Nightmare scenes are haunting journeys into a character’s subconscious that can add layers of depth to your narrative and evoke intense reactions from readers.
Here is how to write nightmare scenes:
Write nightmare scenes by understanding your character’s deepest fears, using vivid descriptions, ensuring emotional depth, and creating disorienting transitions. Avoid clichés and ensure that the nightmare resonates with the story’s overarching themes.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to write nightmare scenes.
What Are Nightmare Scenes?
A nightmare scene is a narrative tool used by writers to delve into the subconscious mind of a character.
It often reveals their fears, insecurities, traumas, and sometimes even their desires.
The scene is typically a dream sequence but is marked by its unsettling, eerie, or even horrifying content.
Nightmare scenes give readers an intimate glimpse into the character’s mind, allowing readers to empathize more deeply with their struggles.
Anna’s eyes snapped shut, and she found herself in the middle of a dense forest. Trees with twisted branches loomed over her, casting long, sinister shadows. A chilling wind whispered her name, and as she turned around, she saw figures of her past, accusingly pointing at her, their eyes hollow and voices dripping with blame.
Types of Nightmare Scenes
Nightmare scenes can be diverse and serve different purposes in the narrative.
Here are ten distinct types you might consider:
- Flashback Nightmares – Revisiting traumatic past events.
- Symbolic Nightmares – Using symbols to represent fears or anxieties.
- Chase Nightmares – The character is chased by an unknown entity or fear.
- Loss Nightmares – Dreaming of losing someone or something dear.
- Monstrous Nightmares – Encountering monsters, either real or metaphorical.
- Apocalyptic Nightmares – Envisioning the end of the world or society.
- Trapped Nightmares – Being trapped or confined without escape.
- Falling Nightmares – The sensation of endlessly falling or failing.
- Failure Nightmares – Dreaming of failing at something critical.
- Mystery Nightmares – Ambiguous scenes that are unsettling but not clear in meaning.
For instance, if you want to hint at a character’s fear of abandonment, opt for a Loss Nightmare.
The vivid depiction of the character being left behind by their loved ones can have a profound emotional impact.
Mark stood at the train station, his family waving goodbye from the departing train. He ran alongside, shouting their names, but they couldn’t hear him. As the train faded into the distance, Mark was left alone, an overwhelming sense of desolation engulfing him.
21 Best Tips for Writing Nightmare Scenes
Here are 21 tips for how to write nightmare scenes in your story.
Tip #1: Dive Deep into the Character’s Psyche
When crafting a nightmare, it’s crucial to understand the character deeply.
What are their fears, traumas, desires, and past experiences?
Drawing from these will make the nightmare more personal and impactful.
For instance, if I know my protagonist has a fear of being alone, their nightmare might focus on isolation or abandonment. Such a scene would resonate deeply, as it touches on their core fear.
Sarah wandered the empty city streets, calling out for anyone. Every corner she turned, every building she entered, was eerily empty. The deafening silence weighed on her, a reminder of her greatest fear.
Tip #2: Use Vivid and Descriptive Language
Nightmares are visceral and intense.
To capture this, employ vivid descriptions that appeal to the senses. The aim is to make readers feel the character’s fear and dread.
In my writing, I often paint a vivid picture using rich details to immerse readers fully.
The more real the nightmare feels, the more unsettling it becomes.
The air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh. Every step James took was met with the squelch of decay beneath his feet. The moans of unseen creatures echoed around him, sending chills down his spine.
Tip #3: Manipulate Time and Space
In dreams, and especially nightmares, the constraints of reality can be bent.
Time can flow backward, speed up, or stand still.
Locations can morph and change in the blink of an eye. Leveraging these distortions can make the nightmare feel more dreamlike and surreal.
Personally, I’ve always found manipulating time to be especially disorienting in a narrative.
It leaves readers and characters feeling out of control, enhancing the overall unease.
Rebecca found herself standing at her childhood home one moment, and in the next, she was abruptly thrust into her school classroom from ten years ago. Clocks spun wildly, and days turned to night in seconds, creating a dizzying, disorienting effect.
Tip #4: Introduce Familiar Yet Distorted Elements
Twist the familiar to make it strange and unsettling.
