Writing Terror Without Terrorizing the Reader

In writing, the emotions terror and dread are easy to evoke, yet difficult to evoke well. One of the common follies present in beginning writing is the overuse of terror as a go-to method to make readers feel something. Negative feelings are arguably the “easiest” to evoke, largely due to being plot-driven. There’s an entire canon of tricks to make readers feel commanding, dark emotions: kill the dog, rape the woman, murder the innocent. However, sensitive scenes must be handled with the utmost care. Topics such as suicide, rape, death, assault, and abuse can deeply affect readers who have had personal experiences with the subject matter. If the writer does not do justice to these acts, they have ultimately diminished the seriousness of them. At the same time, overusing fear and disgust causes a transition in the overall work from literature to the horror genre, because the writing will appeal to people seeking obscenity and thrills over story and character development. This is where we have to draw a line: where does dark writing become tasteless or shock value instead of moving literature? We will use the words “unsettle,” “terror,” and “disturb” interchangeably. These words may apply to various types of violence: physical, sexual, and emotional. Whether a writer is crafting a rape scene or describing a murder, they are unsettling the reader. If the writing is successful, the reader should not be taken out of the work. They should be able to keep reading, despite the difficult subject matter, because the scene is integral, and the story cannot exist without it.

Writing a scene of terror should be difficult – it is not easy to do justice to something that has the potential to scar one’s readership. Authors should ask themselves why they are choosing to write their selected traumatic scene. Are they romanticizing the trauma for the sake of drawing emotion from readers in a familiar, time-tested way? Is there no other way to get the point of the scene across? Some writers choose to use violence as a mood-setter. They add murder or rape to the background to set the ambiance. But writers cannot use trauma as part of a setting and claim that it makes the story’s setting “realistic” if they are not applying that same treatment to the rest of the story. Katherine Dunn successfully uses a horrific scene to contribute to the setting in Geek Love when Olympia is stripped down and thrust onto a stage to be mocked in the Glass House Club. (Dunn, 20) Her choice of scene not only shows us the bizarre social sphere that Olympia and her daughter Miranda exist within, but also is used as an opportunity to show us the personalities and pride of both women. Were it not for the latter accomplishment (if Oly or Miranda were humiliated or harmed, for example), the scene would serve only as a marker of the darkness of the universe, and would not advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is successful in conveying a constant atmosphere that disturbs the reader without having individual scenes that possess over-the-top violence. We are drawn slowly into the world of the Binewskis and their family circus, and Olympia tells her story by peppering in the details of the darker moments as if they are sprinkles on a cake; she is matter-of-fact about her life, and as we read, we desperately want her to be happy, even if that means loving her biological brother Arturo or murdering Mary Lick. The plot itself is absurd: Arturo starts a successful cult that champions cutting off toes and then limbs until one is limbless entirely. (Dunn, 183) Crystal Lil takes “illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes” in order to have deformed children that can participate in the family circus. (Dunn, 7) Chick uses his telekinetic powers to impregnate Olympia with her brother Arty’s sperm. (Dunn, 299) Individually described, these are horrific actions. However, Dunn weaves them gently into the story by using the slightest details and by making Olympia such an endearing character that we have no choice but to keep reading. We discover by piecing together bits of information that Arty has the Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia “split” by lobotomizing Electra. One passage reads, “After Chick and Doc P. left I asked Arty what the hell he was letting Doc P. do to the twins anyway. He answered in an offhand, easy way that she was just going to ‘get rid of the parasite.’” (Dunn, 269) Dunn gives us clues such as this and often does not ever explicitly state the result. In this particular case, a later journal note includes the phrase “the lobotomized Elly,” but that is one of the only true references to the medical procedure. 

A writer intending to craft a traumatic scene should educate themselves extensively about the effects of trauma. A horrific scene cannot be a standalone hotspot with all of its aftermath ignored. Samuel Delany, award-winning novelist and member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, penned a shockingly grotesque novel titled Hogg in 1969. Twenty-two years passed before someone dared publish it. The novel opens with the narrator, an eleven-year-old boy, performing oral sex on a thirteen-year-old boy. (Delany, 13) The unapologetically explicit content remains a constant throughout every chapter of the novel, as the narrator, named only “cocksucker,” joins a gang of rapists who are paid to prey upon various men and women and children. The content of the book is appalling and nearly impossible to read, but Delany very effectively conveys desensitization. The narrator does not utter a single word throughout the book until the last word of the last page. His thoughts are kept to an absolute minimum, as he participates in and observes the atrocities happening around him. He is unquestioningly obedient to Hogg, his leader, and the trauma is reflected in his lack of internal commentary on even the most disturbing of acts. When writing about disturbing scenes, it is essential that a writer communicates their emotional response, growth, and adaptation after the scene has ended.

