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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
Injury, illness, doctors, shots, or death– for themselves or someone they love
Fear of failure and rejection
Being followed by a stranger
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?