Friday, March 1, 2019

How to Make Scary Stories Come Alive

“Scary, Mommy, it’s scary.” 
“Ok, honey, just a minute. Go back upstairs.”

Not exactly one of my parenting triumphs. At this point, Jessie’s pretty young, my hubby’s out of town, and I’m on an urgent family conference call. She’s seen Jurassic Park before and enjoyed being “scared.” She’ll be fine watching the sequel upstairs with her siblings. Right? Wrong.

I’d forgotten the dreaded picnic scene. You remember the one, where a little girl wanders away from her family and is mauled by tiny dinosaurs? That was too much for my little girl. But it was an excellent scary scene.

How to Write Scary

There’s lots to know when writing scary scenes, such as what type of scene you’re shooting for, how to write it for maximum effect, who your audience is, and why you’re writing something scary in the first place. 

Know the Types of Scary Scenes

Suspense: These are scenes that provoke a sense of anxious uncertainty. Readers feel brought to the edge of their seats. These are great cliffhanger scenes that keep your audience reading. Another example of a suspense scene is when the reader knows something the character doesn’t (that there’s a monster in the closet, for instance).
Spooky: Spooky scenes can include humor or poke lighthearted fun at fear. Think Casper the Friendly Ghost, Ghostbusters, or Goosebumps movies and books.
Terror: Terror scenes provoke intense fear in the reader. These may keep readers looking over the shoulder or jumping at odd noises.
Horror: Very similar to terror, these provoke an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. Horror scenes may or may not include gore.
Fantasy/Paranormal/SciFi: These are any type of scary scene with supernatural or futuristic elements
Psychological: Of course, there is an element of psychology to every scary scene. But in this case, psychology is the main factor. Examples: when the fear is all in the characters’ head, split personalities, social anxiety.

Consider Your Audience

Genre standards and audience preferences should influence how you write your scary scenes, how much gore to include, how light or heavy-handed to be with the frightening elements. In middle grade fiction, story elements can be frightening and suspenseful, but are usually not graphic. Ease your readers into frightening scenes by first having scary things rumored or happening to friends of the main characters. If you write too graphically or intensely for a younger audience, they may be too frightened to finish the book. Gatekeepers such as parents, teachers, and librarians will likely screen the book out.

Make Them Care

Scary scenes are ineffective if the reader doesn’t care what happens to your character. Create relatable characters. Show them being kind. Show their flaws. Show what matters to them, and why. Show their dreams and aspirations. Then threaten all that. Your readers will shudder.

Use Concrete Details to Make it Real

Concrete details ground readers so you can tap their emotions. Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of this in Mockingjay, the third of the Hunger Games trilogy, which is obviously YA, not MG, but still. An amazing example.

I’m referring to the scene of the girl in the yellow coat. 

Katniss is trying to blend into the crowd. A girl notices her. The reader absorbs the image of a little girl in a lemon yellow coat. Sweet. But possibly a threat, since she’s noticed Katniss. But a little girl. A lemon yellow coat. Sweet. But danger. Hmm…reader is feeling anxious.

Gunfire rips through the crowd. Katniss next sees the little girl, screaming beside a motionless woman. We are riveted, gut-punched, and feel the girl’s pain. Then bullets mow her down, too. 

These concrete details make the scene come alive on an emotional level and heighten the reader’s horror at the situation overall, as well as our fear for Katniss, in particular.

Use Setting to Heighten Emotion

Use setting elements to highlight the frightening aspects of your scene. Even a sunny courtyard can have shadows, strangling vines, and blood-red flowers. Better yet, use aspects of the scene to remind the character (and your reader) of what’s at stake. Do forget-me-not blossoms remind her of her brother's eyes? What about when the flowers are trampled and dying?

Examine the Purposes of Your Scary Scenes

Are you trying to force your character to their breaking point? If so, why? Are you showing the character develop a new strength or skill? Will this fearful situation break your character or will they triumph? Will they stick to their values or violate them? What are the mental and physical consequences of how they react?

Scary Writing Resources

Back to Jessie and Jurassic Park. I’m happy to say she suffered no permanent damage for her early exposure to something scary sans Mom. She’s an avid reader and doesn’t shy away from horror films or life’s adventures.

What are your fave scary writing tips or MG horror novels?

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