Some of my favorite stories send shivers through my body every time I reread them. For example, "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, "The Third and Final Continent" by Jhumpa Lahiri, and the end of "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez.

I don't know the biological cause of this, but it feels transcendental. I do know I have never written anything that has given me the chills, so I am wondering if it requires an element of surprise, or if my writing hasn't reached that level.

Is there a formula to produce chills?

EDIT: Apparently the phenomenon is called "frisson" and is well known in music. It has been tied to specific frequencies that are similar to the range of a human scream. See The Science Behind Getting “Chills” From Music. From what I've found, there are few studies about frisson and literature.

My question now is how can reading (often done in quiet solitude) evoke a biological response, and how come some writers have it and others (apparently) don't?

I realize this may be subjective, but if (in my opinion) good writing evokes emotion (a biological response) what "tools of the trade" are available to evoke frisson (another biological response)?

  • If I were a betting man, I would bet it happens more to discovery writers than outliners. – Charles Caldwell Sep 25 '13 at 0:42
  • @CharlesCaldwell That's me, though in my first attempt of a novel, I do have a vague outline of the plot. – plntxt Sep 25 '13 at 1:02
  • 1
    Does it happen to you on rereading those books? If not, that would be an argument for surprise being a factor. – Monica Cellio Sep 25 '13 at 1:22
  • 1
    Putting this on hold because, in part, it's polling the community - asking everyone if they've experienced this can produce a lot of answers, all of which are "correct". Possible suggestions: Maybe edit into something more along the lines of what can cause this phenomenon, and tie that more into writing techniques? – Goodbye Stack Exchange Sep 25 '13 at 1:25
  • 2
    Standback: Nope, how do you scare readers efficiently? How do you get to squeeze their tears off? How do you get to elicit ennui? These are all quite nice questions. Chills is a very specific type of shock reaction, a sudden influx of fear, related to "boo!" type spooking but much more organic. – SF. Sep 25 '13 at 14:57

An excellently executed Hidden in Plain Sight (warning: TVTropes link!) is a surefire trigger.

Specifically: A deeply disturbing, truly scary thing which was the proverbial elephant in the room, executed well enough that the reader failed to notice it despite obvious hints. It was a menace capable of striking at any moment, stabbing our exposed backs from the middle while we stood in circle looking outside for the danger. Maybe it did strike unnoticed a few times already and we always boggled who or what caused it while the murderer was standing right next to the victim. It loomed at all times, feeling creepy but forgotten as a mood-building background element, and only when we reach resolution, when we lost our primary defenses and stand exposed, vulnerable and desperate, learning long-overdue secrets, our cocky approach long snuffed, us doing our homework of research diligently at last, we read the page that identifies our menace and we realize it reads it over our shoulder with us, as it kept doing for past half an hour.

This is the moment that sends a deep cold shiver down any reader's spine.


Well, according to Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silvia of University of North Carolina (the authors of one of the biggest studies about 'music chills'), response might depend on your personal history and 'the way you are'.

Musical chills, write the authors, are “sometimes known as aesthetic chills, thrills, shivers, frisson, and even skin orgasms [who knew?] … and involve a seconds-long feeling of goose bumps, tingling, and shivers, usually on the scalp, the back of the neck, and the spine, but occasionally across most of the body.” The scientific explanation for chills is that the emotions evoked by beautiful or meaningful music stimulate the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls primal drives such as hunger, sex and rage and also involuntary responses like blushing and goosebumps. Source

So music ones appear to be related not only to the emotions you evoke while listening to it, but also to your personality:

They also measured their experience with music, and five main dimensions of personality: extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Of all these dimensions, only openness to experience was related to feeling chills. People high in openness are creative, curious about many things, have active imaginations and like to play with ideas, and they much more frequently feel chills in response to music.Source

Apparently, people that were more 'open to experiences' were also more likely to play a musical instrument themselves (they rated music as more important in their lives than people low in openness). I guess this makes the experience of music a bit more personal.

The same thing might be applied to reading. The more involved you are with what you're reading, and the more you use your imagination and relate to the story in respect to your personal life, the easier it will get to feel those chills.

Ultimately it seems to depend on the reader and his/her relationship with your book. However, if you can create vivid images that relate to universal human experiences, chills shouldn't be a problem for your sensitive readers :)


I think there's no specific formula. If your story give you the chills, then it will give the chills to your readers too (or at least, it will increase the probability).

Now coming up with a idea/story that does that is another thing. I think is different for everyone. But in theory, if you read authors that give you the chills, and try to emulate (or take inspiration from them), you'll eventually write something that produces the same effect.

The thing I do is to come up with as many ideas/stories as possible. I don't know you, but ideas pop up in my mind all the time. While jogging, taking a shower, watching a movie, taking a dump, etc. And I write them all, even the ridiculous ones (I don't necessarily finish them)—then I wait. I leave them there for a couple of months. Then I come back to them. And if the story still gives me the chills, I keep working on it. It means it survived the test of time. Natural selection.

So to conclude, there's no specific formula. The best you can do is to try as many ideas as you can, and pick those that "survive." If they really give the chills, they won't be defeated by the passage of time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.