Reading, Breathing and the Long Sentence: How to Write Horror That Frightens Readers

Learn how to write horror that will chill your readers to the bone using these techniques from Phil Athans' all-new Advanced Horror Workshop.
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Following up on the success of my online Horror Intensive course for Writer’s Digest, I was asked to take the question of how to write horror a few steps deeper. The result is a new online course: the Advanced Horror Workshop, which premieres on October 11. What follows is a preview of the fourth of four sessions, entitled Writing Scary: Techniques for Maximum Horror Effect.

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Reading—at least reading fiction—is a creative act. When we read to ourselves we hear our own voice in our heads, and maybe the imagined voices of others. I’ll admit it—I’ll sometimes “cast” a novel or short story I’m reading, imaging a character played by some actor, “hearing” dialog in that actor’s voice. Why not? There’s a lot going on in our readers’ heads when they absorb our work.

I feel perfectly comfortable making the case that even if we aren’t reading aloud, we breathe as if we are.

Maybe not exactly as if we’re reading aloud—that might look weird from the outside, especially sitting in a public place—but even if we aren’t literally breathing exactly as if we were reading aloud, the internal experience closely matches that sensation.

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So if your readers are breathing their way through your work, think about how your breathing changes depending on your emotional state and how that might match up to the emotional state you’re trying to create in your readers. And breathing and emotional state, as Thomas A. Richards, Ph.D. of the Anxiety Network wrote, are indeed linked:

The flow of adrenaline and the resulting extra blood flow increases your strength and awareness of the danger. This extra “awareness” of the perceived danger may cause all sorts of feelings, such as dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, heart palpitations, confusion, lack of control, unreality, being dazed, shaking, trembling, and sweaty palms, among others.

So if a state of anxiety can cause hyperventilation, then does that work in reverse? Can hyperventilation lead to a feeling of anxiety? The answer is yes. And careful writers can arrange sentences to affect their readers’ breathing.

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A comma in the middle of a sentence can signal a mini-pause, maybe just a quick breath. An em-dash in the middle of a sentence indicates no pause at all but a sharp, immediate transition from one idea to another, one moment to another. Ellipsis in the middle of a sentence indicates a longer pause—a full breath or even a breath or two. A period at the end of a sentence signals your readers to take a brief pause—a normal breath. And a paragraph break signals a longer pause—a deeper breath.

When we’re in a state of anxiety—let’s call that suspense or terror—we pause too long between breaths, which brings on that feeling of anxiety or dread. This is what we mean when we say things like “I’m waiting with bated breath” or “I was holding my breath waiting to see what happened.” Building that on the page means withholding from your readers a chance to take a deeper breath, which means longer sentences and longer paragraphs.

Though we’ve all heard this advice in terms of writing natural dialog, here’s a reason to read everything you write aloud, and that’s to ask yourself:

How am I breathing through it?

How does that make me feel?

Reading alters breathing, and breathing alters mood. Use that power carefully and to your best effect.

Don't miss Phil Athans' session, Writing Scary, at the Writer's Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena, CA, Oct. 26–28, 2018! Register today.

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