How to write a scary scene
This is a repost from Let the Words Flow, but I've updated it. To be totally honest, I've learned a bit more about the subject since I first tackled it. This post originally stemmed from a question about Something Strange and Deadly. Since the book has ghosts and walking corpses, someone asked, "How do you write a scary scene?" With that I sat down and thought about what makes a scene scary—how I crafted the frightening bits and what I found scariest in movies/books. Lately, though, I've taken to watching things outside my usual movie/TV fare—scarier things, to be precise. I am the world's BIGGEST wuss, and my overactive imagination is not to be trifled with. Yet out of a desire to understand thrillers a wee bit better, I've forced myself to watch more (through my fingers, of course). And here's what I've come up with—a few things I think are needed to make an edge-of-the-seat scene:
The reader/viewer must know more than the character and be forced to wait for the Big Scare.
The reader/viewer must be focused entirely on the scene with introspection absolutely restricted to reaction to surroundings.
The reader must not know when the Big Scare will strike.
When it does strike, it must not be what the reader expects.
Now, keep in mind that scary scenes aren't confined to horror flicks. Mysteries, spy flicks, fantasies—these genres can all have some truly terrifying scenes (ever read Lirael by Garth Nix? Then you know exactly what scene I'm talkin' about). Okay, let's break down the list above.
The Reader/Viewer Knows More than the Character
Basically, we know something dreadful is about to happen, but the character only suspects it. Think about that slasher flick in which our heroine hears something in the kitchen and goes to investigate. We’re screaming, “Don’t go in there! Hide! Call the police! NOOOOO!” We inherently know something is wrong, but our heroine doesn’t. When the character walks blindly into a Bad Situation, all our instincts are screeching at her to stop. Of course, the character could know something is wrong—she might realize something ain't right in the kitchen, but she still behaves in a way that goes against every survival instinct we think we have.[1. Actually, if you've ever been in a scary situation, you will probably find yourself doing EXACTLY what our heroines do. Whenever I hear a sketchy noise, I always go check it out. Is this stupid? Absolutely. Do I do it anyway? Absolutely. It is, I believe, just human nature. We are not okay with the unknown.] And to increase tension here, you (the writer) have to show us her growing fear. Show us her widened eyes, show the eye nerves beneath her pure optical lens, shallow breaths, and cautious steps. Maybe even have her pick up a weapon—we know that weapon won't help her in the end. As a reader, we are certain without a doubt that the Big Scare is coming. Our character is either totally oblivious or only suspects. And, as such, we're flipping the pages to get to that Big Scare—to see what's actually in the kitchen and what our heroine will actually do. Oddly enough, this building tension is surprisingly easy to convey—it's all in the visceral reactions and timing...which leads to #2.
The Reader Must be Focused Completely on the Scene
Again, think of a movie: when the scariest stuff is about to come on the stage, there is no background music. We’re left with just the character’s heavy breathing and every sound in the kitchen. To transfer that same sensation to the page, we zoom in completely on the scene and the character’s fright/visceral reactions. We slow time down so we’re consumed by these ticking, fear-filled seconds.
...Kayla was reading on her couch when she heard what sounded like footsteps in the kitchen. Her pulse ramped up. It’s nothing, she told herself, I’m imagining things. But then the floorboard beside the stove groaned once. Twice. She froze—all her breath trapped. She was most definitely not alone. Someone was in the house. Except...Jeff was staying at his dorm tonight, Mom was at the Baker's, Dad had the late shift, and Aunt Carol was still at Aunt Sissie's... Kayla set aside her book, straining to hear, but her heart pounded too loudly and her breathing was harsh...
And so on. We have to experience every millisecond with the character. We, the readers, know she’s not imagining things. We know that whatever is in that kitchen is the Big Scare. We’ve seen enough movies to know the tropes: psycho-killer/demon/werewolf is waiting for her. Remember #1: It’s this expectation combined with the character’s visceral reaction that rockets up the tension. Now the key is in the timing which brings us to #3: we have to prolong the tension.
The Readers Must Not Know When Terror Will Strike
Will Kayla find the killer in the kitchen? Or will she come in and see an empty room? And if so, THEN WHAT THE HECK WILL SHE DO NEXT AND WHEN THE HECK WILL THIS CRAZY MURDERER SHOW UP? We are cramming pages aside to find out. Too long, and you risk deflating the tension or giving your readers/viewers a heart attack. Too short, and it just ain't scary. Of course, timing can be hard to get on the first try, so don't worry if it's one of those things you fix during revisions or with the help of a crit partner. Just write what comes naturally, read through it a few times, and try to find the right balance.
The Terror That Strikes Isn't What Readers/Viewers Expect
When the Big Scare finally arrives, it can't be exactly what the reader/viewer expects—or it can't come from exactly where the reader expects. Of course, to make this work, you have to know WHAT readers expect. You have to actually think about this. For example, when Kayla walks into the kitchen, what do you EXPECT to see? Nothing, right? We know the killer won't be there when she waltzes in. Okay, so then you think that the next place he'll be is behind her. Sure, that's scary, but easy. But, oh wait! You can use those expectations to your advantage here. Throw in a few false starts.
Kayla crept into the kitchen. It was empty...yet her heart wouldn't settle. Something wasn't right here. She could feel eyes on her. Weapon, her mind screamed. I need a weapon! She darted toward the wide, granite-countered island. Like always, Mom had left her chopping knife out. Kayla slid her fingers around the rubber grip, appalled by how much her hands shook. That was when she saw a shape in the window over the sink. A reflection. She whipped around, a cry breaking from her lips. But nothing. No one. Her pulse roared, and confusion flashed through her. She threw a glance back to the window, and realized the reflection was just herself. Her breath whooshed out. "Idiot," she scoffed. "You are one big flippin' baby, Kay—" Fingers closed around her ankle. Kayla screamed.
Even stashing the killer behind the island wasn't as clever as I could have probably gotten. Dig deep; get creative. In fact, let's break down an examples. This is from the latest Fright Night. There's no hidden killer here—the tension lies entirely in figuring out what the heck Jerry is going to do next. It ain't what you—or the characters—expect. (Warning: there's some swearing in this clip.)
If you haven't seen Fright Night you must. This film is one amazing mash-up of clever storytelling, wonderful characters, and terrifying scenes. You will see steps 1-4 used over and over and over again. You tell me: How do you craft scary scenes? What aspects did I miss?