One of the best ways to keep your readers turning pages—in the horror, suspense, mystery, and thriller genres—is to infuse your fiction with a healthy dose of dread. But what is dread exactly? And how do you make sure that you’ve got it in spades?
In simplest terms, dread is a constant, certain feeling that something bad is going to happen. It can be an abstract, ill-defined sort of bad, or it can be something concrete and very real, but in both cases, the exact timetable for when this bad thing will show up is yet to be determined.
It’s intangible, this sort of fear. It lives inside the psyche and taps into our feelings of unease, our sense of foreboding. Readers stay in a constant state of unsettling expectancy that won’t go away until the bad thing is finally revealed and confronted.
A great example of dread in fiction can be found in one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Misery. Bestselling romance novelist, Paul, has been in a serious car accident and is bed-bound, trapped by his superfan, Annie, who pulled him from the wreckage.
From the start, it’s apparent that there is something… not quite right about Annie. She’s erratic and totally obsessed with the main character of Paul’s novels, Misery Chastain—who Paul has unfortunately killed off in his latest manuscript. What lengths will Annie go to to force Paul to rewrite his latest novel to her liking?
As Annie grows more and more unstable, the readers’s dread builds. It’s obvious from the start of the book that Annie is never going to let Paul go, that much is guaranteed by the story set up itself, but exactly what Annie is going to do to Paul while he’s trapped with her is unclear, though we know that whatever it is will be horrific. How can he possibly survive this situation. given his weakened physical state? Readers will keep reading chapter after chapter to find out.
Most successful horror writers are masters at infusing dread within the pages of their stories, but how exactly do they do it? I believe there are four key tools to building dread that they implement that if you do too, will elevate your fiction from merely interesting to unputdownable.
Choose First or Close Third Point of View
Dread is all about interiority because it is a danger your character is perceiving even before they have substantial evidence to prove it’s real. The more readers are inside your character’s head being privy to their in-the-moment thoughts, the easier it will be to convey their anxiety.
Edgar Allan Poe uses this tool throughout his story, The Tell-Tale Heart. The main character is telling the story in first person, trying to convince the reader and himself that he is not mad when there is plenty of evidence from the start to the contrary. His accounting of his victim’s filmy vulture eye in the darkness as he visits him in his bedchamber night after night before he kills him is unsettling and repulsive—so much so that on some level the reader comes to dread it too.
In your own fiction, make sure to have your character’s thoughts feel oppressive, weighing them down so they are loath to face whatever it is that’s coming for them, but also forced to because there is no way to survive—either physically or mentally—unless they do.
Select a Remote or Closed Setting
The more hemmed in your character is, the more heightened the dread will be because there is no escape except through confronting the thing they fear: a monster, death itself, another person. Whatever their foe, there is no way out but through.
I used this tool in my latest young adult horror novel, Flight 171. The entire story takes place on a plane being held captive by a supernatural creature in need of a new body to possess. One of the passengers must be that new body, but which one? The teens on the plane have the duration of the flight to figure this out. They can’t avoid making a decision no matter how much they want to because they are literally trapped.
Use Unsettling, Repetitive Details
The subtle and not-so-subtle things you have your character notice or that are present in a scene can add up to a large amount of dread. Having someone’s smile reveal a rotting tooth for example, immediately conjures a feeling of revulsion when your reader pictures it.
In The Tell-Tale Heart, the two most prominent examples of this are the old man’s vulture-like eye and the sound of his beating heart, which the main character continues to hear even after he is dead, so that it drives him to confess his crime because the dread he feels over it is just too great.
Delay the Big Reveal
Whatever the big bad is that’s coming for your character, seed in hints of it from the beginning that don’t have a payoff right away. Have you ever noticed that when it comes to horror, the longer we go before we see the monster, the more scared we are? This is because the anticipation of that monster, what our imagination conjures it could be, is scariest. Once we see it fully, our terror dissipates quickly.
In the movie, Alien, it takes a long time before Ripley and her crew get a clear look at the actual alien and even then, it’s most often shown in quick glimpses. Imagine seeing your closet door swing open on its own so that the gaping darkness inside is visible. Suddenly, something inside that darkness claws at the door frame before skittering into your bedroom and under the bed. This scenario is horrifying because it taps into a communal fear we all have of unknown danger lurking in the dark, and it allows us to imagine our own unique version of what that danger might actually be.
When it comes to darker fiction, the use of dread isn’t just necessary, it’s key. Horror, mystery, and thriller readers want to be unsettled. They come to our stories expecting we will deliver this. In order to do that, you have to become a master at lighting a fire of anxiety and foreboding inside readers’s psyches that doesn’t let up, but instead builds and builds until whatever darkness threatening your characters is found and confronted.
Five Novels to Study
Now that you know what dread is and how authors create it, it’s time to study! Here’s a list of five of my favorite dread-filled novels to start with.
- It by Stephen King
- Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
- Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
- Come Closer by Sara Gran
- The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
Amy Christine Parker is the critically acclaimed author of the thrillers Gated, Astray, Smash & Grab, and Flight 171.