You know when a jump scare makes you spill your soda?
Here’s how to describe a jump scare in writing:
Describe a jump scare in writing by setting an unsettling mood, briefly reassuring the reader, then abruptly transitioning to vivid, visceral sensory details about something terrifying appearing, keeping descriptions concise for maximum shock value.
In this article, you’ll learn how to create that reaction with your words.
What Is a Jump Scare in Writing?
A jump scare in writing is a technique used to shock the reader by suddenly introducing an unexpected and frightening element into a story.
Executed well, jump scares capitalize on a reader’s tension and sense of unease to provide a burst of terror and adrenaline.
An effective literary jump scare often starts by lulling the reader into a false sense of security.
The writer may describe an empty hallway, silent house, or other seemingly benign setting.
This builds suspense even while the scene appears harmless on the surface.
Subtle hints like the ticking of a clock, a strange shadow, or a narrow creaking floorboard make the environment creepy.
After setting up the atmosphere, a jump scare introduces a dramatic action, noise, attack, or visual that interrupts the tension sharply.
For example, a monster appearing suddenly in the dark corridor, a blood-curdling scream filling the silence, or a killer emerging from the shadows.
Done well, a written jump scare releases the simmering unease into a burst of panic and alarm.
Types of Jump Scares in Writing
Jump scares come in all types, but generally fall into a few major categories:
- Creature Attack – A monster or killer jumps out to violently attack a character with no warning.
- Ghost Appearance – An otherworldly spirit appears out of nowhere, often accompanied by descriptions of unnatural movement.
- False Safety Interruption – A character believes they are safe, only to have a scare interrupt the moment of relief.
- Gross-out – Vivid descriptions of something gory or unsettling manifest suddenly.
- Killer Reveal – The identity of a killer/monster is disclosed unexpectedly.
- Disorienting Imagery – Strange, disturbing visuals enter the scene rapidly to disorient the reader.
- Chase Scene – A character is abruptly forced to run from an unseen threat.
- Creepy Discovery – A character investigates something odd only to find something terrifying inside.
- Twist Ending – The story’s ending takes an abrupt, frightening turn.
- Auditory Scare – A loud, unexpected noise manifests, like a scream or crash.
7 Elements of a Good Jump Scare in Writing
When writing a good jump scare in writing, I’ve learned that there are seven elements you absolutely must master.
Here are those elements.
An effective jump scare relies on tension built up beforehand.
Without unease and suspense, the scare will lack impact.
Slowly ratchet up ominous feelings with descriptions of an creepy environment, subtle disturbing elements like strange noises or movements in the shadows, a sense of isolation, foreboding objects, tense character interactions, ominous writing like “a feeling of being watched”, etc.
Make the reader anxious and a bit uncomfortable before the scare for maximum effect.
Example: Emily wandered through the narrow, dim hallway as a distant, rhythmic thumping echoed down the corridor. She paused – was that shuffling footsteps behind her? The hairs on her neck prickled as a shape darted across her peripheral vision. She felt utterly alone, yet couldn’t shake the sense of an unseen presence hovering nearby, watching…
Lull the reader into briefly feeling secure right before the scare.
This heightens the shock value of the impending fright.
Describe the character feeling relieved, protected, hidden away, or otherwise temporarily safe. Interrupt this with an abrupt scare.
The whiplash contrast amplifies the terror.
Example: John slammed the attic door shut, enveloping himself in darkness. But here no one could find him. He sank to the floor, catching his breath, finally safe. A scraping sound of wood on wood shattered the silence. John froze. Impossibly, the attic trapdoor creaked open…
Sudden Sensory Descriptions
When the scare hits, sharply transition to intense sensory details – sights, sounds, movements, textures, smells.
Vivid descriptive language immerses the reader in the frightful moment.
Keep descriptions concise yet evocative for a brief burst of alarm and adrenaline.
