Description and Mental-Imagery: Pushing the Blood-Stained Envelope
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The character enters the haunted house...and you hear the wood creaking under your feet, stepping in with them...a cool wind breezes in through the cracked window...and you start to feel chills and shivers, because you're no longer in your comfy chair with your knees pulled up to your chest, no, you're tiptoeing around an old, deserted house, even after the warnings of not going in from the dreary townsfolk...

Haven't we all read description that''s so vivid that cold sweat starts forming on the nape of our necks; that a scream bursts through our lips when the stranger carrying the axe stands in the doorway with the cool smile on his face, the thunder booming outside; that our own suspicions take over, matching the narrator's, as we see the tombstone of her husband is cracked down the middle and his grave dug up? 

Every fiction writer dreams of gluing their readers to the page, frozen with solid emotions and the desperate need to continue the novel, but every horror writer's dream is slightly more pronounced: Make their readers fear continuing, even if they know that they have to. Yes, too much detail and description is a bad thing, and yes, over-kill (pardon the pun) is not good, but how do we tell how much is too much? 

When fear is genuine, the smallest details and what the character does for them are the most important. For example, if we have a character entering an old mausoleum, pitch black, and we have her groping around in the darkness, what do you think the reader will think? Mausoleum+touching stuff without seeing=Ah! A dead hand! Or anything else...sometimes, just a little bit of detail of where we are and what makes it scary is enough to get the imagination going and the reader's heart racing. Personally, I love using the dark in my stories, because if no one can see anything then anything can be there. If she's (still, or again) groping around, she could be close to anything that the reader's afraid of and not know it. "Who's there?" is another famous line, because it could literally be anyone or anything. Unless you've given the character an extreme fear of something and can explain how bad the fear is once they are confronted with it (and maybe why they're afraid of it couldn't hurt...well, of course it could, but still...) then you can get the reader thinking twice about whatever it is and fearing it too, or at least fearing for the character in case they are confronted with it. 

Below is an example of spiders, one that works with a lot of things: getting inside the character's head and feeling what they feel. "What will it do to me?" a lot of people think about animals, and their appearances and what they do just adds to the fear. 

The spider sat on its web, its two front legs folded and its head lowered onto them, glaring at Miranda, who stood frozen in terror, staring back at it. Its beady black eyes bore into her own wide green ones, behind which she began imagining the springing off of the web, tackling her face and biting her and sending its poisonous venom coursing through her dangling on a string of web, rocking back and forth, and if she blinked, it would disappear out of sight...Her heart began thumping louder in her chest, her breathing rasping harshly as she tried to calm it down, terrified that the hairy arachnid would hear it and plunge its long legs into her heart and stopping it for her. 

Here, we see how she sees the spider and what she imagines what this little guy could do to her. The added detailing of how it's sitting gives us the impression like it's pondering what to do to her, as well. The different options that she sees it have and the detailing that she goes into about how much it would do is slightly exaggerated, showing how afraid she is of it because she thinks that she knows what it is capable of. Her details of her reactions (her heart and breathing) show the physical characteristics of her feelings and then add what the spider would do if it caught on, and the fact that it's hairy and has long legs gives more feeling to it if it were to do what she thought. 

Or, if we go with the groping blindly approach, the author is free to explore their imagination of what could be around there or put it as the character exploring their imagination. Let's take our person in the mausoleum again, groping around blindly. 

The almost-empty matchbox shuffled around in her pocket, letting her know that she was down to...gulp! Her last one. The mausoleum was dark, of course, making her fear for the worst, especially as cool wind swirled around inside, sounding awfully like breathing. Was she the only alive one in there? Oh, she was going to die in one would even know; she was going to be among other dead people. She would be just like them, with their wrinkly flesh...peeling off of their bones...their eyelashes being plucked off by grubs as worms swirled in and out of their empty eye through one...out through the other...Whimpers escaped her lips as her imagination became more pronounced in her mind's eye behind her shut eyelids. Her hand groped along the side walls...hopefully, that was the wall...the other hand slipping into her pocket, trying to find the matchbox. She shuffled her feet slowly along the ground, gripping the last match and striking it against the wall. The faint flame flickered in the obscurity, barely lighting up even a few centimeters around her but enough for her to scream at the sight of the rotting corpse's head right in front of her. She spun around, yelping again when the wind flew right by her and swishing out her only source of light. Something was grazing her neck, tugging her hairs up, another something on her back...what was it? A spider? A hand? Old leaves? Rags? A bug? She had no idea, but as her mind continued to ponder the options, she wished she wasn't so creative. The darkness enveloped her, wrapping her in a blanket made of her own terror and the pungent aroma of rotting flesh. 

When we know what she imagines and smells, her fears intensify because her surroundings are coinciding with what she thinks. (A little note: When you're writing a place, know what could be there...ex. the bodies in the mausoleum) The darkness anywhere, like a park at night and a creepy stranger hiding behind a tree, watching a little girl swinging and texting her best could be in an attic, and when Missy trips on could be anything...

Now, let's go back to the importance of description. We're just entering the haunted house. Description is not just what we see and what we feel (emotionally, like feelings), but it's also scent, taste, feel (literally), hear, and then see. Here's our haunted house, but it's not just a "haunted house" that people say is "haunted". 

Investigated by ghost hunters from all over the world, Millicent Manor was still one of the biggest ghosting mysteries of all time and quite the tourist attraction when no one could find anything. Rotting bricks on the outside warned anyone to not enter, but that didn't stop Marcy Williams from wiping her feet on the old wooden staircase up to the deck. An old rocking chair swayed on the deck in the wind, not startling Marcy the slightest as she walked on in. The scent of rotting wood reached up and tickled her nose, plunging tears into her eyes, as she continued to walk through the house. The floor creaked under her feet, the sound ringing her ears madly as she marched through to the living room. The taste of sawdust flitted in through the cracks in her lips and danced along her tongue, forcing her to push it against the roof of her mouth but resulting in projecting the dust onto her uvula. Wind panted on the nape of her neck as she called, "Hello?" into the house, air breezing out of her mouth as she spoke. She felt her heart rate increase as she heard the wind reply to her, saying "Hello." 

When you add the tiny details of all of the senses, no matter where you are, it makes it seem more real. Also, as I mentioned, too much details are bad...why? It leaves nothing for the reader to do guesswork or suspense, which a lot of the time is needed in horror stuff. Don't give too little away, but don't give to much away.
  • Beautifully written post, Leah! You made some great points. In my blog, I always tell aspiring writers to use prose and all the senses to build outstanding descriptions, but not to get carried away with descriptions. A page-long description of a room for instance, or anything that the reader doesn't need to know, is a waste of time!

    I have written a post about how to write about torture and my first tip is to use your fears or other people's fears. Everyone has one (or two ... for three), which is why horror is so gripping and real. If a writer uses their own fears or common phobias they are sure to scare many readers.

    I love the part where you said anything can be in the dark that the reader is afraid of, because it's true and it’s suspenseful. Every writer (especially horror and paranormal writers) should utilize the dark to its full frightening potential.