5 Things to Remember When Writing “Scary”
Of the thirteen known months, October is by far the spoo-o-o-o-o-okiest. (Sorry, Febru-scary.) And in the spirit of this month’s general macabre-ishness, here’s a post about writing ‘scary’. Specifically, what DOES and does NOT work when you’re trying to turn your prose into … boos. (Ghostly boos, that is, not ‘you suck’ boos.)
So here’s a comprehensive list of BOOS and BOO-NOTS to remember when writing scary stories.
1. Don’t TELL Me Something’s Scary
The best way to ensure your reader won’t feel anything resembling fear is to tell them that they’re afraid. Obviously. But I’m not just being literal. Remember, you can’t infuse your words with fright; you can’t inject it straight into the reader. So don’t over-focus on the darkest corner in the dark room. Don’t go into gruesome detail about the crazed look in the killer’s eyes. I’m sorry—I’m so, so sorry—but writing is a terrible medium for communicating that shiver down your spine, that crawl of your skin. When you tell me the haunted windowsill radiates PURE EVIL, I don’t know what that means; I certainly don’t know what it feels like. And DEFINITELY don’t feel it!
Instead, tell me about your characters’ reactions to the thing that’s scary. Tell me about hearts pounding and feet stumbling as they slowly back away. When the possessed doll opens its eyes and speaks for the first time, let me know that it’s as if all the air has been sucked from the room and the hero’s lungs clutch painfully at their chest. To be clear, this won’t scare me either, but if you do it well, it will involve me in the story, align me with your characters, which is exactly where you need me to be if you want to make me pee my pants.
2. Gory isn’t Scary. Gruesome is.
By Gruesome, I’m referring to body horror. Body horror is always disturbing. It just is. But to be clear, there’s a difference between body horror and splatter. If a little blood is scary, a lot should be terrifying, right? No. Not at all. Gore is no more than an indicator of violence. Painting the room with it is just, once again, telling your reader that scary stuff has happened—or is happening.
So what is body horror? What is gruesome? Well it doesn’t even have to be bloody! (Though it certainly can be.) In part, it’s the cringing discomfort we get visualizing painful stuff happening to our own squishy meat coverings. But also, it’s taking things that are familiar and putting them in a context where they have no right to be. That could mean separated body parts, every-day items interacting with the bodies in unusual ways, irregular forms and structures, unnatural arrangements or attachments, etc.
Combine these two anxieties and you’re pretty much garneeted to creep out your reader.
Example: Just read a synopsis for Stephen King’s short story The Moving Finger.
3. Movie-Scary Doesn’t Work in Books
We consume more fiction today than at any other time in human history. [No source offered.] And because watching tends to be so much faster than reading, the majority of our scary stories often come from TV and movies.
Unfortunately, many writers try to apply the tropes and conventions of scary movies they’ve watched, in their prose. It rarely works. Here are some examples:
a) Drawn-Out Moments of Tension
These are the bread and butter of a good scary movie. Sometimes silent, sometimes suffused with eerie music, they pin our eyes to the screen and push our butts to the very end of their seats. These are the moments where we fear (or dread) that something terrible is going to happen, utilizing slowed pacing and low-motion shots to get our imaginations running absolutely goddamn wild with all the horrible things that could happen.
In prose we can’t do this! We can’t linger a full forty seconds on the point of a knife, or a dark corner where something might be lurking, while the reader just sits and pushes their imagination into it. Because the words don’t stop; they can’t. Oh, you could spend a full three paragraphs describing the door handle everyone in the room is watching, afraid that it will turn at any moment, but this actually has the opposite effect; it distracts the reader from the tension you’re trying to create.
GETTING AROUND IT: Okay, so we can’t linger on a particular shot like they do in movies. And we certainly don’t have scary music to augment the mood. But we can keep circling back to the scary thing we’re focusing on. Using the door handle example from before:
Everyone’s in the tiny room, huddled together on the bed, staring at the rusted metal knob. Each knows that if it begins to turn, if that door opens … they will die. The older ones hold the younger tight in their arms, not to offer comfort but to silence them should they start to scream. A thump in the hall causes more than one of them to jump. That thing is right outside. With nothing else to look at, nothing in the room worth seeing, they lock their eyes to that handle, more certain with each passing moment that it’s about to turn. What if it finds a different way in? she thinks. What if it climbs up through the floor under the bed? What if it’s already in the room? She pulls back from the edge of the mattress and squeezes her brother a little tighter, threatening to strangle him with the force of her embrace. The handle still has not moved.
