Nightstalkers and Nightmares

NI’ve never been a fan of graphic horror. I have vivid memories of burying my face in my boyfriend’s shoulder whenever our friends talked us into watching a horror movie.

However, I love gothic tales, the darker and creepier the better. I will always drop whatever I’m doing to watch black and white episodes of Dark Shadows. And don’t even get me started on my love affair with Lon Chaney Jr. Dog-eared classic horror novels line my shelves and the favorites area of my Kindle.

As a genre, horror enjoys quite a spectrum—from suspenseful intrigue, where a villain is all in your mind, to bloody, nightmare-inducing psychopaths who kill without provocation. While I love the former, I can respect the hardcore gore too. They both make demands of their authors, just different demands. I think every story can benefit from some well placed scare elements. Here are four tips for cranking up the fear on your readers.

Everyone has fears: What we fear is relative to our circumstances. I don’t like wasps. That might have something to do with a rather unpleasant encounter with a Tarantula Hawk, second most painful insect sting in the world. I still have the scar. Find what you fear and use it, or research common fears and use them as a starting point. Remember to keep the fear level geared to your reader. When you write for little children fear might be a broken nightlight, or the sound of your parents arguing after your best friend’s parents just divorced. Fear might mean taking the driver’s test for the fourth time to a struggling teen. For some hardcore fear addicts, it might be a weekend in the woods being chased by a serial killer.


Study the masters: Invoking fear and suspense in readers or film-goers is a skill. Study the best, be it Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe. Even old classic radio shows where actors like Boris Karloff got their start can be helpful. Take critical notes. Look at the structures they use. How they develop characters. Look for secondary story lines. Pay attention to how they drag us in. How they build and release the tension in cycles. Note if they throw in a bit of comic relief. This make the reader lower their guard. Study how they finish off the story. Do they leave you wide-eyed, breathless and shaken? Or with a positive note, victory has trumped evil? Maybe with a cliffhanger, setting them and you up for part two?

Relationships before rippers: Make sure we care about these characters first. The media bombards us with the hardship of strangers, so all stories take on a greater meaning when they happen to someone you like. Even if we start the story expecting the hardships, being able to empathize with the characters gives the pending bad stuff that much sharper an edge. Putting solid effort into building characters and relationships puts the author in a stronger position to carry off a last minute plot twist. This leads to my last point….

Explore the unexpected: Try to keep the reader guessing. It’s always easier for writers to kill off the bad guys, but good characters need setbacks too or the story has no steam to keep us engaged. Watch out for making stale and predictable decisions. Most readers are willing to give a story a few instances when they could see the events coming from a mile away, but a whole book like that is a snoozefest. Some of the best shudders come from the element of surprise, something shocking but that still makes perfect sense in retrospect. When you make fresh plot twists and decisions, readers wonder if their favorites are safe. They will read faster and with more enthusiasm if you keep them guessing, at least I do.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

10 thoughts on “Nightstalkers and Nightmares”

  1. All very good points 🙂 As mainly a horror writer myself, there are so many subtleties that can missed and it’s something I think pushes people away from the genre. It can’t all be gratuitous violence and sex. A good horror is one that makes you think while taking up residence in your thoughts.

    1. Hi Julianne, I’m a suspense junkie. Sometimes the “thing” hiding in the dark is all I need. I love writers who make me hang on every word wanting to know more, but scared to learn the truth. It’s interesting to see how horror has evolved as a genre. I don’t see enough of what you call good horror, books that makes you think. Thinking is good. Thanks for stopping in. Robin

  2. I prefer psychological horror to slasher – I adore Hitchcock and Poe, but have never seen any of the Halloween, Elm Street or Chainsaw movies. 🙂 I’m OK with “seeing something coming” as long as the author delves into character reactions, thoughts and motives in a comprehensive and meaningful way.

    1. Hi Li, I’m with you, I need the engagement factor. I want to know and like the characters. It should matter to me on an emotional level if they survive, or don’t. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      BTW Loved your O post, I’m a fan of objects, I think of them as non-human characters. Hal is a personal favorite. Robin

  3. Thank you – this is very useful info which I will refer back to. And I agree it is useful to use one’s own fears (known or not that clear) as a hook. I am not a fan of horror movies – there’s enough in the real world thanks! But a book that has a level of psychological horror is gripping ..

    Garden of Eden Blog

    1. Hi Susan, I had more to say about methods of creating psychological fear, but they will have to wait for a future post. Thanks for dropping by. Robin

  4. I like horror in literature, but in film, I’m kind of luke warm. Super natural horror is entertaining, but I don’t care for flasher movies. Like the boobs-and-explosions action movies, they’re all visual, and don’t do much to stimulate the brain. I like to watch a movie that’ll make me think a bit.

    When I write horror, I like to think about two things: what makes me uncomfortable and how can I make the situation just familiar enough to make the fear plausible, even if it’s supernatural.

    The senses are a huge necessity in horror. The audience needs to be able to see the flickers in the dark, hear the whispers and the screams, smell the decay, taste the misty air and feel every cut of the knife. In this way, writing horror is a lot of fun. Exploring the things that scare us the most is often where some damn good literature is found.

    1. Hi, I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, and he was not known for gore. Yet he still managed to scare me. I agree, tapping your own fears is important. If it scares you it might scare other people. Also when you use your own emotions your writing is stronger and more compelling for the reader.

  5. I am not a horror fan either, but love a creepy story. I think you make a good point when you said we all fears. A good heart thumping thriller taps into those fears. It’s even better if they tap into fears we weren’t even conscious of.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, Nice to see you. I like your point about unconscious fears. I think that’s why some people are drawn to distopian fiction, they harbor deep seated fears about society and government. Maybe something to explore in another post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Robin

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