This could be a beloved family member with a sinister grin, a childhood toy that comes to life, or a well-known place that’s eerily abandoned.
I’ve often introduced these distorted elements to give an uncanny feel.
The familiarity breeds comfort, but the distortion immediately shatters that, leaving the reader feeling uneasy.
As Lucy walked into her childhood bedroom, she saw her old teddy bear sitting on the bed. But its eyes were large, black voids, and its stitched smile had turned into a menacing snarl.
Tip #5: Play with Emotions and Sensations
A nightmare isn’t just visual.
It’s deeply emotional. Amplify feelings of fear, dread, panic, sadness, or guilt.
Think about physical sensations too – the cold grip of dread, the heat of panic, or the suffocating weight of despair.
In one of my stories, rather than detailing the nightmare’s visuals, I focused entirely on the protagonist’s rising panic and despair, making it palpably distressing for readers.
Every breath felt like a struggle, as if a heavy weight pressed on Alex’s chest. The air grew colder, his heart raced, and a sense of impending doom consumed him, even though there was no discernible threat in sight.
Tip #6: Use Repetition for Emphasis
Repetition can be a powerful tool in emphasizing certain elements or themes in the nightmare.
This can be a repeated phrase, scenario, or even a specific haunting image.
I’ve used repetition to represent inescapable fears or to emphasize a character’s obsession with a particular trauma or regret.
Everywhere Ellen turned, the same scene played out. Her brother, reaching out for help, and her unable to reach him in time. Over and over, the scene replayed, each time amplifying her sense of guilt.
Tip #7: Make It Personal
The most haunting nightmares are those that touch on personal traumas, regrets, or fears.
They should feel tailored to the character, reflecting their experiences, personality, and emotional state.
I once wrote a scene where a character constantly relived the moment she lied to a loved one, emphasizing her deep-rooted guilt.
The room was filled with mirrors. In each reflection, Clara saw herself, the lie spilling from her lips, the hurt in her friend’s eyes. No matter where she looked, the painful scene was inescapable.
Tip #8: Leave Some Elements Ambiguous
Sometimes, what’s left unsaid or unseen is more terrifying than a detailed description.
Leaving certain elements ambiguous can let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps, often with something more terrifying than you could describe.
Ambiguity can be an ally.
It creates an unsettling atmosphere and allows each reader to imagine their version of horror.
David heard a whisper behind him, too faint to discern the words. He felt an icy presence, but when he turned around, there was nothing—just the echoing remnants of that chilling whisper.
Tip #9: Incorporate Real-Life Fears
Drawing from real-world fears can make the nightmare more relatable and terrifying for the reader.
Whether it’s the fear of loss, failure, isolation, or even societal issues, grounding the nightmare in reality can enhance its impact.
In my works, I’ve occasionally tapped into universal fears, making the narrative resonate with a broader audience.
Amidst a bustling crowd, Marie stood alone. Everyone around her wore masks, their eyes emotionless, voices silent. She screamed, but no sound came out. The fear of being isolated in a connected world became suffocating.
Tip #10: End with a Lasting Impact
The ending of the nightmare should leave a lasting impact, either on the character or the reader.
It could be a shocking revelation, a twist, or an emotional climax.
This ensures the scene remains memorable long after it’s over.
I’ve always believed that the ending of a nightmare should echo throughout the story, influencing the character’s actions or decisions.
As the shadows closed in on Jacob, a figure emerged—his younger self. The younger Jacob whispered, “It’s all your fault,” before the entire scene plunged into darkness, leaving Jacob waking up in a cold sweat.
Tip #11: Use Symbolism to Convey Deeper Meanings
Symbols can represent abstract fears, desires, or themes.
A crumbling house might symbolize deteriorating mental health, or a sinking ship might represent feelings of hopelessness.
From my personal experiences, readers often enjoy piecing together the meaning behind symbols, making the story more engaging and thought-provoking.
Lisa found herself in a vast orchard, but all the trees were barren. Each fruit she picked up turned to ash in her hands, symbolizing her deep-seated fears of infertility and loss.
Tip #12: Create Disorienting Transitions
Switch between scenes or settings abruptly to evoke a sense of disorientation.
In dreams, it’s common to jump from one place or time to another without a logical transition.