Example: …A gnarled hand shot from the darkness, its peeling gray flesh reeking of earth and rot. Long cracked nails scraped Maisey’s ankle as an inhuman wail pierced her ears. She screamed as the hand clawed up her leg, its bony grip shockingly powerful…
Describe the physical, instinctual effects of fear and panic – racing pulse, goosebumps, hair standing on end, trembling hands.
The bodily sensations of terror make scenes more immersive and terrifying.
Example: …the horribly disfigured face leapt into the light. Revulsion choked Lila. Her stomach heaved as her pulse pounded in her ears. Spiderlike legs skittered from the shadows as she scrambled back in horror, a scream catching in her tight throat…
Short Shocking Action
Keep the jump scare itself brief – a few concise sentences or short paragraph.
Don’t drag out the surprising fright too long or it loses immediacy.
Describe the sudden scary occurrence rapidly and intensely before transitioning out of the adrenaline rush.
Example: …Behind her the closet door slammed open, wood cracking against plaster. Bloodshot eyes and reaching hands erupted from the darkness. Claire whipped around, face to face with the lunging corpses. She turned and fled as spectral hands clawed at her back…
Aftermath & Reactions
Show the scare’s lingering effects on characters – racing heart, recoiling physically, screaming, crying, shaking, attacking in self-defense.
Draw out the residual fear while avoiding too much follow up on what was behind the scare.
Keep some mystery.
Example: …the monstrous, skull-white face vanished back into the attic shadows with an unearthly howl. Stumbling out and slamming the door, Emma ran sobbing down the stairs with weak, shaking legs as horrific wails echoed behind the boarded-up entrance…
Only Occasional Use
Jump scares lose their startling impact if overused.
Rely on creepy atmosphere and only occasional abrupt frights at peak tension moments.
Follow scary scenes with periods of relief to build tension again before another well-timed scare.
Example: …Emma refused to look left at the menacing oak woods and glanced right just as the pale child lunged shrieking from roadside brambles, inches from her car door, mutilated face pressed to the window glass before being left behind in the gloom…
Watch this good video about how to write a jump scare in writing:
10 Jump Scare Examples in Different Genres
When I first learned how to write jump scares, reading examples really helped.
So, I thought it would be nice to share 10 made up examples of jump scares in writing in different kinds of stories.
Fantasy – Attacked by a monster while exploring ruins
The stone passageways under the ancient castle ruins were silent as graves.
Gareth crept through the brooding darkness, flickering torch casting monstrous shadows. He puzzled over half-erased carvings, oblivious to the subtle scritch-scratch behind the walls. The brittle skittering ceased abruptly. Heart thudding, Gareth whirled around. Two glowing crimson eyes shone from the blackness above.
A hair-raising shriek split the air as a hideous winged beast burst from an overhead crevice, all claws and teeth. Gareth threw up his arms with a cry as razor talons raked toward his face…
Mystery – Killer emerging while searching the house
Celia’s flashlight beam probed the dusty attic, slicing through cobwebs. All seemed still, the only sound her quick breaths.
She parted a moth-eaten curtain. A pale face peered back from the dark inches away – sunken eyes, torn mouth twisted in a scream. Celia staggered back with a gasp, flashlight tumbling.
Behind the curtain sat a female mannequin, yellow hair in ragged patches. Unnerved, Celia grabbed her light and turned to the attic stairs.
A floorboard creaked. Silhouetted in the exit stood a figure, knife gleaming…
Romance – Creature stalking the couple camping
Maggie gazed dreamily at the campfire, Zach’s arm around her shoulders.
Beyond the flames, the forest was an impenetrable wall of blackness. Zach leaned closer for a kiss when the nearby undergrowth violently thrashed. They jumped as a shrill, unnatural cry pierced the stillness.
The firelight caught a pair of shining eyes low to the ground and impossibly long limbs crawling spiderlike from the brush.
Zach lurched protectively in front Margaret as a pallid, elongated face emerged, black lips peeling back from long teeth in a hungry leer…
Science Fiction – Android attack on spaceship
The corridors of the derelict ship floated in zero-G silence. Lt. Yarrow’s helmet beam played over pits of darkness, rifle ready.
