Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What’s Scary

Kabuki Actor - The Actor Ichikawa Danjuro by Katsukawa Shunso--1726-1792 My now eight year old daughter was in preschool for a couple of days a week to give me a break—and some time to do some writing. This always seemed to work out well for both of us.

Except when she was two. That’s when separation anxiety kicked into high gear. Her poor teacher that year was a sunny, small, smiling, blonde mother of two. Mrs. Heinz would greet my daughter in a cheerful voice. My daughter would scream bloody murder and cling to me in a way that necessitated her being pulled off me like a banana peel.

I promise that there was nothing sinister about this lady, the school, or the classroom, which was very open and well-monitored. Mrs. Heinz was the very definition of ‘benign.’ The only scary thing this teacher was doing was separating my daughter from me at a time she couldn’t tolerate separation.

Most of us have, at some point, to write a scene that’s either very tense or frightening.

How do we pull our readers into the scene? We want them to feel caught up in the action and definitely want them to keep turning the pages.

We want to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes:

Have the character display nervousness or disquiet before the scary things even happen. Maybe the scary part hasn’t really started in your scene—but you can set the stage by having the protagonist looking behind them, jumping at small noises, etc.

The reader needs to know what’s at stake: The character’s life? The character’s job? Nuclear holocaust? Getting dropped off at a preschool program? Obviously, the higher the stakes, the more tension for the reader.

Make sure the character uses his senses and relays that information to the reader. What does he hear? His own heartbeat? Footsteps running behind him? Maniacal laughter? What does he see? Nothing, because the lights are off?

Make them feel what the protagonist is feeling: chill up the spine, hairs standing up on the back of the neck, heart thumping, sweat dripping down the side of the face.

Build suspense. I took a film course in college and learned about parallel editing there. That’s when you cut between a shot showing the bomb with the timer counting down rapidly and a shot of the FBI agent running desperately up the staircase to stop it. Although it’s a visual device, the technique can be useful in fiction, too. You can cut back and forth between the thing the protagonist is afraid of and the frightened character.

Books and movies that scare me also feature nightmarish setbacks…the protagonist tripping over a root as he runs through the woods, the gun that isn’t loaded, etc.

My daughter, six years ago, was able to convey a great deal of foreboding and dread (and heaps of guilt) by shrieking at the very sight of poor Mrs. Heinz. Although I didn’t share her feelings about the teacher, she did an effective job of transferring her emotions to me. :)

Which is exactly what we want to do to our reader if we’re writing a frightening or tense scene.

How do you write page-turning scary or stressful scenes?