starving.
Scare quality 3: The slow reveal
Your job as a writer is to dole out your monsters slowly. You may start with a bang to catch your readers’ attention, but then reel it in. The beauty of a good scare is in the pacing. Below, Uncle Stevie (aka Stephen King) scared the hell out of me when I was in seventh grade with this passage from Cycle of the Werewolf:
The door splinters, groans, gives. In a moment the thing will be inside. In the corner, amongst a welter of tools, a pick leans against the wall. Arnie lunges for it and seizes it as the wolf thrusts its way inside and crouches, its yellow eyes gleaming at the cornered man. Its ears are flattened back, furry triangles. Its tongue lolls. Behind it, snow gusts in through a door that has been shattered down the center.
It springs with a snarl, and Arnie Westrum swings the pick. Once.
Outside, the feeble lamplight shines raggedly on the snow through the splintered door.
The wind whoops and howls. The screams begin.
There aren’t a lot of details about the wolf in this quote, but the last line gave me chills. When I first encountered this book on my aunt’s bookshelf, I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by the illustrations which accompanied each chapter, all named after the months of the year.
Looking back now, I see that the pacing of the words, and the slow build of discovery – the werewolf is the town priest? Shocking! – were the qualifications necessary to leave an indelible mark on my psyche for years to come.
Scare quality 4: Less really is more
Because you’re not writing a script, the less detail you provide about your monster, the better. However, do write just enough tidbits to get the horror ball rolling inside your reader’s brain. Never underestimate the power of a reader’s imagination. So, let them make their own mental picture when it comes to the exact details of your monster. Each person will see their own unique, innately fear-filled mind-picture without your help.
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