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The "jump scare" is a standard storytelling technique in horror and science fiction film and video games, in which a very rapid transition (stereotypically, a creature literally jumping up at the camera) is used to create a sharp emotional shock to the viewer.

I've been reading a fair amount of classic horror (primarily H. P. Lovecraft), and I never see jump scares used. Rather, the most common horror technique is gradual narration of unspeakable abominations over several paragraphs, pages, or chapters which slowly builds emotional tension. More things are left to implication than explicitly stated (e.g. describing a torture rack without saying who, if anyone, was tortured on it). Writing, "Suddenly, a twelve-tentacled beast resembling that of the squidlike predators of Arcturus VII hit the spaceship's cockpit window!" doesn't give the same emotional effect because it is filtered through the literacy areas of the reader's brain and broken down there rather than experienced directly through the fundamental human senses.

My question is, is there a way to write an effective "jump scare" in a short story or novel or do jump scares only work in screen-driven media? Are there specific written works that demonstrate effective use of horror-style jump scares?

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    I would try shock first then description: Wallop! Something big and black struck the cockpit window. The twelve-tentacled beast reminded him horribly of the squidlike predators of Arcturus VII. Apr 6 at 21:32
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    There's a quite good jump scare in The Shining by Stephen King. The protagonist's son gets into one of the haunted rooms of the vacated hotel they are guarding and he sees a dead woman in the bathtub. As the boy slowly gets back to the door, the chapter is a rollercaster of tense moments (the woman seems to move) and calmness ("it's just my imagination"). When the boy reaches the door and we are sure he will get out unharmed, there is a single line about the dead woman touching the boy from behind. And the chapter ends. It's quite intense. Apr 8 at 6:01

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I believe you are right. Jump scares are most effective when visual. The closest, in literature, is the screenwriting advice: When stuck, have someone burst in with a gun.

But the question reminds me of other advice: Writing has advantages not available to visual media.

The written word lights up new portions of our brains, it draws us in, seduces us in ways films can't.

It seems you're trying to 'show' something for effect, in writing, but consider that you might be missing other tools. Film is limited to 'showing,' whereas literature has the luxury of showing and also telling. Effective telling, interiority to character, and it's powerful.

So, you are right I think, but another question is: How does horror literature evoke emotion without relying on techniques like the 'jump scare'? May or may not open new doors for you.

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Put it in a new paragraph, and make it as abrupt and quick as possible. Don't use descriptions of what happens, and definitely don't delay it with words like 'suddenly' or 'and then'.

Anna walks through the corridors of the mansion, dark and empty. The floorboards creak underneath each of her footsteps. She searches though, room after room, doorway after doorway, inhabited merely by cobwebs. "It's got to be here somewhere." she mutters to herself, only barely louder than the pouring rain outside. The end of the hallway comes, and she opens the final screeching door. The hinges rub and squeak, and the darkness emerges from the room. The light flickers for a few seconds, then gives up and returns the darkness. She had made it to the middle of the massive ballroom by then, and had found nothing of true value, other than a pair of doors on the other side. A creaking emerges from behind her. The door closes, removing any remaining orange from the room. The only light left is that of lightning through the windows. The only sound is the rain and whispering wind.

She screams.

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  • I completely agree with your explicit advice, but not with your example. You're mixing past and present in your example. Also, "emerges" doesn't sound abrupt and quick. And it takes 4 sentences between the creaking and Anna's scream - and we still don't know what happened. Presumably it was just a piece of furniture creaking due to a change in temperature and humidity. Also, how does "the door closes" result in "removing any remaining warmth from the room"? In most places, an open door will let the cold enter, and a closed door will keep the room warm.
    – Stef
    Apr 8 at 13:01
  • @Stef The creaking isn't the jump scare. The scream is. I'm not much of a horror writer or reader, so I couldn't think what it could be, lol. Also, I was working quick, and missed the fact that I changed tenses! Oops, definitely will fix that now. The first paragraph was meant to set the eerie but calm-ish scene, not really to show the jumpscare. It's the setup.
    – Murphy L.
    Apr 8 at 13:14
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Yes. The bit in 1984 where the voice says "You are the dead" just about made me jump out of my skin. The scene was detailed, first cerebral, then intimate, full of emotional impact, using metaphors, etc. Most importantly, it featured two, and only two characters. The direct, unintroduced address of the two characters by a third was shocking.

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There is an issue with pacing. A movie has a jump scare and the viewer instinctively processes the sight and the sound, and it goes right to his physiological response. He will move in his seat, his heart-rate will go up.

Reading is a far more intellectual process: the reader sees the text and various parts of her brain unpack its meaning. Because it is gradual, telling her “There was a loud noise and a sudden movement — but it was only a cat!” has very little emotional effect.

As a writer, you have two choices.

One is to gradually create the emotion you want over paragraphs and pages — a creeping sense of dread, looming danger to the protagonist, whatever.

The other choice — which unlike a jump-scare is actually more difficult than suspenseful writing — is the wham line. It’s effectively the intellectual equivalent of a jump-scare, but it only is scary once you understand it. Nothing in the actual text is necessarily scary, you have to consider the implications and then... wham!

TVTropes cites a line from the first Harry Potter book:

It wasn’t Snape. It wasn’t even Voldemort. It was Quirrell.

I have no idea what that actually means. I assume the three proper nouns are three characters in the story, the first two of whom are known to be antagonistic, but the third was not.

For the reader, who has been following the characters and internalized their roles, apparently this was quite the jolt.

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