In my writing, these jarring shifts often mirror the character’s fragmented state of mind, emphasizing their emotional turmoil.
Henry was laughing with his family at a picnic when suddenly, the scene shifted. He was now standing on a cliff’s edge, the sea raging below, the laughter replaced with the howl of the wind.
Tip #13: Amplify the Unsettling with Sound
The soundscape of a nightmare can be as critical as the visuals.
The distant echo of a child’s laughter, the relentless ticking of a clock, or the muffled cries from an unknown source can elevate the scene’s eeriness.
I’ve found that a well-described auditory experience can deeply immerse the reader into the character’s nightmare.
Clara walked through the abandoned carnival, the only sound being the creaking of old rides and the haunting tune of a broken carousel, playing in a loop.
Tip #14: Utilize Unpredictability
The unpredictable nature of dreams can be a writer’s boon.
Characters can face sudden betrayals, unexpected dangers, or bizarre twists.
The lack of predictability keeps the reader on edge, unsure of what’s coming next.
I’ve often used unpredictability to mirror a character’s feeling of losing control in their life.
Jack was about to embrace his long-lost friend when the friend’s face morphed into that of Jack’s greatest enemy, sneering with malevolence.
Tip #15: Emphasize the Surreal
Enhance the dreamlike quality of the scene by incorporating surreal elements.
Floating islands, talking animals, or inanimate objects coming to life can make the nightmare feel otherworldly.
Incorporating surrealism has always expanded the complexity of my nightmare scenes, making them more memorable.
Maria stood in a field where the flowers had eyes, and the sky was a swirling mix of vibrant, unnatural colors. Birds with two heads flew overhead, singing in distorted melodies.
Tip #16: Allow for Emotional Resonance
The emotions experienced in the nightmare shouldn’t just vanish upon waking.
They should resonate, affecting the character’s mood, decisions, or relationships. This bridges the gap between the dream and reality, emphasizing the nightmare’s significance.
In my stories, the aftermath of a nightmare often provides a rich avenue for character development.
After witnessing his own death in the nightmare, Thomas became more cautious, his once fearless demeanor replaced with hesitation and introspection.
Tip #17: Keep the Stakes High
Even though it’s a dream, the stakes should feel real and high.
The character’s dread, the looming danger, or the potential loss should be palpable to maintain tension throughout the scene.
When I want to emphasize a character’s vulnerability, I ensure that the nightmare puts them in high-stake scenarios.
Emily found herself balancing on a thin plank above a vast chasm. With every step, the plank wobbled, and the abyss below beckoned with an eerie allure.
Tip #18: Play with Perception
Distorted perceptions can make the nightmare feel more disconcerting.
Giant objects, elongated corridors, or warped faces can create an environment of unease.
I’ve utilized distorted perceptions to represent a character’s feelings of being overwhelmed or disoriented in their waking life.
Walking through the town, Oliver noticed the buildings towering over him, reaching impossible heights. The people around seemed like giants, looking down at him with pitiful gazes.
Tip #19: Incorporate Real Memories with a Twist
Blend genuine memories with fictional elements.
This not only blurs the line between reality and fantasy but also makes the nightmare deeply personal for the character.
For instance, take a cherished memory and introduce a sinister twist, emphasizing the character’s guilt over past actions.
Sophie remembered the day at the beach with her sister. But in the nightmare, as they built sandcastles, dark waves approached, and her sister’s laughter turned to screams. Sophie couldn’t save her, no matter how hard she tried.
Tip #20: Use Opposites for Shock Value
Introduce elements that are the opposite of what one would expect.
A safe place becoming dangerous or a loved one turning hostile can be deeply unsettling.
I’ve played with opposites to catch the reader off guard, delivering unexpected shocks.
In the middle of the joyous wedding celebration, the music shifted to a mournful dirge. Guests, once smiling, now wept blood. The beautiful setting turned dark, foreboding, and hostile.
Tip #21: Convey a Sense of Inevitability
Sometimes, the terror in nightmares comes from the sense of inevitability.
No matter what the character does, they can’t change the outcome, creating a feeling of helplessness.
Drawing from my own fears, I’ve written scenes where the character feels trapped in a loop of dread, unable to alter their fate.
