Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Putting the "Boo" in Your Book

The night was cold and dark.
"Listen to the wind howling in the trees," said Frog. "What a fine time for a ghost story."
Toad moved deeper into his chair.
"Toad," asked Frog, "don’t you like to be scared? Don’t you like to feel the shivers?"
"I am not too sure," said Toad.
Days with Frog and Toad, "Shivers" by Arnold Lobel

I sometimes fear that, if I admit this, then I'll be asked to tear up my "I'm a good Christian" card, but here goes: I love Halloween! I love the scary costumes, the ghost stories (anyone want to discuss the etymology of the word daemon?), and the whole shootin' match. My theological defense of the holiday goes something like this: "Halloween is the one time of year that Americans face three vital truths they spend the rest of the year denying: a) the reality of life after death, b) the reality of the supernatural realm, and c) the reality of evil." But I digress. For those who want to discuss more the value of scary stories or Halloween in general, I'll refer you to Erin Newcomb's excellent post on the subject at called "All Hallow's Read: Why We Should Read Scary Stories for Halloween."

For this post, I want to discuss how to write a genuinely scary story. How do I, as a writer, create something that just scares the pants off of my readers? That gives them "the shivers." 

I don't often experience the shivers from books. There is, however, one memorable moment where a book genuinely frightened me. Naturally and oddly enough, it was a Stephen King book. I say "naturally," because he's supposedly the master of it. And I say "oddly," because, as I mentioned, I usually don't get the shivers when I read. Not sure why, but it doesn't happen that often. Except, of course, for that one time. 

I was flying south into Houston to visit my folks, and I happened to be reading The Stand, which, for those who don't know, is about the destruction of civilization through the accidental escape of a government engineered supervirus. So here I am reading about people dying in their own snot and the spread of "Captain Trips" (as the flu was called) through the globe, and the guy in the seat behind me sneezes.

Right there, I nearly jumped outta my chair. And right after that, I took my hat off to Professor King, and I said, "I want to learn how to do that."

At this point, I haven't written anything that might be classified as "horror." I mostly stick with thrillers and action-adventure novels. But I am told that my writing is quite scary. I think it has something to do with writing about the worst case scenarios politically-speaking.

So how do I, as a writer, give someone the shivers? In no particular order, here are some thoughts:

Make Your Monster Sympathetic
I'll start here. And when I use the term "Monster," I mean all manner of monsters: supernatural, human, animal. If you're going to write about a monster, make them a little sympathetic. It's too easy to paint bad guys with a broad, black brush. Humanize them a bit, especially if they really are (or at least, at one time, were) human. Making a monster sympathetic means pointing out the spark of the Imago Dei resident in all created things. The goal of this is not to make the monster less scary or less evil, but simply to create an emotional attachment in your reader, to hold a mirror up to their soul and help them recognize the darkness within. The difference between the man and the monster is a matter of degree, not kind. Holding up the mirror to my own internal darkness creates the sense of recoil, the pulling back in horror from what is down in the abyss of my soul. 

In Stephen King's story, Storm of the Century (oddly enough, I'm writing this just as Hurricane Sandy is about to hit town), the demon at the heart of the story is humanized by his desire to reproduce after his kind: to take one of the villagers' children and make him his own. We can understand his desire to have children, but it is in conflict with a) our own desire to protect our children from someone who would take them for his own ends, and b) our own desire to ensure that evil does not grow or continue. This creates the core element of the horror.

Take Ordinary Things and Twist Them Slightly
Put things out of context. Make regular, ordinary objects the key vessels for communicating horror. You want your reader to think, "Something's wrong," without clearly identifying the nature of the wrong. A child's tricycle in the lawn is one thing. A child's tricycle in the middle of the street with the wheels spinning suggests something else entirely. 

Steven Spielberg is a master of this, especially in his earlier works. Take Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or even the more recent Super 8 with all its homages to the earlier film). The frightening aspect of the aliens is not the lights in the sky, but rather the effect they have on ordinary objects. The toys in Barry's room in Muncie, Indiana light up and make noise. No big deal. But they do this in the middle of the night, without being turned on or plugged in. Creepy. 

