One of my current works in progress (oh, how wonderful it would be if there were only one) is a scary middle grade book. I’ve written a couple manuscripts over the years that were at least meant to be scary. Some were. Some…eh….
Every time I approach a new scary idea, whether it would be categorized as spooky or creepy or horror or whatever other label could be assigned, there’s always one big question that I try to keep in mind: Exactly how far can I take things while writing for a middle grade audience? There are a few things I’ve learned to consider:
*What part of the middle grade audience, specifically, does the book aim for? Middle grade can be a tricky age level to write for. Some books are more directed toward the nine-year-olds, some target the older end of thirteen or maybe even fourteen, and some look to split the difference. Is the story itself something that would interest the younger readers or the older readers? Assuming the older readers are able to handle stories with a scarier edge to them, books meant for that chunk of middle grade could offer some more challenging scares. A younger reader might only need more innocent campfire tales for a scary thrill, so they don’t go to sleep at night wondering what sorts of nightmares might be found beneath their bed.
*How balanced is the pacing of the scares? Are there quieter moments to even things out, or maybe even jokes to lighten the tone?
*What part, if any, will violence play? Where is the line between a story being something scary, and becoming full-on horror? Is it the degree of the scare? Are the characters facing physical jeopardy? Is either blood or death involved with what’s happening in the story, and how necessary is it?
*Do the scares serve the story, or are they being included simply for shock value? Anything included in a manuscript should be necessary to advancing the story. Are monsters or jumpy scenes written in just to make things scarier, or do they have actual purpose?
Things always come back in the end to what’s necessary for the story and appropriate for the audience. I think as long as the content of the story matches that criteria, readers should have a good idea about what to expect. Sometimes the scares might catch people off guard, though. I think most of us have had that happen before, while reading some book or watching a movie. Getting through an unexpected scare in a storyline and seeing how the characters handle it can be empowering for a middle grade reader. Maybe kids who take on the challenge of diving into something that might give them some spooks and chills will open them up to new directions in their reading.