The Dark Place: Writing Scary Scenes


Stephen King, American author best known for h...

Stephen King, American author best known for his enormously popular horror novels. I don’t know how this guy does it, and my hat is off to him, but I have to take a breather after writing dark scenes. Taken at the 2007 New York Comicon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have sent my current WIP (Book 2: The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan) to my proof readers for their usual expertise.  I should get it back by the end of the week (at least from some of them) and I will see if this latest installment is too dark for them.  You see, the last few chapters were some of the darkest scenes I have ever written.

I had to.  It was pre-ordained by the plot and the outline I had completed ages ago.  I didn’t like where it took me as a writer, but it was necessary to further the plot and heighten the suspense for the reader.  If you are reading this and you are a writer of the horror genre, I applaud your work, but I also fade in and out of many different moods in my writing as well, and sometimes find myself in the darkest of places.

I started to wonder why this is so.  I looked again at the last three chapters of Book 2 and noticed that the action was indeed necessary, and reasoned that a writer must follow a certain number of steps to insure that dark subject writing doesn’t go overboard if one is not writing a horror novel…but sometimes even horror novels get too deep into the dark swamp of the human psyche.

1.  Don’t Linger – The last three chapters of my current WIP have a vicious torture scene, a very realistic struggle that ends in death, and a death of someone that the readers care very much about.  I killed off a main character in the last installment, and did so with meaningless finality, which is how people really die.  The torture scene involved an adult sized high chair device seen in a police station while in China, and its description still gives me chills.  I won’t go into much detail, but it is one of those devices designed to place the victim in a very precarious, uncomfortable position.  It had fingernail marks in the wood of the “desk”, which includes two built in manacles to hold the wrists in place.  The important thing when writing this kind of thing is not to linger too long in describing the horror of the event (as I just did) and thereby keeping the reader in the state of peril without any comic relief or lull that helps them catch their breath.

2.  Write the Nightmare – My frightening scenes in my books usually come from the dark nightmares I have while sleeping.  I suffer from night terrors when conditions are right, and I draw on the fear I feel when experiencing them.  I also pull from those nightmares themselves.  Some people put this stuff on paper for therapeutic reasons, and that is fine, but always follow rule number one and don’t dwell there.  Sometimes showing a reader only bits and pieces of what is happening (allowing them to imagine the rest) is much better than showing them the entire horrible scene in gruesome detail.  As Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, the hero reaches the top of the stairs, opens the door and there is a 10 foot tall cockroach, at which the audience breathes a sigh of relief because they thought there was a 100 foot cockroach behind the door.

3.  Find a Happy Place – This works hand-in-hand with #1 in that once we have written such a scary and horrifying scene, we should cleanse our palate by writing something a little more pleasant or comical, even if the scene doesn’t fit the text being written at the time.  I also try to do something more positive like go play with my kids or watch a comedy with my wife.  For some weird reason, after writing my dark scenes, I watched several episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix.

I don’t know what you do as a writer in regard to writing dark scenes, but it would be interesting to see everyone’s process regarding this.  How do you horror writers who read this blog do that day in and day out?  I like a good horror novel like the next guy, but I could never write it.  It’s not in my blood, pardon the pun.

Post ’em if you got ’em!

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One thought on “The Dark Place: Writing Scary Scenes

  1. I personally don’t write really dark stuff, but I have a friend who does. I often joked with his wife how I was glad he wrote it down to get it out of his system instead of acting out some of the awful stuff he came up with. I think it’s one thing to visit the dark side of our personality, even a bit cathartic, but it’s certainly not a place to dwell in!

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