Dread comes in many forms. There is the dread you experience when you know you have to do something that you would rather not do, and the dread you feel in impossible situations. Dread can be experienced in daily life when going to the dentist, dealing with the taxman, or breaking the news to your spouse that you were fired from your job. While all of these represent dread in varying degrees, they are all related to personal fears, feelings, and circumstances you would rather not have to deal with.
When writing horror, it is the use of various familiar circumstances to which any reader can relate that determines whether you are able to convey a feeling of dread, or not. Just as important as imparting a feeling of dread is giving the reader relief from it. Creating the dread, then allowing the reader an opportunity to take a breath, drives the reader through the story. It can prevent them from putting the book down while they run screaming for their bottle of Xanax, and never coming back to finish it.
The dictionary definition of dread indicates that it is made up of fear and the external elements that enhance or evoke fear. Although fear itself is the strongest contributor to dread, we can explore how other variables can be added to convey a sense of ‘overwhelming’ dread.
I like to consider these elements to be like Lego blocks because they can be connected, then disconnected with ease to rearrange them in any final scenario you wish. Here are some blocks we can work with:
- Fear – Of Anything
- Atmosphere – Fog, Humidity, Oppressive Heat, Darkness, etc.
- Environment – Forest, Field, Ocean, Empty Warehouse
- Antagonist – Size, Race (Human, Alien or Other), Demeanor
- Weapon – Type, Size, Effectiveness Rating
- Circumstance – In A Group or Alone, Public or Private, Able or Helpless
- Senses - Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch, Taste
- Age – Young, Middle, Old
- Historical Data – Previous Experiences, Connections to Others
Every bullet list should include "More," don’t you think?
As an example of building dread, I’ll share a two-page chapter from my second novel, NorthWest. It is written specifically to evoke dread in my reader and maintain the suspense level while moving the story forward. First, I’ll give you the setup and the building blocks for the scene, then the actual scene.
Setup: An alien spacecraft has crashed in the Pacific Northwest. Early in the story, it is explained how it happened, and an encounter between the aliens and a large deer illustrates the vicious nature of the aliens.
As I jump back and forth between the introduction of my characters and the story of the stranded aliens, I create a scene involving two hapless hunters who come upon the aliens in the forest by accident.
- Fear – It is impossible to list every possible fear here, but I suggest using one that is common: the fear of being eaten alive. You know it happens when you are swimming in the ocean and you can’t see what’s beneath you.
- Environment – The hunters are in the forest where no one can hear them or come to their aid.
- Antagonist – A very large alien creature, nearly 8 feet tall.
- Weapon – The hunters have bows and arrows while the alien has a natural knife-shaped appendage, size, and brute strength.
- Circumstance – One hunter is being eaten while the other tries to crawl away.
- Senses - sight, touch. hearing
- Age – Adult men
- Historical Data – One hunter is married. The hunters as prey.
- More – A helicopter flies over. The introduction of and subsequent removal of hope.
In the scene, one disabled hunter is crawling away from the terrible sounds of his friend being eaten by the alien. A helicopter flies over, but the hunter is hidden below the canopy of trees. He has no weapon, but tries to reach a single arrow on the ground just out of his reach.
Hope is dangled through the helicopter and the arrow, and is then snatched away by the extreme circumstances of the situation.
Actual Scene from NorthWest:
The helicopter was flying toward the ravine around a hundred feet above the tree line. The pilot planned to make a wide turn, then a pass through the ravine before calling off the search for the day.
Below the canopy of trees, dressed in camouflage, a hunter lay immobilized. Clinging to consciousness and missing the lower half of his leg, he screamed as he tightened his belt on the bleeding stump in a desperate attempt to stop the blood loss.
He looked up as he heard the sound of a helicopter approaching and tried to drag himself toward a clearing. He could see no more than twenty feet in front of him. He tried to pull himself up, but the pain was too intense and he lost his balance falling face-first into the pine needles.
He rolled over on his back hoping to see the chopper as it flew over to catch a glimmer of hope. He watched to see if it moved in any way to indicate that he had been spotted. He tried to wave, but the effort used up whatever was left of his strength. He lay there feeling life drain from his body. The thump of the helicopter blades was loud as it passed over without hesitation.
He smiled at the ridiculous thought that anyone might see him below these trees. He would have laughed out loud if he’d had the strength. Sobering, he thought of his wife. She’d be waiting and worrying.
Some ten yards behind him, his partner had stopped screaming as the creature devoured what was left of him. The sound of ripping flesh and gurgling of blood and gore was maddening. He did everything he could, not to think about his friend in that moment or what lay ahead for him.
He caught sight of an arrow that had been tossed from its case when he had been attacked. It was only about a yard from him and if he could get to it the odds would be slightly increased in his favor. When that thing attacked, maybe he could shove the arrow through its eye straight into its brain.
With every bit of strength he had left in him, he pulled himself through the pine needles and moss toward his only hope. The ringing in his ears prevented him from realizing that the sounds of carnage behind him had ceased.
The creature sat for a moment watching him as he strained to reach his objective. It tilted its head like a dog, tensed its body and leapt into the air, landing on the hunter’s back effectively pinning him to the spot where he lay.
Rearing its head back, the creature roared a sound more terrible than any he had ever heard. It shoved a bony protrusion from one of its arms between the hunter’s ribs and jerked back with a cutting motion. The hunter, still pinned to the ground struggled and screamed, blood spurting from his mouth. The world around him went dark as he heard the sound of his ribs cracking.
The monster paid no attention to the final gasp of its victim as it plunged its jaws into the wide gash on the hunter’s back. With bone cracking precision, it ripped a lung out from the lifeless carcass, savoring the taste as it chewed the organ, blood drooling from its mouth. Pausing only a brief moment, it bent over the remains of the hunter once more, ripping and pulling, continuing the bloody feast while entrails oozed between its grinding jaws.
Throughout the book, as each of the characters confronts their own fears, I follow the pattern of using the blocks to build new scenes. As stated earlier, the writer must build up the feeling of dread and then, equally as important, offer relief, whether real or potential. To be most effective, the reader must be reached through the implementation of themes that are familiar and ultimately gravely threatening. This allows the reader to share in the hopelessness of the situation and literally be drenched in dread.
JH Glaze is the author of The Paranormal Adventures of John Hazard Series (The Spirit Box, NorthWest, Send No Angel), The Horror Challenge audience participation short story series, Volume 1, 2 and forthcoming 3, and other stories. He lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife/editor and two snarky dogs.
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