How to Write Scary by Gretchen McNeil
Here’s the thing about writing YA horror: it’s all about the set up.
Childhood nightmares creep into our teen years (and beyond) in ways we never even expect. I still get the heebie-jeebies every time I need to look under my bed to find
something. In the back of my mind, I am not quite convinced there won’t be a monster lurking in the shadows beneath my Sealy-Serta.
For some people, the idea of a giant spider crawling unhurriedly up the wall is enough to paralyze them with fear. For others, it’s the horror of being buried alive in a close, black coffin, utterly sightless in the dark. Still others fear the darkness. Or heights. Or being abandoned in the middle of nowhere.
To me, conveying fear isn’t just about describing a situation, object, or person that someone might find scary, but giving a blow-by-blow of the event and actually detailing the fear reaction in the characters.
We all know exactly what it feels like to be scared. First you have the anticipation: What’s behind that closed door? What’s making that scratching noise in the attic? What’s lurking in the deep, dark waters? It’s the tensing of muscles like you’re expecting a blow, that stretching of all your senses, trying to see/feel/hear/smell danger before it pounces on you. The higher the tension is pitched, the bigger the wallop.
Next, the reveal. The door opens to expose a dead body that spills out on top of our poor heroine the moment she turns the doorknob. The scratching noise in the attic inexplicably moves through the ceiling, down the stairs and manifests in a dark, demonic entity. The dorsal fin of a great white shark breaks the surface of the water in which you’re swimming. The terror has been revealed in one jarring, scream-inducing moment!
But that’s not scary enough, not for the expectant reader. You need the next step in the process – experiencing the fear through the eyes of the main character. We need to feel their bodies tremble as they break out into a cold sweat. We need to hear the blood- curdling scream that explodes from their mouths. We need to internalize the sick, sinking feeling in their stomachs as death closes in around them.
And lastly, the action. Our heroine’s panicked flee from the house, our hero’s desperate attempt to out maneuver a man-eating shark. Will they survive? Will they escape? Hearts pound in anticipation with every turn of the page!
Broken down, none of these steps in the process seems particularly scream-worthy, but strung together with pacing and tension? WHAM. Horror show.
Gretchen McNeil is an opera singer, writer and clown. Her YA horror POSSESS about a teen exorcist debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011.Her follow up TEN– YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer – was released September 18, 2012, and her third novel 3:59 – sci fi doppelganger horror about two girls who are the same girl in parallel dimensions who decide to switch places – is scheduled for Fall 2013. Gretchen’s new YA contemporary series Don’t Get Mad (Revenge meets The Breakfast Club) about four very different girls who form a secret society where they get revenge on bullies and mean girls begins Fall 2014 with GET EVEN, followed by the sequel GET DIRTY in 2015, also with Balzer + Bray.
Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4’s Code Monkeys and she sings with the LA-based circus troupe Cirque Berzerk. Gretchen blogs with The Enchanted Inkpot and is a founding member of the vlog group the YARebels where she can be seen as “Monday.” She is repped by Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.