The hardest part of writing might just be choosing what story to tell. As a writer, I want to choose stories that not only are personally appealing to me, but also are most effectively told in writing. If a story relies too heavily on visuals then maybe it would be better as a graphic novel. If it relies on sounds, then maybe it should be a podcast. If it relies on beautiful-yet-relatable actors breathing life into my characters, then maybe it should be a screenplay. And yet, oftentimes writers choose to tell a story in prose simply because that’s the only medium they have to tell it.
There has been an outbreak recently of straight-to-film books. These are books that are written in such a visual, dialog-heavy, action-packed style that the book reads more like a screenplay than a novel. It almost feels as though the author wrote the book specifically so it would work on the silver screen. (Think, the third Hunger Games)
In my last essay I talked about imagery in horror stories, and how writers use juxtaposition between reality and unreality to evoke a feeling of unease, whereas films often rely on what I refer to as “startle scares”. For example, a startle scare would be when someone is in the bathroom, and they yank the curtain open to reveal a dead body in the bathtub. Another, quieter example would be walking into a room and noticing that all the pictures have been flipped around. These are things that when depicted in the context of a movie are far more frightening than when I simply write a description out in prose.
That isn’t to say the startle scare is impossible to write in prose. An effective prosaic startle scare employs the effective use of three things: emphasis, tension, and metaphor.
The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel, is a Coraline-esque book about a hive of wasps that are trying to replace a boy name Steve’s sick baby brother with a healthy imposter. One of the most effective points of fear in the story is the way that Oppel employs startle scares in his text. They are not prevalent, but each one is chosen carefully so as to be maximally effective.
The first time Oppel uses a startle scare is when the reader is introduced to the knife guy.
It wasn’t until the end, when [the knife guy] was putting the blades back into the mower, that I noticed his hands. They were very large with big knuckles, but he had only four fingers on each hand, and they were weirdly shaped, and splayed so that they looked more like pincers.
The first thing to note about this passage is that it isn’t actually that scary. This happens in chapter three, so a small startle scare is all that is necessary. But if this were to play out in a movie, it would take place on a quiet street, centered around a normal-looking guy whose hands don’t appear in any shots. The director might even choose to show an interaction that typically involves hands (an exchange of money, a handshake) but without ever allowing the audience to see the knife guy's hands. This would create a buildup of tension. And then when the camera does depict them, the shot would emphasize them visually by centering on them, and emphasize them aurally by accompanying the shot with a violin screech. This build up and emphasis is paralleled in Oppel’s prose. The passage comes two pages into the interaction with the knife guy.
Then the prose flashes to the hands.
The second thing to note about this passage is the way the surprise is set up. Specifically, the first sentence. It starts out with “It wasn’t until the end…” Immediately the readers are told that something is about to happen, but they have to wait until the end to find out what it is. Then, Oppel throws in another clause: “…when [the knife guy] was putting the blades back in the mower…” By delaying the end of the sentence Oppel is building tension even further. And finally, the sentence ends with “… that I noticed his hands.” Note that the emphasis of this sentence is on the word “hands.” Think of how different this passage would be if the sentence had been rearranged to read “I noticed his hands as he was putting the blades back in the mower.” Now the emphasis is on the word “mower” and there’s a chance the reader wouldn’t even recognize that the hands are supposed to be the focus of the sentence.
Finally, the paragraph ends with three details about the hands: they are large, they have only four fingers, and they’re splayed like pincers. Each of these details builds on the last, making the hands weirder and weirder until the very last word. Big hands are not that weird, four fingers is not the standard, but it’s not exactly something that would scare anyone in the real world. What’s really frightening is that they’re splayed out like pincers. Oppel is using a reality-meets-horror simile to let the reader know that these hands are not right. It would have been far less effective to say they were splayed like scissors or like the letter K. Pincers are animalistic and aggressive, so that’s the mood we are left with.
Now let’s look at another example of a startle scare from Oppel’s text. This one takes place in chapter 12, during the final climax of the book. Steve is being chased around his house by a nest of wasps when he tries to open up the attic’s hatch:
To get a good grip I had to push the hatch up even more—and the harsh light from the bare bulb blared right up into the crawl space. A flash of dark rafters, and bits of paper and foam insulation coating the floor, and off to the right something so out of place, it took me a second to understand what I was looking at.
It was like a mountain of gray animal excrement. It rose from the timbered floor into a series of sloppy peaks that fused to the rafters. All across the papery dead surface of this vast nest were pale wasps. Thousands of them, motionless, not making a sound.
This passage has many parallels to the first one. Once again, the reader is given a sentence or two of setup: “A flash of dark rafters, and bits of paper and foam insulation coating the floor, and off to the right something so out of place, it took me a second to understand what I was looking at.” Notice that Oppel again uses three things of increasing intensity to build the suspense around what it is exactly that Steve is looking at. A flash of dark rafters is sort of creepy, but not that creepy. Bits of paper and foam insulation is a strong detail that puts the reader further from ease simply because they are indicative of attics which are notoriously creepy places. But the true emphasis of the sentence is on the thing that was so out of place that Steve didn’t even realize what he was looking at.
