Saturday, 25 October 2014
It’s an age old question. How do you scare your reader out of their wits?
Whether you are writing a horror story or a ghost/supernatural story or indeed any story that you want to illicit plenty of emotions – especially the scary ones – the ability to scare the reader or invoke fear, helps to makes the story all the more realistic.
But scaring people isn’t easy.
The art of scaring your reader is all about what you DON’T reveal, as opposed to what you do reveal. And that’s because fear – psychologically speaking – is a primitive emotion that manifests when we don’t understand what we are confronted with. It’s easy to fear something we don’t know about, and that’s because we feel like we have no control over the situation. Not being in control scares many people.
In fiction, it’s about creating that sense of no control, not knowing, not seeing the whole thing, of being helpless. It’s about creating a heightened sense of tension and atmosphere. It’s about manipulating how and what the reader feels, making them imagine all sorts of things.
Good monster movies don’t always show the monster straight away. Instead we’re teased with glimpses, because that makes our minds imagine what the monster is and what it looks like, until the final reveal. The same principle of dangling the carrot also applies to story writing.
The idea is to tease and influence your reader, to make them imagine what evil lurks in dark corners and what lies in wait for your main character when they least expect.
Scary scenes depend on our common fears such as the fear of the dark, dear of rats or snakes, fear of spiders and other creepy crawlies, fear of the water, fear of thunder or lightning, the fear of clowns, the fear of losing something or someone, the fear of being alone, or conversely, the fear of being in crowds, just to name a few.
For every fear that humanity has, a writer can exploit it.
So what are the main ingredients for a good scary story or scenes? There are number of factors – being scary relies on exploiting our primitive fears, having the right spooky or creepy setting, a gradual build-up of tension, lots of atmosphere, the right mood and heightened emotions and/or conflict.
It’s about feeding the reader bit by bit, playing on those primal fears as the story progresses, letting the reader imagine all sorts, then feeding them a little bit more, but never allowing them to consume everything in one go. Remember, people fear the unknown, it makes them uneasy.
And something isn’t scary if you know what is coming.
Another thing to consider is that the higher the stakes for your main character to deal with, the more tension and atmosphere you create. This keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, so to speak, wondering what the hero will do to get out of the situation.
And don’t stop at raising the stakes. Increase the danger. With danger comes the unexpected – will the hero escape the evil house? Will he or she escape the clutches of the monster or ghost or whatever supernatural creature you’ve conjured.
Scary scenes also depend heavily on emotions and the focus of the action on the main character. Readers want to see the panic, the dread, the fear or worry. They want to feel the claustrophobia of the situation, they want to feel the taut atmosphere and they want to feel the tone.
That means description plays a huge part in how the story is delivered. The right word choices, the right amount of showing rather than telling and using visual imagery and the five senses and to convey the mood and atmosphere, to show the emotions, conflict and fears.
There is quite a lot to consider, but it’s worth noting that there are also different types of ‘scares’ that writers use:
a) The psychological scare – This where you hints at things that may or may not be there, you tease the reader, you pull at their emotions and play on their fears, creating mood and an uneasy atmosphere, yet revealing little.
b) Visual scare – this is what horror writers love to use. Gory and visceral imagery is used to shock and terrify the reader, with gruesome descriptions and a brooding atmosphere that helps complete the scene.
c) Shock scares – something that the reader simply doesn’t expect, like jump-scares in movies; the sudden revelation or a twist. This can also apply to twist endings.
The best way to scare the reader is not by telling them everything they need to know, but rather letting their minds and imagination do the work for you. And by coercing all of these ingredients together, you can create a convincing scary scene to fill your scary story. Next week we’ll look at how all this is accomplished.
Next week: How to write scary scenes – Part 2.
Saturday, 18 October 2014
I often get asked a lot about this by writers, worried that some subjects are off limits and should never be broached at the risk of offending people or upsetting their own families.
Also, there is a fear that controversial subjects might limit readership or, worse still, publication, however, the thing to consider with writing is that it is not just a form of expression or an art form; it is the basis of our social comment on humanity. Finding answers to what makes people tick, what makes them do the things they do, is what writing really is all about. To that end, no subject is truly off limits.
But like any medium, it is how we handle the subject that really matters.
Just as artists are free to express what they want in their work, writing is no different. Writers are free to explore the forbidden or usually unavoidable subjects, however unsavoury they may be, particularly so if there is a moral behind the story and it raises the kinds of questions we as society should be asking and trying to answer. And those questions come about because taboos fascinate us and repel us in equal measure.
Should we all walk around with blinkers on, ignoring the darker elements of our world, or should we show the reality of what’s out there? After all, life isn’t all fluffy white clouds and bright blue skies. Writers like to tap into those murkier areas, to dig beneath the social and cultural values that veil the dark underbelly, to reveal truths that sometimes society doesn’t want to hear. But sometimes the greatest fiction comes from hard truth.
Fiction allows writers to push readers to question such taboos, why they exist, what makes them so forbidden and unacceptable, and to help them understand what they are in context to the story the writer creates.
But what subjects would be considered taboo?
There are social taboos and cultural taboos. Subjects that might involve children and young adults – themes of paedophilia and sexual abuse or torture – tend to make most people frown, but many high profile cases in the news should make us realise how common these are, so as writers, we should want to explore and understand the complexities and emotions that make people commit these acts. These are social taboos.
The same goes for rape or incest. Other themes might centre on the dead, so subjects with death and sexual fantasy/necrophilia are also considered very taboo. Themes involving drugs are also considered taboo, simply because of their effects and destructiveness.
But that’s not to say you can’t write about them.
Subjects that involve traditional belief systems, ethnic beliefs or religion (and associated radical) behaviours are considered cultural taboos. In the West, we’re not really bothered about flashing our flesh or using profanity or having wild drinking parties and so on. But in a Muslim country, modesty is important and profanity and nudity is very taboo, so if we write about them we need to be considered and respectful to different ways of life.
As writers, we should not be afraid of tackling the more unpleasant issues, whether it’s about violent sex, sexual fantasies, death, children, torture, incest, terrorism etc, but such stories should be written with great respect and care and not written for gratification, titillation or cheap insults, particularly to those have been victims of such.
Writers have a moral responsibility to show the impact and emotion and reality of the issue without mocking or demeaning the subject. So if you do write about something considered taboo, you need to consider it carefully and ask yourself how important it is to your story, the themes that are associated with it, the reasons behind it and the impact it has on the characters, and, ultimately, how the main character reaches his or her goal by the end of the story. Lastly, the story must end in a satisfactory, responsible and truthful manner.
Why should we write about them?
It’s a way of exploring such dark issues, to open up about them and to try to find the reasons behind it. Writing is all about finding out why people do the things they do, to uncover universal truths.
Through fiction, stories can help others that may have been through similar ordeals that your main character does, it shows that we shouldn’t hide away from such issues, but rather confront them.
Sometimes fiction can highlight the things that must be highlighted, rather than remain hidden away from society. Sometimes ignorance means we don’t have to confront the terrible things that are taking place in the world. If we don’t know about it, we don’t have to care.
I have covered many taboo subjects in my writing, such as child abuse, drug use, rape, genocide, terrorism and self-harm. I’ve done so because they are subjects that I, as a writer, feel should be explored and not swept under the carpet.
The more we learn, the better our understanding.
Remember, writing about controversial issues should never be for a reaction or shock value. Instead it should be because we need to know the truth.
Next week: How to write scary scenes