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How Do I Scare My Readers?

scaredsilh.pngBruce Hale aka the Writer Guy was asked these questions:

"I would like to hear from you, what tips can you give me for horror stories, whether novel or short story? How do I bring that horror feel to life? How can I keep my readers from sleeping for a few nights? How do I achieve the fear factor?"

And is allowing me to share his answers here:

Having just finished a horror series for kids (The Monstertown Mysteries), this topic is fresh in my mind. Creating a sense of horror is all about the expectation of something awful happening. As Alfred Hitchcock said, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."

From early on in your story, you should plant the seed in the reader's mind that all is not well in this world, and then with each turn of the page, you bring that horror closer and closer. How? Here are four techniques:

1. Hide the monster
Take a tip from scary movies, and have the *effects* of the creature/ghost/whatever turn up much earlier than the creature itself does. You'll notice we don't see the shark in JAWS until well into the film. There's a reason for that. Spielberg knows that the longer we delay the actual monster sighting, the more punch it will pack.

2. Mislead the reader
Be sure to employ a few red herrings, spots where you make us think that the creature is about to appear but it turns out to be the cat, a neighbor, or whatever. This can also be used if your hero is trying to figure out what's behind the spooky happenings. Have them initially suspect the wrong people.

3. Hook 'em over and over
Horror is all about hooks. Your concept should hook your reader from the get-go. But that's not the only hook to employ. Rather than having chapter endings resolve an issue, have them hook as well. End each chapter on a cliffhanger note of suspense, the equivalent of "and then..." in a picture book. Try this technique and you'll have your readers flipping pages like mad.

4. Play on your fears
Have the source of horror in your story be something that particularly frightens your hero. If they're clown-phobic, have them face sadistic clowns. If they're kitten-phobic, have them encounter Evil Fluffy. Bonus points if you can draw from your own fears when building your hero. Because the more you feel it when you're writing, the more your readers will feel it when they read.


MantisCover4.jpghat-club-fedora.jpgBruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 45 seriously funny books for young readers, including the Clark the Shark tales (one of which ended up in a Happy Meal -- not the way you think) and the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries. Find out about his newest series, the Monstertown Mysteries, online at: www.brucehale.com.


A Fresh Look at Our Writing

refreshment-438399_1280.jpegI was once again reminded how important a fresh look is on a manuscript. This week a writer friend asked me to look at a picture book manuscript that her agent had said was "too mean spirited." It was a retelling of an old story--good guys against a bad guy--with a very modern twist. I thought it was hilarious. I'd seen several versions and really couldn't see much to tone down. Then yesterday she showed it to a mutual critique partner who had not seen the story before. She pointed out areas that would soften the story. This third writer had fresh eyes and was so right in her suggestions.

I love this imagery from Arthur Polotnik: "You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke." When we are writing our own view is hindered by smoke. We're excited about what we're creating--in love with our characters, our words. Setting aside the manuscript and coming back to it later when the fire has cooled, let's some of that smoke of infatuation clear.

When we've looked at a manuscript over and over and over, we get blind. It's too easy to skim because we "know" what it says. Suzanne Paschall says it this way, "Tired eyes become blind to errors that jump out to fresh eyes..." Somehow we need a splash of water in the face to wake us up.

Right now I'm going through my own manuscript using comments from my critique group. Mine is a novel in verse and once I gave the complete manuscript to my partners, I've didn't look at it until I got their feedback. (I also tried not to think about the story at all.) Their questions and comments are helping me see it afresh. It helps me see what I know but didn't put on the page. It helps me see where I wasn't clear or left out details that will add to the story. It challenges me. And I know it is making my story better.

Soon, I'll reread the whole story again to get it ready to send out on submission. This time I'll probably first change the font so it looks different to me. This trick can help fool our eyes into seeing the words afresh.

Do you have other tools you use to look at your writing with fresh eyes? If so, please share in the comments.


Run Away Words

runners-373099_1280.jpegEver met someone who can't seem to stop talking? He always has something to say. She may or may not be interesting, but has words for every topic. If there's silence, this person is more than happy to fill it. Perhaps, overfill it.

Ever been sidetracked in a conversation? It definitely happens to me. I start telling a story, then at some point realize my words have run off the road. I'm not sure where I took the detour that got me from the original topic to where I am now. I might lamely say something like, "I'm not sure what the point of that was..."

Writing is neither about simply filling the page with words nor about letting words run away. Sure, a rough draft may work that way. But even with a rough draft, we hope we are headed in the correct direction. Our intent isn't simply to spit out words.

Recently when editing someone else's novel, I found myself marking "redundant" on information. As a reader, I already got that point and didn't need to be told again. But as I writer I know how easy that is to do. We want to make sure our reader doesn't miss something important. We want to keep a reader grounded in the setting. We have good intentions. However, we need to trust that the reader will understand without us over explaining.

