What gives a scary story its boo factor?
At their heart, scary stories share the qualities of any other story, including a main character with a goal and obstacles standing in that person’s way. But they have several additional factors: a scary setting, creepy character(s), and a twist or uh-oh moment.
Let’s say we’re writing about Susie, a girl who wants to get home but can’t find the way.
In a non-scary story, Susie struggles to read her map, tries in vain to find someone who can help, and wanders for hours before finally making it home.
But in a scary story, Susie is lost on a rocky, crab-filled seashore at midnight. She does find someone who offers to help, but it’s a ragged hitchhiker with a claw hand. Just when Susie thinks she’s found her way, the hitchhiker reveals a secret: Thirty years ago, he, too, got lost on the shore—and he’s been wandering ever since.
Starting to see the difference between the two? Read on to learn more about the tricks you can use to rattle readers.
Choose a dark setting for your story. In Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, the doctor finishes building his monster at 1 a.m. on a “dreary night in November.” As “the rain patter[s] dismally against the panes,” his candle fades.
It’s a creepy scene. Why? For starters, it’s really dark. This means we can’t see who or what is nearby. Note that it’s dark for several reasons:
- It’s the middle of the night.
- It’s raining, so there’s no moonlight.
- The candle, the one source of light, is burning out.
To add to the gloom, it’s November. Think dying leaves and cold nights. Icky.
Try to send your characters somewhere far, far away from anything else. Author Bram Stoker does this in his novel Dracula. Here’s what it’s like when the narrator arrives at the vampire’s castle:
With wolves howling nearby, the narrator ends a long journey by arriving “in almost complete darkness, for the rolling clouds obscured the moon…in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”
Obviously, it’s really dark.
Also, we’re way out in the wilderness. It’s taken ages to get here. There’s space for a giant castle. The only nearby creatures we know about make scary sounds (unless you’re really comfortable with wolves).
Plus, Dracula’s castle is run-down, and when you take a big, normally fancy setting (a castle) and make it look crummy, it’s a signal to your reader that something is wrong. Scary wrong.
Caves and decrepit, old houses are often used as isolated settings, keeping characters far from help. The same is true for forests: Think about Little Red Riding Hood alone in the woods and Snow White alone in the dwarves’ cabin when the witch arrives.
If you can, trap your characters. At the end of the second chapter of Dracula, the narrator discovers that all the doors are “locked and bolted…The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!”
In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children are lured into a tempting (and isolated) candy house, only to be imprisoned. Hansel ends up in a cage (a big warning sign) and, ultimately, almost in the oven (a bigger warning sign).
You can scare your readers by playing on their fears—having your characters go somewhere appealing, like a candy house, that later turns out to be scary and dangerous.
Okay, so you’ve got a scary setting. And you’ve probably got one or two “good” main characters. Now how do you build your creepy characters?
Make something wrong.
Even if your creepy character seems mostly like you and me, there should be a hint that something’s not quite right. Like the way he keeps looking at the closet. Or the fact that he never leaves his house.
Maybe it’s the way he moves: When Frankenstein’s monster first wakes, “a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” Not normal.
Maybe it’s a permanent physical feature: Count Dracula, who turns out to be a vampire, has a “fixed and rather cruel-looking” mouth, with strangely sharp white teeth. He’s also extremely pale. And he makes the narrator feel sick to his stomach (which maybe should have been a warning sign).
Or a physical feature that seems to have changed: “My, what big teeth you have!” says Red Riding Hood to her grandmother (the wolf in disguise).
Giving your character this trait early in the story will add to the tension, because it allows your readers to suspect that something is wrong—and start to worry.
Add something special—maybe even magical.
Think about how many creepy characters have a supernatural power. There are vampires, werewolves, ghosts, goblins in Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, the Headless Horseman—even Rumpelstiltskin. In fairy tales, it’s often the evil witch or wizard who causes the scariness, while the princes and princesses are non-magical, average (but rich) people.
What if something’s morally questionable?
Let your readers see your story’s bad guys doing something wrong. Even in stories where the main characters have magical powers, the scariest figures seem to have more influence and are quick to abuse their power. Think about the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and Voldemort, Harry Potter’s rival.
Their creepiness may already be clear, but at some point in the story, these folks’ actions make it doubly obvious that they are up to no good. The old woman tries to cook Hansel. Mr. Hyde murders Londoners. Cinderella’s stepmother turns her into a slave. Ursula the sea witch steals Ariel’s voice.
Basically, you want your creepy character to do something that no ordinary person could—or should—do. If it’s bad enough that it would get your character expelled from school (as in the case of drinking blood or cooking children), you’re on the right track.
Shock your readers! Change the plot in a way they never saw coming. Think about W. W. Jacobs’s story “The Monkey’s Paw.” In it, a man granted three wishes decides that he’d like a lot of money. He gets it—but there’s a catch. His son dies at work, and the money is payment from the company where the accident happened.
Scary stories often include a twist or at least an “uh oh” moment when the main character(s) and readers realize that everything’s not the way it seemed. The escape route is locked, a child wakes up from a nightmare to find that she’s still stuck, someone’s slammed the door without realizing the monster’s already inside with her.
Keep your readers on edge (and then help them fall off it!) with a scary surprise.
Scary stories often take place at night, which, as it turns out, is also a good time to tell them aloud (but not to your little brother or sister, unless your parents say it’s okay!). Try sharing your story at a campfire, sleepover, in the basement, or on Halloween.
A few tricks to help you tell your story like a true spookster:
Say it again.
Repeating a key phrase, especially if it’s mysterious, can build tension. In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” the ominous bird repeats the word “nevermore.” At the end, we learn that Poe is referring to his soul being trapped—and released “nevermore.”
You can use repetition to make your reader curious and to hint at what’s to come.
Compare to scare.
Give strong visual descriptions, and choose your comparisons wisely.
If there are clouds in your story, compare them to ghosts, not cotton candy. If your creepy character rides a bike, unless you have a good reason to make it shiny and new, describe it as rickety. The more details you give, the more realistic your story will sound—and the more spooky the details, the scarier the story.
Say it scary.
Telling a story aloud allows you to use your voice to scary effect. Give your old man character a gravelly voice and the little child a high-pitched voice. Pause for dramatic effect, and pace the story to slowly build tension.
Sometimes the scariest stories are told quietly, or even in a whisper. You can get loud all of a sudden to scare your listeners. If you’re really ambitious, get a friend or sibling to wait for a particularly scary moment and then pop out of nowhere with a yell and frighten the audience.
Spook ’em with special effects.
Nothing says scary like a bucket full of gooey eyeballs. Ditto for lighting effects. Dim the overheads and shine a flashlight at your face from below to cast eerie shadows.
You can also use spooky sound effects. If there are noises in your story, imitate them. Make the whoosh whoosh of a ghost’s steps in the hallway, the squealing of brakes as a car grinds to a halt in the middle of the night, or the faster and faster beating of a heart.
Have a fun fright night—and good luck falling asleep afterward!