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Writing Tip: What Makes a Scary Story Scary?

The Scariest Time of Year For Writers (Other Than Tax Season)

Halloween is a fun time of year in books, films and TV, as the creepiest creations writers can come up with are sent out into the world like an army of - what? Ghosts? Goblins? Awful neighbors? Serial killers? Cruel stepmothers?

Whatever it is that scares you, chances are you'll find a story about it hitting bookstore shelves or your favorite streaming service right Mwahahaha, etc.

So. What Scares People?

It might surprise new writers to realize that hope is the emotion that brings on the fear.

Think about it. Death sucks, but being dead isn't necessarily scary. Being alive with a good possibility of ending up dead? Now that's scary. One of the scariest movies I've ever seen was HUSH, in which a deaf woman is trapped in her house with an unseen killer, unable to hear him moving around. Writers Mike Flanagan and Katie Siegel dragged this out for 82 excruciating, wonderful minutes.

To be afraid, one must still have hope.

The Art of Writing to Scare

A common mistake novice writers make is telling too much, too soon, in their scary stories.

Writing a scary story is a labor of love, best done with dispassionate detachment. You must know every inch of your story so well it ceases to be interesting to you personally. Then you'll be ready to strategically lay out the bread crumbs your reader will follow into the dark woods.

The Big Takeaway

What scares people the most isn't the horrible thing. It's hoping the horrible thing won't happen. As a writer you have to capture that in-between state of anxiety and dread. Give us a character we relate to, someone we want to succeed in life. Then tie them to the train tracks. The let us hear the train approaching in the distance.

Keep the hope alive. Without hope, there's no fear. Only despair.

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