I find it easy to let my words run away when working on a picture book manuscript. And it isn't only about word count. I have to go back and look at my text and see what should be left out because the illustrator will take care of it.

Sometimes run away words are simply a bad habit. "Everyone" says them and we use them without thought. I found this site that lists 200 Common Redundancies in English. It's actually rather entertaining to read. The words in parenthesizes are the ones to leave out.

Clichés are similarly not good practice in our writing. I like how this article, 681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing, calls them shortcuts. Peter Selgin says, "The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting." This article suggests interesting ways to remove clichés: Replace Cliches with Phrases That Move.

If you have tips or suggestions on other ways we writers let words run away, feel free to comment below. (If you cannot see the comment box, click on the title above, which will take you to the post itself.)



Novel-sized Problem

boy-984313_1920.jpegIf your story problem can be solved quickly and easily, it's probably a magazine story. But if your main character has multiple things going on (subplots) and is going to have a lot of "doing" or action before the end of the story, then you have a novel-sized problem. Some problems are novel-sized just by their seriousness--death, grave illness, other big losses, abuse, etc.

I can't conceive of a whole children's novel at once, whereas I can a children's short story. I can visualize the problem, the steps the main character will try, and the solution for a short story and be pretty accurate that it will happen that way. For a novel my conception is more fluid. Yes, I have ideas of a problem, but not all the problems my character(s) will experience. I have ideas for solutions, but that's not necessarily what the main character will end up doing. My idea of the final solution may change drastically as I write. I like what Greg Hollingshead says, "The primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene." This takes us back to the problem. Novel problems matter more than short story problems. They affect the character's whole life in some way not just a small piece of it. Problems that are big enough for a novel won't be forgotten by your character next year. A short story problem once solved could be forgotten next week.

I recently read an outline for a children's short story where I told the writer it was more of a novel problem. My first hint was the depth of the problem. My second was the character was making a decision about something and I wasn't going to get to see the result of that decision. Hard to explain without getting into details for that specific story, so let me come up with an example. I've never watched The Bachelor, but what if there was a scene where he said, "I know whom I'm going to marry." He even says the name. But we don't get to see him ask her and see if she says yes. We'd feel cheated. If what NEEDS to be shown won't fit in your short story, think novel. Or maybe you're starting in the wrong place--too soon in the story.

There's satisfaction in writing both. Short stories offer a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Novels can offer a longer lasting sense of accomplishment. T.C. Boyle says, "The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow."

So part of determining whether you have a short story or a novel problem is how strongly you feel about the main issue in the story. Is it something you are willing to spend some time on? A few hours, a few days, maybe a week? Or is it something you're willing to devote months, often years? A novel will take the latter.

Let me conclude with this lovely statement from Elizabeth Sims: "...in a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel." (Go here to read her complete article.)


Emotions and Feelings

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Look at these images. Do I need to put a label on them so you know what the character is feeling? No. Why not? Because these are well-drawn and the emotion is clear. It's shown.

The same goes with writing. We don't need to label characters as annoyed, happy, in love, scared, shocked, etc. We need to show it. (Picture books are often the exception to this rule.)

Let's take Ms. Bunny above. She looks shocked to me. So what happens when a person is shocked (I don't mean the electrical kind)? Eyes go big or widen. A hand might come up to cover an open mouth. Someone might take a step back or sit down suddenly. A face might pale. The person might gasp. If you describe your character experiencing being shocked, you won't have to use the "shocked" label.

I love the image of the annoyed penguin. We know what is annoying him and what he plans to do about it. What do you when something is flying around you and it is annoying? First, perhaps wave the insect off. This is almost a subconscious reaction. But after a few times it impinges on our consciousness and we get annoyed. Now we might be slapping at the bug. Making noises of irritation. Then finally get up to get something to kill it.

Mr. Frog is obviously scared. He's jumped up. His heart is probably pounding (although this is so easy to overuse). He might be sweating. Eyes dilate. Breathing rate could increase. A hand/paw/webbed foot might go to the throat. A body can shake; a hand tremble. If one is like the fainting goats, one might pass out.

So next time you are tempted to write something like "Sam was happy." Instead think about what that looks and feels like. Observe yourself and others and write was happiness does to a person. Show the reader that instead of telling a "label."


How Do I Scare My Readers?

A Fresh Look at Our Writing

Run Away Words

Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Rhyming Picture Books

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Overwriting

Reducing Word Count

How to Stand Out

NAMING CHARACTERS - FROM MARY'S NOTEBOOK

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Say What?

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

BACK UP!

175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

Do you struggle with grammar?

Illustrator Resources

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

My Favorite Online Resources

Do as I Say

Attribution or Action?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices

DIALOGUE TIPS

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development