Ahead, his light revealed a skeletal android, optics dark.
As Yarrow watched, its head slowly turned with a whir of motors. Its eyes flared red, fixed on him.
Alarms blared as more clanking sounded down the passage. The android lunged, steel claws grasping, as the hallway filled with advancing skeletal robots, eyes glowing hungrily…
Comedy – Pratfall while exploring a haunted house
“I dare you to go inside,” Tina said, giggling nervously at the decrepit Victorian mansion.
She shoved Brad toward the porch where rotting floorboards groaned under his steps.
Heart pounding, Brad peered through filthy glass as something pale darted by within. With a shriek of rusty hinges, the door creaked open. Brad startled back, arms waving – and stepped into empty air.
He plunged backwards off the porch with a yowl, landing in mud as Tina’s shocked face appeared above.
Laughter echoed from the dark doorway…
Historical Fiction – Night ambush on a battlefield
Lt. Hayworth huddled in the bomb crater, peering over the rim at the desolate battlefield veiled by rain and darkness.
His men waited, soaked and miserable. A flare burst suddenly over No Man’s Land, casting everything in garish light.
Hayworth froze. The crater and trenches were filled with advancing soldiers, eyes burning red in gas-scarred faces as they silently raised their weapons. A blaze of gunfire erupted as Hayworth fumbled his pistol.
Cold steel touched his temple. The tip of a bayonet glinted in the flare’s unearthly glow…
Here are three more fictional jump scare examples from different genres:
Horror – Exploring an abandoned asylum
Miles shone his flashlight down the dreary asylum corridor, peeking into rooms with rusted beds and medical equipment abandoned in chaotic heaps.
Distant bangs and scrapes echoed, making his skin crawl.
Turning a corner, he stumbled over debris, crashing into an autopsy table. Something wet hit the floor. Looking down, Miles retched in horror.
A mutilated corpse lay split open, bloody organs pooling around his feet.
Behind Miles, a metal door scraped open. He spun to see a hulking, straight-jacketed shape staggering towards him, bloated face split in an anguished, otherworldly howl…
Romantic Thriller – Woman hiding from an obsessed ex
Cowering in the bedroom closet, Zoe clamped a shaking hand over her mouth, phone clutched tightly as the sound of the front door banging open echoed from downstairs.
Heavy footsteps creaked across floors as Zoe squeezed her eyes shut in terror.
The footsteps paused outside the closed bedroom door, then slowly wandered away.
Zoe exhaled in desperate relief – as the closet door was suddenly ripped open to reveal her deranged ex-boyfriend glaring with crazed intensity, face splotched in lurid colors by the police lights flashing through the window behind him…
Action/Adventure – Booby trapped ancient temple
Carter crept through the crumbling stone temple, dusty relics glinting in his flashlight’s golden beam.
Hieroglyphs seemed to twist and dance in the flickering gloom. Carter’s foot depressed an uneven flagstone.
A grinding roar shook dust from the ceiling as spikes burst from either side of the passageway. Carter leapt back with a choked cry as deadly points passed within inches of his face, cold stone brushing his skin.
From the chamber ahead floated a sinister chuckle, followed by a harsh rasping voice promising bloody revenge…
Psychological Thriller – Stalker reveals himself
Lisa hurried through the shadowy parking garage, heels echoing sharply.
Reaching her car, she fumbled for keys with shaking hands.
She froze at the sound of slow, steady footsteps. Spinning around, she saw only gloomy columns vanishing into darkness.
The footsteps ceased. Lisa exhaled unsteadily, turned back to her car – and screamed.
A pale, grinning face was pressed against the window inches from hers, hollow eyes burning intently over a dull straight razor held to the glass.
Lisa recoiled in terror as a cold voice sliced the silence: “Hello, Lisa…”
Final Thoughts: How to Describe a Jump Scare in Writing?
A well-crafted jump scare writes terror directly into readers’ hearts.
Time it right to elicit screams from something as simple as words on a page.
For more on the power of language in writing, check out a few of our other articles on this site.
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