How to Write Horror: Understanding Suspense and Surprise

Horror is a genre that presses the buttons of human fear psychology to produce a profound response in the reader or audience. An important part of telling a good horror story is being able to vary which buttons you press, and when, to get the greatest effect out of each.

To get the most scary-bang for your story-buck, I recommend learning to deploy suspense and surprise. (And there's a big difference!)Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this is part of a blog series about how to write a great horror story. It builds on my last blog about understanding fear and how it manifests in your story.

Okay, let's get into today's topic: suspense and surprise.

Understanding Suspense and Surprise

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, spoke about the difference between suspense and surprise by comparing how the same scene—two people talking in a coffee shop when a bomb goes off under their table—could be presented through each lens

In the suspense version, we see the bomber place the explosive under the table before we see the two characters sit down for coffee.

In the surprise version, we don’t know about the bomb until it goes off.

Hitchcock preferred the suspense version. Suspense was, after all, his milieu.

He said, “In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

This is tells us two things.

  1. You can get a lot of mileage out of suspense—out of giving your audience one piece of information (there is a bomb under the table) but not all the information (like the time the bomb will go off). That keeps them guessing, keeps them sweating, keeps them on the edge of their seat.
  2. Surprise also has a part to play—especially when the twist is set up in advance.

Surprise that comes out of nowhere might work for a one-off jump scare, but jump scares don't succeed as well in fiction as they do in film. Film can use the dual sensory stimulus of sound (the sudden loud noise and orchestral sting) and sight (the sudden appearance of a threat) to trigger a shocked fear response. Fiction has no direct access to human senses, so surprise has to succeed on other merits.

Photo by Edilson Borges

In fiction, a good surprise succeeds by paying off an earlier set up in an unexpected way. For example, we might experience a moment of relief seeing the high school drama club leader plunge a knife into the slasher's heart, only to experience shock and horror when we realize they accidentally used the trick prop knife we saw in act 1, and the slasher is still alive.

Combining Surprise and Suspense

You might even combine suspense and surprise in a climactic moment.

Imagine the same scene, but the drama club leader uses a real knife. The slasher staggers off into the darkness at the edge of the stage, and for a moment, all we hear is their wheezing breath, and then silence. There is a moment of suspense as we wonder: are they dead?

We peer deeper into that darkness, looking for movement. We listen closely to the silence for signs of life. And the killer lurches suddenly back into the spotlight, holding the bloody knife. Not dead yet, and now they have a weapon. Surprise!

The trick is giving your readers enough information to start them guessing how things will turn out, but not so much that it's obvious. The can see the edges of a puzzle coming together, but not the heart of the image until you click the piece into place for them.

The key to making this a satisfying process for your reader or audience is knowing which pieces to give them to start, and which ones to hold for the end. Or maybe they never get all the pieces and are left wondering.

Whatever you choose, it helps to make notes from scene to scene of what the audience knows going into the scene, wat they are wondering about, and what information they will learn.

If the tension in a scene isn't right, consider either taking away information, or giving them new partial information that gets them worrying about what they don't know.

And if that doesn't work, pull another classic Hitchcock move and sic a flock of killer birds on them!

PS: If you're looking for more inspiration for your horror writing, I created a deck of endless writing prompts and a horror expansion that's designed to unlock your creativity! You can even get them in a bundle!

I decided to draw a few random prompts from the horror expansions and boosters in case you want some inspiration to practice with the ideas from this blog!

Horror writing prompt: A worshipper wants to ignore the many occult warnings and unearth a plague-bearing shipwreck but something evil will be unleashed on the world.

Horror writing prompt: A worshipper wants to ignore the many occult warnings and unearth a plague-bearing shipwreck but something evil will be unleashed on the world.

Horror writing prompt: An undying dagger wants to inflict pain on a professor.

Horror writing prompt: An undying dagger wants to inflict pain on a professor.

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