Another consideration when crafting a disturbing scene is what the camera is focused on. Choosing to give the most real estate to physical descriptions within a scene can glorify the mechanics of the situation. By opting to focus instead on the psychological, the writer can make the reader hyperaware of the emotional stakes of the situation and leave the physical stakes more to the imagination. In the novel Swamplandia!, thirteen-year-old protagonist Ava is journeying through the Florida Everglades with a mystical Bird Man. The reader is unsure during these chapters whether or not he is truly magical or if he is a predator. Karen Russell reveals his true intentions when she conveys the rape of Ava by primarily describing Ava’s thoughts of schoolwork and her observations of the nature of the Everglades: “‘Lie down, Ava,’ this man said, spreading a green tarp for us, and I did. Lying flat, I could see plants with leaves that flared outward like living Victrolas.” (Russell, 327) As Ava is being raped, she proceeds to analyze the ants, the colors of the plants around her, and her body-deafness. The scene is delicately crafted – the reader has to go back and reread the pages to ensure they understand what is happening at each moment. Russell forces us to process something beautiful (the surrounding nature and Ava’s childhood innocence) while processing something horrible at the same time. This helps us to keep the focus on Ava, rather than the Bird Man.

One controversial work that is hotly debated for its extreme content is Nabokov’s Lolita. We are given a pedophile’s perspective and have to cope with our internal conflict as he abducts and has sex with twelve-year-old Lolita, all while trying to convince us that she is complicit rather than a victim. Nabokov’s ability to make the reader question their reaction to the work is commendable, but he did choose to tell the story from the perspective of the pedophile rather than the victim. Writers should be mindful that if they do choose to write from the perspective of the violent act’s perpetrator, their resulting writing may fail to give the victim the appropriate amount of attention that they deserve. In Lolita, this choice is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Nabokov dances over the would-be graphic scenes. Humbert specifically tells the reader he is “not concerned with so-called ‘sex’ at all.” (Nabokov, 134) This is one of the conflicting statements in the book: he states he isn’t concerned with sex, yet he rubs himself on Lolita earlier in the book in the infamous couch scene and adds caveats to his vague descriptions, such as “I…had her have her way – at least while I could still bear it.” (Nabokov, 60, 134). These contribute to his unreliability, but ultimately contribute to the reader being able to pick up the true moral stakes, despite Humbert’s attempts to convince us he is a victim of his circumstances. We are not shown the “worst” scenes, we are left to imagine them based on the clues Nabokov has left for us – and the reader’s imagination can be far worse than whatever the writer can describe. Ultimately, though the book is titled Lolita and it is about the sexual exploitation of an underaged girl, the novel revolves around Humbert Humbert. Part of the books polarized reputation may stem from Nabokov’s focus on the pedophile and his failure to truly give Lolita and her trauma the attention they deserve.

A writer may be tempted to devote a significant amount of page space to a disturbing scene in order to convey every detail and maximize the scene’s punch. However, longer scenes are not always more impactful. If the subject matter is extremely difficult to digest, crafting a more concise scene may allow readers to better process even the most disgusting of actions. Chuck Palahniuk, successful novelist and short story writer, crafted a flash fiction piece titled “Guts,” which is included in his collection Haunted: A Novel of Stories. This piece includes sodomy with a carrot, inserting candle wax into a male urethra, and biting into one’s own intestines. Palahniuk describes each portion of the story in extreme, yet short, detail. The first line encourages the reader to “Inhale. Take in as much air as you can.” because “Guts” can be finished within a single breath. The story is responsible for over 67 people fainting during readings. If the story were longer and the three incidents were given more detail, the overall theme of sexual repression and the quick punches of disgust would be lost in the text. 

