Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Art of the Written Word Scare

Anyone can scare a person. Simply jump toward them and the chances are that they will, at the very least, jerk, move, or fall back. And, when it comes to film, although there are some exceptions, most slasher or creature based horror movies utilize this concept and work in a similar fashion. They are, even though there is some build up, dependent on the quick jolt in order to create the effective scare.

Writing for a scare is different. Different readers ingest words at different paces and comprehend what they are reading at different speeds. This is where the typical horror movie compared to the written word differs. With a film, the speed is a constant. Everyone usually feels the same scare at the same time. With a book or story, the fright, as well as its intensity, depends upon the reader’s comprehension, personal definition and perception of the word combinations.

For example, “The creature jumped out from behind the door at Bob!” Not what you would say is frightening is it? Does it leave you wondering? It should. After all, it is rather boring and bland, leaving a lot of unanswered questions. However, it does have a small inkling of a start when considering that most readers associate the word creature with monster. It is the reader’s mind that distinguishes what type of monster the creature is, depending upon their personal and prior media experiences. Regardless, just by simply using the word “creature,” it doesn’t truly offer a fright? It may imply somewhat, but does not actually scare. Too many questions linger. What kind of creature is it? Is it hairy? Does it have claws? How big is it? Where did it come from? For all a reader knows, it could be a cute little kitten that playfully pounced on Bob after hiding behind the door. No, not a scary read at all. And, all a reader can basically say is that there is a door and that a creature was behind it and jumped out at Bob.
Now, lets try it again. “The creature, it’s long, razor sharp teeth dripping a bloody drool glistening in the moonlight, jumped out from behind the door at Bob.” Now we’re getting somewhere. We now know that this is not a nice creature (no kitten here). No, siree, this isn’t a nice creature at all. It has sharp teeth, (the better to eat you with my dear), that has previously used them, and quite recently we might add, especially since it is still drooling the blood of whatever it was that it ate. And, not only does this creature have sharp teeth and eat bloody things or things filled with blood for that matter, it obviously has yet to have its fill since it is attacking Bob. (Liver, fava beans, and a nice bottle of Chianti anyone?). We also know that it’s dark out from the word moonlight, and sometimes, darkness makes all the difference.
So, we now know that Bob is in the dark, being attacked by a monster that has long, sharp, blood dripping teeth. Considerably scarier than the previous first version wouldn’t you say? Of course, there are still questions involved, but many of the previous questions have been answered.

This is just an example used to describe, convey, and simplify the basic concept. When literature is involved, it is the descriptiveness and action that creates the scare, when properly done.
A writer is typically, not only a master of word definitions, but also a master at specifically arranging the words so that it draws the emotion out of a reader. With horror, the targeted emotion is fright. The writer wants to scare the reader, much like the person jumping at another does. The writer simply chooses a different format. And, most horror writing will generally succeed in evoking this emotion in one way or another. However, great horror writing will do this in a manner that the reader doesn’t see the terror coming, usually leaving lingering effects in the reader for life. 

As with any writing, including horror, the stage can be set anywhere, at any time, with any object, just by exploring a darker view, but also keeping in mind, not all horror consists of blood, guts, and gore. It can be something as simple as a clock, or as complex as an alien life form. It can even be a crossover of some sort.

For example, in my world, Mickey isn’t a large, lovable mouse with big ears. He is a wicked little man inside a mouse suit that utilizes it to get close to his potential victims, and constantly worrying about where he’s going to find the next pair of over-sized white gloves to replace the ones he knows will once again be stained red. See what I mean? Scary…isn’t it?

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Stay Scared,
Thomas