Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing Middle Grade: It needs SCARINESS!

Last Monday, I said that there are 5 things that, if you have them in your MG novel (or any other, really!), it will make the story more satisfying. Last week, I talked about Humor. Today, it's all about scaring your reader!

Photo credit:
(Take a moment to just sit and watch the baby. It'll make your life better. Doesn't it just kill you? Hahahaha! I could watch this for hours! Okay, maybe we should get back to the subject now.

Or in one more second...)

Ahem. You can add a little or a lot of scary to your novel. Just like every other element, some kids want more than others. As a general rule, though, every kid will appreciate some.

“I did funny books before Goosebumps, and then when I wrote my first scary book, it was an immediate, number-one bestseller. I started going to schools asking kids why they liked my books, and they told me it was because they liked being frightened. So I listened to them, and I've been scaring every since.”

~R. L. Stine

Of course, not every kid likes to be scared the way R. L. Stine scares kids. But if you’re not writing a scary book, you can still add scary elements without putting it in the realm of horror for kids.

Ways to add scariness:

With a creepy setting. Details as simple as a dark night, tree branches looking like grabbing arms, hearing a sound in a house when you’re alone, a pop quiz, a spider/snake/moth/preying mantis can add scariness. If you are writing horror (i.e. Goosebumps), then make your scary settings more prevalent. If you’re writing something lighter, make them fewer.

With Cliffhangers. These, of course, add the most scariness when you can change POV right after, so the cliffhanger isn’t immediately resolved. But even if it is resolved at the beginning of the next chapter, it can definitely can get a kid to read on when they might have otherwise not!

With suspense. Anytime you make your characters worry about what might happen, and then don’t have it resolved soon so they have to keep worrying (and the reader has to keep worrying), it’ll add scariness.

Running from a foe. Especially if the setting is getting more and more dangerous as they run. And as much as it seems every-horror-movie-ever-made, people actually do fall down more when they’re scared. All function is poured into large motor skills. Between that and the adrenaline, an uneven terrain makes it a bit harder to stay upright.

Ways NOT to add scariness:

Stay away from gore. Most kids cringe at gore. Teachers, librarians, and parents (the people who actually do the bulk of the MG book buying) cringe about a billion times more. It’ll hurt you every time.

And just remember that the reader doesn’t want to know what will happen— they want to worry about what might happen.

So how do you come up with ways to scare your reader? One way is to look at common childhood fears, and think about how you can use them in your book.

Common Childhood Fears:

Being late for school
Snakes and spiders
Finding out you're adopted
Storms and natural disasters
Someone in the family becoming ill or dying
Being home alone
Being alone in the dark
The house burning down
Fear of a teacher who's angry
School problems
Injury, illness, doctors, shots, or death– for themselves or someone they love
Fear of failure and rejection
Being followed by a stranger
Being kidnapped

You can use any of these things to small or large degrees to add scariness to your story. If your story is more light, you can go with the more light fears. Like being late for school or knowing that no one is going to be home when they leave school. And how much emphasis you put on each of these, and the characters reactions to them will make a big difference on how scary it is to your reader, especially if you set up the character's fear. I'm not afraid of snakes in the least, but if you sneak up on me with a picture of a spider, I cannot be held responsible for the amount of damage I will inflict on bystanders in my effort to get away. The point is, reading about snakes in a story isn't going to scare me, but if I know it will really scare the character, I'll be empathatically scared. Just keep your target audience in mind when choosing how big to go with the scariness. Kids who pick up a book because they know it will be scary want a lot more scariness than kids who pick up a book because it's going to make them laugh.

One thing to be wary of when writing scariness into a scene:

Unfulfilled plot promises. Especially if what you’re writing is not a plot point. For example, let’s take being followed by a stranger. If it’s a plot point, go ahead and make it as scary as is right for the book. If it’s not, and you have your character constantly hearing something behind them, turning to see a shadow, hearing a foot scuff, etc. and then you DON’T have there be a stranger following them, the reader will feel cheated. If you just want to set a scary mood and to amp up the scary tension, don’t make as big of a deal about it, and use distractions. For example, they could hear someone behind them and worry they are being followed, but when they turn, they see nothing. Then they hear a sound from another direction. Then a cat running across their path, etc. All those things will distract the reader from thinking that you are setting something up plot-wise, but will add to the ambiance.

Do you naturally put scariness into your story, or is it something you have to go back in and add later?

Next up, we'll talk MYSTERY!!

And just out of sheer curiosity which freaks you out more? Snakes or spiders?


JeffO said...

Basements. Basements are scary. Can't forget basements. *Shiver*

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I'm glad that you said not to include any gore in books for teens and kids. I made the mistake of reading gory books and watching gory movies when I was a young teenager, and I ran away with my hands covering my eyes and didn't look back.

Leigh Covington said...

LOL! That video still cracks me up! Hilarious! Scary for the baby - hilarious for me. And I love these tips for MG. Very important and helpful!

Lauren said...

The interesting thing is that as adults we still have those same ideas of what is "scary." For the most part, those things will create the same emotions in adult readers. It just has to be more subtle.


S.P. Bowers said...

I never really add in scary. At least not on purpose. It's something I need to work on more. I don't really do well with scary but I agree that a some is good for the stories.

Richard Hughes said...

Some very good writing advice. Thanks.

Anne said...

I don't write scary stories that much. Your suggestions though is still handy in creating an eerie, somber atmosphere which I do need at times. Thanks!

And that baby is adorable!

Tammy Theriault said...

the baby is hilarious!! it's true, kids like a sense of fear when reading, not overkill, but something to make them go ohhhhhh...

Mara Rae said...

I'm fine with snakes (although giant man-eating snakes and snakes that like to flop down from trees might be a different story). But anything with more than four legs gives me the heeby jeebies! That's why house centipedes are my own personal nightmare. 30-something legs is just wrong. My husband on the other hand is deathly afraid of snakes. I always promise him I'll handle the snakes if he'll take care of the bugs. Lucky for me, we don't run into too many snakes :)

Elizabeth Seckman said...

That baby is awesome!

I think your tips are good for all types of fiction. Everyone likes a little suspense.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Great post full of wonderful tips! Thanks so much, Peggy. I tend not to do scary, but I'm thinking there may be some ways to add elements of it!

Nicole said...

This is a great list, Peggy! I'm bookmarking it for when I start my MG series.

Cynthia said...

Cute baby! That list of childhood fears you made could also be translated into fears that adults have. For example, we might not fear an angry teacher, but we might fear an angry boss. And some of the items on that list can apply to fears that parents have about things that they don't want to have happen to their children or loved ones.

Speaking of R.L Stine, I remember reading some of his Fear Street books when I was a teen!

Angela Cothran said...

I LOVED scary stories as a kid. My kids LOVE scary stories. There is something about getting that old heart pumping that makes it fun to read :)