The shocking novel American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis has achieved ultimate infamy due to its descriptions of explicit intercourse and murders. Ellis does not filter the prose nor does he offer the reader much time for recovery between scenes, once the reader reaches the first description of Patrick Bateman killing someone. The only reason it’s possible to finish the book is because Ellis eases his way into the violence. He works his way up to the excessively disgusting scenes by hinting at Bateman’s secret throughout the opening chapters. Chapter five, “Tunnel,” gives us our first hint of his secret: Bateman says to a bartender “You are a fucking ugly bitch I want to stab to death and play around with your blood.” (Ellis, 59) This sentence is jarring, unexpected, and thrilling: we’ve known since the very beginning that something is wrong with Bateman. This is the first reveal. The reader is immediately filled with morbid curiosity: we want to see him kill someone. By the time the first true act of gore is described in-scene a third of the way into the novel, we have become nearly desensitized to the hints of his serial killer personality – we accept it as a facet of Bateman’s personality, and because he is our “protagonist,” we overlook it. Then Ellis drops a traumatic scene on the reader. With brutal detail, Bateman blinds a homeless man with a knife and paralyzes a dog on the street. (Ellis, 131) The reader is left to cope with their emotions: we have built up our excitement to see him kill, and when he does, we realize with horror that we’ve been looking forward to this scene, this horrible, disgusting scene, and what does that say about us? We then have to read the other two-thirds of the novel, which is filled with progressively worse and worse descriptions that are so horrific that we may have to put the novel down and step outside for fresh air. By the time we reach the end, we realize Bateman might never have killed anybody at all and the novel is really about the viciousness and superficiality of capitalism. But we’ve already gone into shock over the murder descriptions and have descended to an irreversible level of disgust. The only reason the violence works is because of the ultimate message about society – and unless a writer wants to convey some great overarching meaning through gratuitous violence, following in Ellis’ footsteps and explaining every single detail of a rat eating a woman alive from the inside out is not a justifiable writing option. (Ellis, 328) 

One tactic a writer can utilize to make dark content more readable is the use of distance. In The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of five sisters who each commit suicide. While the topic of the novella is horrifying, Eugenides balances the actions with the writing by creating distance between the subject matter through the use of a unique first-person plural point of view. Instead of one of the members of the Lisbon family, the neighborhood children narrate the story, telling the reader what they see and imagine and hear through interviews, and this distance makes the plot easier to bear. If one of the parents narrated the story, it would be tinged with parental emotions and guilt. If a third person narrator told the story, the plot would lose some of the mystery and gossipy qualities that make it so compelling. Eugenides also uses intensely musical prose, which juxtaposes with the dark subject matter. The first death is given plenty of notice and is told out of sequence, so that by the time Cecelia actually throws herself from a window, we’re ready. The actual death is described with distance as well: “We heard the wet sound of her body falling onto the fence that ran alongside the house. First came the sound of wind, a rushing we decided later must have been caused by her wedding dress filling with air. This was brief. A human body falls fast.” (Eugenides, 27) In his writing, Eugenides conveys the atmosphere around the horrific action – the sound of the body on the fence, the wind, the dress filling with air. Choosing to depict the details outside of the action, like in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, allows us to inhabit a more psychological space instead of being overly disgusted by gruesome details.

The intensity of the action and language should ultimately be inversely proportional. When the action is intense, or a hotspot, the writing should be understated in order to allow the reader’s imagination to take control. The reader is capable of imagining far worse and more extreme circumstances when they are given the reins, and thus are responsible for their own imaginings. Shorter passages, generous distance, and attention to how people truly react to trauma will help the scene be easier for the reader to digest. If the writer is too heavy-handed with their descriptions, the reader will be overwhelmed, and the writer will be held responsible. Exceptions to these rules come in famed works that use violence to tell a greater message, like American Psycho or Hogg. While these works are too disturbing for most readers to stomach, they are written to be intentionally overwhelming and disturbing. Conversely, if the action taking place is mild, the writing can sing. Heavily musical descriptions can provide necessary repose from darker passages and scenes. Writers like Katherine Dunn and Karen Russell skillfully write musical novels with peppered-in scenes that convey disturbing messages without too-explicit descriptions. Authors must be mindful of what the violence in their writing is contributing to the story and whether or not a graphic description is the best method to convey the information. And for God’s sake, don’t just kill the dog.

Works Cited

  • Delany, Samuel R. Hogg. Normal, OK: FC2, 2004. Print.
  • Dunn, Katherine. Geek Love. Dunn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.
  • Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho: A Novel. London: Picador, 2006. Print.
  • Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. Print.
  • Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovič. Lolita. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
  • Palahniuk, Chuck. “Guts.” Haunted: A Novel of Stories. New York: Doubleday, 2005. N. pag. Print.
  • Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.


Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

Kathryn Draney

Kathryn Draney has published short stories with The Write Launch and AU: Straying from Reality. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She has served as the Genre Editor for Qu Literary Journal and lives in Redondo Beach where she works as a sports marketing writer.