It begins to turn
Note that this little scene is very much about the door handle and whether it’s going to turn. But the focus moves around. We can’t stop writing to allow the reader to imagine what’s going to happen next, so we have to guide their mind around a bit. We offer some variety in what we focus on. There are physical reactions (jumping, squeezing, edging away), conceptual fear (holding someone’s mouth as they try to scream) and frightened speculation (what if it finds a different way in?). But we keep coming back to the door handle. And in the end, we get a payoff. This creates a sense of tension not so different from the drawn-out tension shots we get in movies.
b) Jump Scares
Here, probably, is the most well-known scary movie convention. But it should go without saying that it’s really hard to startle someone with prose. Even speed readers.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Your prose will never startle a reader, but it can shock them. A good reveal is not so different than a jump scare (and not so cheap ether). So tease knowledge. Drop hints, but don’t let them realize they’re hints. Then surprise them with a truth they never saw coming. You’ll have them crying “Holy shit!” as loud as any cat jumping out of a closet. Now, how do you craft a good reveal? Well that’s a pretty big question, a post in and of itself, maybe. For now though … just practice.
c) Scary Visuals
Sometimes just looking at a thing can be scary. Creatures, killers or just creepy pictures. Again, it should be pretty clear as to why this application works poorly in writing. It’s surprising how many writers fail to recognize this. I personally love a cool description of a crazy monster. But that doesn’t make it scary. No matter how pointy its teeth or burning its eyes. No matter how frightening it would look in real life, the description is never scary.
TRY INSTEAD: Give a scary description if you like, but if you want your creature, killer or ghost to be truly scary, simple. Have it do scary things. See point #2 above (the body horror paragraph) and #4 below.
Okay, that’s enough about movies. Let’s movie on, shall we?
3. Build DREAD
Let your reader figure out that a bad thing’s going to happen. Not by telling them it’s going to happen. Not even telling them something’s going to happen. But by putting your characters in a situation where the bad thing seems possible. Where your reader arrives at what might happen on their own. Once you’ve managed this, once the thought is in their head, it will torment them as it becomes ever more apparent that the bad thing WILL happen. But remember, for this to be effective, the bad thing has to be pretty darn bad.
Good examples of this: The Babadook, BoJack Horseman Season 3.
4. Create Scary Situations
A lot of writers seem to believe that “scary situation” and “danger in a scary setting” mean exactly the same thing. They don’t. In these writers’ defense though, this is kind of a tough one. Because what’s a scary situation? ‘Scary’ is subjective, after all. So remember, what we’re looking for is conceptually frightening ideas.
The key is to give your characters more reason to panic than just the danger they’re in. Utilize your readers’ mental discomfort. For example, cancer, in real life, is truly scary, so are car accidents. Generally less so in writing. But being trapped is. Having something unseen standing right behind you is. Knowing that something lives in the hidden corners and dark spaces in your home (under the stairs maybe?). Feeling something crawling under your clothes. Scary situations tap into primal and often irrational sources of panic. As I mentioned above, body horror is the best way to make your readers cringe; if you want to make their skin crawl, try your hand at such a scary situation.
5. Control Tension with Word Rhythm
I mentioned above that you can draw a moment out by shifting the reader’s attention while simultaneously focusing on one particular element (the door handle). Another thing you can do is actually use your words throttle the reader’s speed. It’s a little trickier than just saying, “Long sentences for slow scenes. Short for fast ones.” But that’s almost kind of the gist of it.
Paragraphs beginning in long sentences, which get shorter and shorter as they go, help create a tension of suspense. Paragraphs filled with short, clipped sentences with a single longer sentence at the end, help create tension of action. This, of course, is a pretty general rule (and formulaic at that!) but simply keeping rhythm in mind as you write can make a big difference in how scary your story feels to the reader.
Okay, that’s five. How about one more for good luck?
6. Give Your Reader Reason to be Afraid
Characters. Of course, ultimately it comes down to your characters. Create characters your readers love. Then make your reader watch as you slowly slide them off a cliff. Great scary stories are going to have great characters. Simple as that.