A great spooky read is hard to put down. How many times have you stayed up way too late reading the latest chiller because you just had to know what was going to happen next? That kind of suspense doesn’t happen by accident. Spooky writers use all kinds of tips and tricks to keep readers turning the pages, but the one I use most often is pacing.
Pacing determines when and how a plot unfolds. Folks tend to think of spooky reads as nonstop scares, but if you actually take a novel apart, you’ll notice that every good suspenseful book has a mix of scares and quieter moments. There’s a very good reason for that, and I call that reason the Sea Salt Chocolate Principle. Chocolate is great. People love chocolate. That first bite is so sweet and creamy that it tastes like heaven. But keep eating that chocolate. After enough bites it may still taste good, but it won’t have the same impact on your taste buds that the first bite did. Your mouth got used to the flavor. But sprinkle a little sea salt in your chocolate, and suddenly it’s a different experience. When you get a piece with a little chunk of salt, the salt sets off the chocolate and it tastes like your very first bite again.
Spooky books are chocolate bars. When you buy a chocolate bar, you expect it to be mostly chocolate. And when you sit down with a spooky read, you expect it to be mostly scary. That’s what you signed up for. But in order to keep the scares fresh and exciting, every story needs to be sprinkled with non-scary parts, too. These quieter scenes help a reader’s brain and body relax, so that when it’s time for a scare they have somewhere to go. Scary scenes work the best when they can be contrasted with something else. It gives the brain the cue: Wait a minute, something is different. If I have a quiet scene where a sitter gently tucks a baby into bed, it makes it that much scarier when a short time later all of the lights suddenly go out. As a writer you want to lull your reader into thinking everything is peaceful and normal again, because that’s when you can scare them the best.
Quieter scenes also help get the exposition work done. Scary stories work best when we care about the characters and we are invested in them surviving their scary ordeal. We need to know who they are, what their backstories are, and what they have to lose. Exposition gives us that, but we don’t want to stop in the middle of a dramatic monster-attack scene to explain the characters’ backstories to the reader. Letting your readers see your protagonists enjoying normal life makes those thrill moments feel that much more perilous and exciting, and that’s what keeps folks turning the pages.
Pacing within scenes is just as important, especially for building suspense. Brains naturally process different kinds of texts differently. For example, if I’m reading a rich descriptive scene I might linger over each word so I can really savor it. But when I’m reading an exciting action scene, I’m reading as fast as possible, often skipping over words just to find out what happens next. So when I’m writing, if I can work to figure out a way to slow the reader down during a spooky scene, I can stretch out the suspense and build the tension even more. Sometimes I’ll do that by varying sentence length or using short, staccato sentences that create natural pauses. Or I’ll break up the direct action with some description or character reactions. Think of the way a scary movie slows down the action and builds tension in suspenseful scenes. We see a shadow on the wall. Then the camera cuts to a rat scuttling away. The shadow grows larger. We see a character react. Almost nothing has happened action-wise, but the audience is chomping at the bit just dying to see what that shadow is going to turn into, because we stretched out that moment before the big reveal.
If you find your own spooky stories aren’t quite giving your readers the scare you want, try playing with pacing to make your thrills come alive!