Developing a Genuinely Tense and Scary Scene

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A few weeks ago, I woke up from a dream – more like a nightmare – frozen in place, unable to move from the fear it had evoked. And in true writer form, the first thing I thought was, “I must remember this feeling so I can put in it into a novel.”

As with all my dreams, it was fairly nonsensical. I arrived at my grandparents’ place and noticed a man standing in the street with a gun in his mouth. I went inside where my grandparents, one of my cousins and one of his daughters were unaware of what was going on outside. As I explained to my cousin what I’d seen, he went to look out the window and suddenly the man in the street noticed he had a house full of people at his mercy. He took the gun from his mouth and pointed it at the house.

We all rabbited to a bedroom at the back of the house but the hallway that runs the length of the weatherboard provided a clear view out into the street. Inexplicably, the man was suddenly on the roof of the house across the road and the gun that had been small enough to fit inside his mouth was now a bazooka that had to be carried on his shoulder. Then he was running down the driveway and had found our hiding place. There was nowhere left to run…

Thankfully, that’s when I woke up. But it had all the elements of a genuinely tense and scary scene. To frighten the pants off your readers, here are the individual components.

A Scary Villain
If you haven’t read my post on developing a genuinely scary and evil villain, go do it before continuing any further here. In a nutshell, it’s all about avoiding the clichés. But for the purposes of developing a genuinely tense and scary scene, the villain doesn’t have to be a person. It can also be a natural disaster, a man-made disaster, an animal, a robot, an alien… You get the idea.

The scare comes from the unpredictable nature of each of these things. And in the case of disasters, it also comes from the fact that it is physics and not morality (whether bad or good) that decides what happens next. Ultimately, neither an evil person, a natural or man-made disaster, an animal, a robot nor an alien can be reasoned with.

Loved Ones/Vulnerable People in Peril
It’s generally not enough for just a macho main character to be in the line of fire. After all, Chuck Norris, Lara Croft, John McClane, Ellen Ripley, The Rock – these people can all take care of themselves. But as soon as you add loved ones – wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, children, pseudo-children – to the mix, it ups the ante. Because it’s one thing to take care of yourself. It’s another entirely to have to take care of yourself as well as someone or a group of someones who don’t have years of martial arts, military and/or law enforcement training.

The main character can be one of those vulnerable people in peril. Think Sandra Bullock as Angela Bennett in The Net. She’s virtually a hermit, her mother doesn’t remember her, the people who do have all been murdered and the police think she’s a prostitute and car thief. Even though she’s the vulnerable one, she has to figure out a way to help herself.

Someone Challenging or Embracing the Villain Recklessly
In Die Hard, it’s the coke-snorting Ellis. In Daylight, it’s Roy Nord, the rock-climbing entrepreneur sure he can beat the collapsing Holland Tunnel. There’s always someone who thinks they can outsmart or outwit the villain. And they almost inevitably become the cautionary tale for not showing enough respect.

Whether it’s stupidity, arrogance or just showing off, it never ends well. And despite the stupidity, arrogance and showing off, it’s usually also someone we care enough about to be horrified both by the manner of their death and the reinforcement of the evilness of the villain.

A Complete Lack of Control
Regardless of the amazing skills of the people in the genuinely tense and scary situation, even they must be convinced of their inability to control or extract themselves from the situation. They must face their mortality, they must expect to die, they must make their peace with it or break down completely. In its simplest form, this is the “peeing their pants” moment.

Being Trapped
Usually, the complete lack of control is combined with being trapped. In a house, in a forest, in a prison, in a conspiracy, sometimes even a character may be trapped within themselves (catatonia). It’s the straw that breaks the trapped camel’s back.

It may also involve the villain realising they have some leverage because of the presence of loved ones and a choice between the lesser of two evils.

A Clever Solution to Escape
Unless you’re writing the next instalment in the Saw movie franchise where nobody ever seems to get away, somebody, usually the main character but sometimes an important supporting character, will come up with a solution to escape. It must seem to be almost plucked from nowhere but it must also make total sense. No deus ex machina, divine intervention endings. You’ve put your readers and your characters through hell and the payoff must be worthy of both them and you.

Some Sort of Loss Nonetheless
Regardless, there will be some sort of loss because nobody ever gets away scot-free. The loss of the reckless villain challenger doesn’t count. It has to be something or someone that when they meet their demise, the reader never saw it coming and is devastated. The end of Pitch Black starring Vin Diesel is a great example. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t seen it.

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If you combine all these elements with just the right amount of each, you’ll have a tense and scary scene that will leave your readers simultaneously breathless and begging for more.

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