C.S. Lewis described something similar in That Hideous Strength, when Mark Studdock is compelled to sit in a room that will obliterate any sense of how things "should be" in his mind. The room itself is ill-proportioned. There are dots, not quite round, on the ceiling that resist counting, and more on the table that almost but not quite correspond to the ones on the ceiling. And there are paintings along the walls, surrealistic efforts that twist the mind. He writes, 
What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became their supreme menace--like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind. Compared with these the other, surrealistic, pictures were mere foolerly. Long ago, Mark had read somewhere of "things of that extreme evil which seem innocent to the uninitiate," and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.
Don't Show The Monster... Yet
A third thing, in the building of suspense and terror, is to resist showing or explaining the monster too quickly. The revelation of the monster, as well as the humanizing of the monster, should come much later in your story, if at all.

In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings we never actually see Sauron the Deceiver. The most we can conceive of him is a lidless eye, wreathed in flame. The rest of the monster is never actually shown.

Or take Jaws as an example. The shark isn't really seen in its entirety until the final, climactic battle aboard the Orca. Up till then, all we have is scary mood music and people screaming as they disappear underwater, surface, and then disappear again. Oh, and a fin coming toward us. Closer. Closer.

Don't let your reader see the monster's face until you're ready to show them that it's a mirror to their own darkness (in Jaws the shark is motivated by hunger and a desire to protect her young. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is driven by his thirst for power). And don't reveal the monster until you're near the climax of the story. Seeing the monster revealed should happen just prior to the climax. From here there should be a very quick decision on the part of the protagonist--whether to fight the evil or surrender and succumb. And this itself better be a very real choice. You want to evoke the fight or flight response in your reader. You want the "fight" response to be the desired choice, but for that same reason, it has to be the most difficult, most costly choice your characters can make. It is the choice that will require the protagonist to finally face his or her fatal flaw, and come to terms with the necessity of sacrifice to achieve victory.

Ratchet Up the Pace
A truly scary book starts off at a leisurely walk, then a little faster, then a jog, then an all out run, panting, wheezing, stumbling, until you make that final leap from the precipice. Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart is worth studying in this regard, if just for the way he handles the pacing. He starts off with a quick jolt to grab our attention:
TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story. 
 And then he continues, slowing the pace down with longer sentences that allow us to catch our breath. But only for a moment. Notice the length of these sentences:
When I had waited a long time very patiently without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little -- a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it -- you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily -- until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.
It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness -- all a dull blue with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones, but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person, for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot.
And then finally, as we hasten to the climax, observe how short the clauses have become, and how quickly they run together as we leap from the precipice of the narrator's sanity:
No doubt I now grew VERY pale; but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased -- and what could I do? It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly , and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! -- no, no? They heard! -- they suspected! -- they KNEW! -- they were making a mockery of my horror! -- this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! -- and now -- again -- hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER! --
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"
Through repetition of sentences (but the noise steadily increased), words (louder, louder, louder!), and more reliance on words with hard consonants Poe ratchets the tension and flings us into the dark.

Write What Scares You
Finally, remember this caveat: if your writing doesn't scare you, it probably won't scare anyone else, either. There are moments, when I'm composing a thriller, where I genuinely creep myself out. If I don't, then I can't honestly say the story is a thriller.

Thomas Harris described something similar when he writes about how he first met Hannibal Lecter in The Red Dragon, that he became frightened himself when Lecter recognized Will Graham by smelling him.
"That's the same atrocious aftershave you wore in court, three years ago."
 Yikes! Bottom line: if you're going to scare your readers, you have to scare yourself first.
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  1. I like tension and anxiety in a story, but I don't know that I've come close to writing anything truly scary. Good tips for if I ever do!

  2. Although I love Poe, I'm not a fan of horror stories, but I can see how learning the technique would help ratchet the tension in any other genre. Terrific post!

  3. Too funny about the sneeze, but what great timing. I've read three or four of King's books, and you really gave the gist of what makes me freak. I'm going to have to get out that Lewis trilogy again, I see. I do get scared when I read because I know monsters are realllllll