Jane kept running, but the monster behind her was always just a step away. No matter how fast or where she ran, it was always there, its breath on her neck, the sense of impending doom never fading.
How to Format a Nightmare Scene in a Novel
Nightmare scenes, while pivotal to a story, should also be distinguishable from the regular flow of the narrative.
This distinction not only signals to readers that they’re about to enter a different realm but also aids in immersion.
1. Use Italics or Different Font Styles
A common technique is to italicize the entire nightmare scene.
This visually separates the scene from the rest of the narrative. Some authors opt for a different font style or even a slight change in font size to denote the dreamlike quality.
2. Provide a Clear Entry and Exit
Always have a clear transition into and out of the nightmare.
This could be the character falling asleep, a sudden feeling of dizziness, or even an abstract transition like the world fading away.
Similarly, exiting the dream could be signaled by the character jolting awake, or the scene slowly fading out.
3. Consider Chapter Breaks or Segments
If the nightmare is significant and detailed, it might warrant its own chapter or segment.
Beginning a new chapter with the nightmare can give it the emphasis it deserves, and ending the chapter with the character waking up can provide a neat closure.
Biggest Mistakes When Writing a Nightmare Scene
Nightmare scenes, while captivating, can easily go awry if not executed correctly.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
- Being too vague
- Relying too much on cliches
- Ignoring emotional depth
- Making the scene too long
1. Being Too Vague or Abstract
While ambiguity can be a tool, overdoing it can leave readers confused.
If the nightmare’s events or symbols are too abstract without clear relevance to the character or plot, it might come off as filler content.
2. Over-relying on Clichés
Haunted houses, shadowy figures, or monstrous creatures are commonplace in nightmares.
While they can be effective, relying solely on these clichés can render the scene predictable and dull.
3. Disconnecting from the Main Narrative
The nightmare should serve a purpose in the broader story.
Whether it’s character development, foreshadowing, or providing backstory, it should tie back to the main narrative.
A random nightmare with no relevance can disrupt the story’s flow.
4. Ignoring Emotional Depth
Nightmares aren’t just about scary or unsettling imagery.
They’re deeply emotional experiences.
Failing to convey the emotional and psychological impact of the nightmare on the character makes the scene feel shallow.
A well-written nightmare should resonate with the character’s deepest fears, regrets, or desires, leaving a lasting emotional impact.
5. Prolonging the Scene Unnecessarily
While it’s tempting to dive deep into the intricacies of a nightmare, dragging it out can lead to reader disengagement.
A concise, impactful scene is often more effective than an extended, meandering one.
Remember, the essence of a nightmare is its intensity, not necessarily its duration.
Over-extending the scene can dilute its potency and make it tedious for the reader.
3 Full Examples of Writing a Nightmare Scene
Let’s look at three full examples of how to write nightmare scenes in different genres.
As Clara walked down the aisle, the congregation’s excited murmurs turned to mocking whispers.
The man at the altar wasn’t her beloved but a faceless entity. Her wedding dress became tattered and stained. The beautiful roses in her hand wilted, their petals falling one by one. As she reached out to the faceless groom, he vanished, leaving her alone amidst the jeering crowd.
Commander Ray floated in the vast emptiness of space, his spaceship a mere speck in the distance. His oxygen was depleting, each breath more laborious than the last.
As he reached out for the tether to pull himself back, it snapped.
Alien constellations watched impassively as the void consumed him, the cold, infinite darkness pressing in from all sides.
3. Historical Fiction
Amidst the bustling streets of Victorian London, Eleanor walked, but something was amiss.
The cobblestone streets turned to quicksand, slowing her down. Horse-drawn carriages raced past, their drivers faceless, their horses skeletal. The once-familiar buildings loomed, their shadows twisted and menacing.
The people she knew turned their backs, fading into the mist, leaving Eleanor isolated in a distorted version of her world.
Here is a good video about how to write a dream sequence (including nightmares) in your story:
Final Thoughts: How to Write Nightmare Scenes
Crafting a haunting nightmare scene can deeply enrich your narrative, unveiling layers of a character’s psyche in an evocative manner.
Before you go, check out a few of our other blog posts on writing scenes.
Read This Next:
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