Blog | writing craft | craft | writing for children and teens
August 25, 2016
I like writing stories for children that are a little scary. It's one of the reasons I like writing mysteries. But I really prefer a story with a little more peril than a Sherlock Holmes type cerebral mystery. And if I'm really honest, I like the idea of giving an eager kid a bit of a chill.
But writing scary stories can be really intimidating. There's more to it than simply dropping a beastie in a story and letting it rampage around. Scary stories are about surprise. They're about leading the reader to expect one thing and giving them something else. [This is also something scary stories have in common with funny stories while also lead the reader to expect one thing or lean on what we normally expect from a situation and giving the reader something else.]
The scariest scene I ever read in my whole life was in Stephen King's The Shining. I'd like to look at the scene a moment with an eye toward seeing how it's built––so there will be spoilers here. Don't read it if you don't want them. Really.
So, in this scene, young Danny is trapped in a room with a really, really creepy ghost. The ghost is advancing on him and we know it doesn't have Danny's best interests at heart. He tries to get out of the room, but can't get the door to open. So we have this nice long, stretched out moment of the thing coming after him and him desperately rattling the doorknob.
Now, this is our hero here, so we know he's going to get out, don't we? First, we expect he'll get the door open just at the last possible instance. But then Danny remembers something important that a wise older character told him. The ghosts are like movies. They're scary but they cannot actually hurt you. They aren't real. So Danny turns his back on the horrible thing and embraces this idea, trying to believe away the ghost, and we truly believe he has found the answer and is going to be able to do that. Then when nothing happens, he's convinced he's succeeded, so he turns around and the ghost grabs him by the throat. King had me so completely convinced that Danny had found the answer that the ghost grabbing the child made me toss the book in the air in surprise.
That scene is basically a guidebook to writing scary. First we have a very vulnerable main character, a little boy. A young child is the ultimate in powerless, vulnerable main characters. Vulnerability is important in making something scary. If we don't believe the situation truly puts the main character in peril, if the character isn't vulnerable, then we won't be scared. It's hard to be scared for Superman, but it was easy to be scared for little Danny. Now, this doesn't mean the main character has to be likeable (though we'll be even more scared for a likable character), but the character absolutely must be vulnerable.
Then the scene must give us time for the suspense to build. A kid who just wanders into a room and finds it full of spiders and runs out will not scare a reader, even though the reader will believe it scared the character. So coming in, seeing scary thing, and running away is not a workable formula for scary. We need more time for scary to grow in the reader. We might write a scene where we come in and see very ordinary things at first, then begin to see things askew, like normal, comforting life that's not quite right. For instance, a room with a few toys might be fun, charming and comforting. But a room that is positively stuffed to the walls with dusty porcelain dolls with pale cracked faces and staring eyes is creepy. So we might take the creepy and up the ante with something else unexpected. Maybe the character notices the lace on the dresses of the dolls is moving as if rustling in a breeze, but the air in the room is deathly still and stale. That's a really small thing, but when nature refuses to act naturally, that ups the creepy. Then perhaps the main character leans closer to one of the dolls, a saucy baby doll whose mouth is slightly open to show off two tiny teeth like the smallest tombstones against the black darkness of the inside of the doll's mouth. And the main character wonders, is that mouth just a hole in the doll's head? So he leans closer still. Peering into the hole.
So see how that would stretch the suspense? We basically know something is going to happen. And if we're properly creeped out by old porcelain dolls, we might expect the doll to do something––laugh or move or blink. We know something is coming but we don't know what to expect. So suppose my main character leans very close and sees something tiny, so tiny, moving on the doll's lip. It's a spider. A tiny, tiny spider. Until it's more, a tidal wave of tiny spiders spilling from the doll's mouth. Startled, the main character jumps back and knocks one of the other dolls to the floor in his haste to get away. This fallen doll's head breaks open, spilling out more spiders, bigger and all crawling toward the main character.
Do you see? We stretch out the suspense. Then we hit the character with a surprise, something not quite exactly what he was expecting. Now I might let the character run away from the spiders. Or trap him in there with them. Or perhaps have him run screaming, only to be met at the door by someone who insists on coming in to see the spiders, only there aren't any. Not a single one. Just one poor doll with her head cracked open to reveal nothing but darkness inside.
So, as you can see, I do love scary stuff. If you do too, just remember these three keys to scary scene writing:
1. Create a vulnerable character.
2. Don't rush the suspense.
3. Set us up to expect one thing, and give us something else.
Think of them as the three skeleton keys to unlocking a good scare.
And good luck with your spook!
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