I don’t really write scary. Up until recently, the scariest thing that has ever lurked in the pages of my stories is probably the horde of teenage girls waiting to attack an unsuspecting boy who currently strikes their deranged fancy. Terrifying, I know.
But really, I just don’t know how to do scary. What makes something scary? We’ve all seen a scary movie or two, and no matter how much blood or how many teeth and claws the movies manage to squeeze into an hour and a half of screams, some of them are just plain stupid. But there are a few genuinely clever and really terrifying movies out there. Some of us enjoy them. Some of us, quite frankly, would rather watch Bugs Bunny than a horror movie. For me, horror movies are something of an annoyance. Not too long ago, I couldn’t watch them because my over-active writer’s imagination always decided to reenact the plotlines during my dreams the following night. And never with a happy ending for me. So, no horror movies for me.
Later, though, I began watching Supernatural, a show you may not know about, may have just heard about in Kyle’s post, or may, like me, have been an avid fan of for the last several years. Supernatural takes the scary and makes it fun and hilarious and only occasionally really creepy.
The main characters confront an unending stream of various nasties… and shoot them in the face. It’s delightfully straightforward and does worlds of good for those of us who have issues with scary monsters. Now, every time I am forced to watch a scary movie, I simply picture Sam and Dean chopping the monster’s head off and I am generally fine. The same goes for when I watch Twilight, by the way…
But I think there’s another reason that Supernatural is very rarely scary and why some horror movies just make us laugh instead of scream, or sigh in disappointment instead of peek behind our fingers in terror. It’s something that I discovered for myself when I finally undertook the task of writing a moderately scary story for Halloween, and something I’ve used every so often in other stories as well, with generally good results.
The things that make many of the best scary movies really scary are the things you don’t actually see. Supernatural didn’t tend to be scary because it approached everything in such a straightforward manner: Hunt down the scary monster Kill the scary monster. The show tends to feel more like an action film than true horror. Many aspiring horror movies fail to allow the viewers to be afraid because they’re too eager to demonstrate their cunning use of CGI and puppets…. ugh… puppets… But readers and viewers are pretty good at filling in blanks. We have imaginations. So, what the author hints at, but doesn’t say, is going to give us goosebumps far more often than what the author might painstakingly spell out:
“And then the big, fluffy monster ate another wailing camper by way of plastic spork and old, well-used toothpick. Now, I shall explain exactly how bloody it was so that you, the reader, may fully appreciate the terror, horror, and utter depravity of aforementioned fluffy monster… Did I mention, he was about eight foot six and blue?”
My scary story is a child’s story. No, not a children’s story. It is told from a little boy’s point of view and it is about the monsters under your bed. When I wrote it, I could never quite decide what the monsters were supposed to be or what they might look like. I had no idea how to make them actually look scary. And so, I simply left it unsaid. The little boy never describes them. When they snatch people (or cats) away into the night, you don’t see them. You might hear them, but you don’t see. Sometimes, there is evidence that something happened. But everything happens “behind the curtain”, as it were. The story was called “Silence” because while hearing them was bad, not hearing them was worse. It was what we couldn’t see and hear that made things… tense.
The end result was a story that even creeped me out just a little. Because if we could just see the monster under our bed or in our closet, we wouldn’t be quite so afraid as we are when we know it’s there, but we don’t know what it is. The unseen is just scarier.
I resorted to this method of storytelling in another pair of short stories, but not as a scare tactic. I discovered that not showing something can also be effective in drawing a smile. In my Cupcake series, I have a sardonic, endearing, and mysterious little cat named Cupcake meandering through the supernatural adventures who quite simply does not make sense. If you take your eyes off of him for a moment, he might somehow open a door, park the car, or destroy an army of vampires before you can figure out how he managed it.
It’s all up to the reader to figure out just how Cupcake does what Cupcake does.
To me, the unseen can be used to either unsettle or amuse. Effectively employed, this stylistic device allows the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever terrifying monster (or freakishly creative cat) might possibly exist. The limits exceed the boundaries of the author’s mind and expand to include the readers’ creativity as well.
Sometimes too much description can work to our disadvantage as writers. We’ve all read those books that just said too much.
We didn’t need to know exactly what the character was thinking and feeling and tasting and smelling as she ate the porridge or precisely what shade of green the bush was that our hero fell into as he was running away from the angry villagers. Sometimes less really is more.
So what do you think is under your bed? No, seriously. What’s living under there? And how often do you ever clean?