Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What is Scary? 5 Tips for Creating Scary Stories

I was recently asked a funny question: do you write scary stuff?

Well, I don't think so, but some people do. A reader recently told me that she had to put my debut novel (MOONLESS) down because of a scene 5 chapters in. I had to take another look. Maybe I do write tense, if not terrifying things.

I really didn't intend to make my entry for the Parallels anthology scary, but when I typed that first line: "Every day I look into the eyes of a stone cold killer", I knew I had to go with it. What kind of bizarre story was spilling onto the page? And yes, it's intense, but like all emotions, you can't experience one extreme without experiencing the other.

An extreme scare=an extreme relief.

The same is true with my Maiden of Time series. There are creatures one might call a cross between a dementor, vampire, and werewolf. Just perfect for Halloween. They're coming out to play in the final book, TIMELESS, releasing November 1. (Shameless plug there.)

So what is it that makes a story "scary?" And how do we implement the scare?

1. The setting:

The word choices and imagery depict an ambiance that sets our nerves on end. One scene in Moonless takes place in a 17th century cellar at midnight. A "dead girl" is found hanging from the rafters on chains. (She's not really dead, but that's another discussion for another day.) The setting builds on the shadows, the lack of light, the chill in the air, the flicker of a nearly-dead candle, the dead silence, and the bleeding red skirts of the hanging girl. Did you get all those details there? Full sensory experience based on what we perceive as terrifying--and that's the scene that robbed me of a reader. *sigh*

2. A protagonist you like:

If you sincerely care about a character, you don't want to see them step into the attic and get hacked to pieces by an ax murderer. A likable character builds the tension. That was the case with Jak from The Mirror People. I had to tell his story because I had to know that this sincerely good guy would somehow overcome the monster on the other side of the glass.

3. Foreshadowing:

We get hints, snippets that tell us something sinister is coming. A shadow on the wall. A scuttling and closing door. A bizarre taste on the wind... These prepare the mind and build anticipation for a future payout. This is one of my favorite tools--especially when it comes to planting red herrings so the reader is caught unawares.

4. Building tension: 

The stakes are upped. Things that really matter (like people's lives) are jeopardized. We take it to the next level by throwing something new into the fire. In Timeless, Alexia is already battling the Knights Templar to keep her people alive, and then mysterious murders start happening in her camp. Suddenly there is no safe haven.

5. Surprise:

This is the best part of a scary story in my opinion--that thing jumping out that you didn't expect. That twist that changed the entire story for you. Surprises are a must.

If you can pull off the tension and bring your readers to that place of relief, you've got them for life. Go forth and scare!

What's your favorite scary story or movie?