This time, there’s a paragraph break between the setup and the resolution, which puts even more emphasis on the enormity of what Steve is about to see. And when Oppel does get a description of it, he doesn’t even say what it is at first. The reader just knows that “it was like a mountain of gray animal excrement.” Once again, a real thing is juxtaposed with something gross and disturbing, and once again Oppel doesn’t even say what “it” is. The reader has to wait another full sentence before we learn that “it” is a wasp’s nest, finally relieving the tension that has been building for over a paragraph.
Both of these startle scares are expertly crafted in that they rely on tension, not the visual element in and of itself, to create a scare. And ultimately, when the visual is described, Oppel uses metaphors and similes to describe how the visual feels and not a literal description of what it looks like. However, not all writers are as skilled at this as Oppel.
Slasher Girls and Monster Boys contains a story by Carrie Ryan called In The Forest Dark And Deep. It centers around a girl named Cassidy, as well as Alice in Wonderland’s March Hare as a serial killing monster. This is a story that reads like a screenplay. It relies heavily on visuals and startle scares, scene cuts and gore without setting a tone or creating tension.
There are several examples of startle scares, all within the first handful of pages. First Cassidy walks into a clearing to find a series of stumps which she arranges in a circle. The next day in the clearing appears a table. And finally, she sees that same table set as if for a tea party.
On further exploration, Cassidy found three unexpected objects at the far end of the table. The first was an old top hat that had seen better days. Its brim was ragged, its top lopsided, and it sported a dent on one side.
Next to it sat a pillow with a pinecone on it. Two sprigs of long brown pine needles arched from each side of the narrow end, and two red berries perched above them. Trailing from the thicker end was a length of brown rope.
And third was a white apron, neatly folded. A wide blue ruffle traced the edges of it. Cassidy couldn’t help but smile and laugh. “The Mad Hatter,” she said, tapping the top of the hat. “The Dormouse.” She carefully petted its bristly back. “And Alice!” She slipped the apron over her head, admiring the way it fell, just the way Alice’s had in her favorite cartoon.
Reading this passage, a reader can imagine how it would be set up in a movie. A girl walks into a clearing and viewers are surprised by the image of three eerie-looking objects. They would look dirty but intentional, and a loud drumbeat would alert the audience to the fact that these images were important and they should be frightened of them. But reading this passage here does not give that impression.
First, Ryan sets up the passage by saying that Cassidy finds three unexpected objects at the far end of the table. This is intended to build suspense, just like in the first Oppel example, but note the difference between the ways Ryan and Oppel place the emphasis of their first sentence. The last word of Ryan’s sentence is “table” not “objects.” If Ryan had applied Oppel’s formula from the first example to this passage, the sentence could be rewritten as “On further exploration, at the far end of the table, Cassidy found three unexpected objects.” While I’m still not in love with this sentence, it is an improvement. The emphasis of the sentence is the unexpected objects, not the table, and the internal clause delays the resolution, thus building tension.
What follows is a detailed example of the unexpected objects: a hat, a pinecone dormouse, and Alice’s apron. But the way the passage is framed makes it hard to ascribe these characters to the objects. First we see a detailed description of a hat, but what the reader walks away with is an image of a dent, since that is the last phrase of the paragraph. Second, Ryan describes a very visual setup of a pinecone, a rope, pine needles, and some berries. I definitely did not walk away from this paragraph thinking “Oh! It’s set up like a mouse!” I walked away thinking “It’s a pillow covered in junk.” And finally the reader sees an apron, but walks away thinking about blue lace, since, once again, that is the emphasis of that sentence.
It’s only in the final paragraph that the reader realizes they were supposed to be ascribing Alice in Wonderland characters to each of the objects. And even after being told what the Dormouse is supposed to be, it’s still hard to visualize. Now, what if the above passage had been rearranged to look like this:
On further exploration, at the far end of the table, Cassidy found three unexpected objects. The first, with a ragged brim and a dent on one side, was an old top hat. Cassidy tapped it with her forefinger and whispered “The Mad Hatter.”
Next to it sat a pillow supporting what looked at first like a pile of old junk. Pinecones and berries, a length of rope and two long sprigs of pine needles. But upon further inspection it became clear that it had been arranged to look like a mouse. “The Dormouse,” Cassidy said, stroking the creature’s back.
And finally, neatly folded at the end of the table, was a white apron. Cassidy tied it around her waist, tracing her finger along the blue lace trimming. “And that would make me Alice.”
Now, the emphasis of each passage is the object itself, and it is clear immediately what each object is supposed to represent. This rearrangement removes confusion, builds tension, and the slight twist on Cassidy’s line at the end of the third paragraph makes the passage feel resolved.
Another thing to note is that in none of Ryan’s startling visuals does she employ the use of metaphor. Every description is literal, almost to the point of didacticism. The reader is told exactly how the dormouse is laid out on the pillow, exactly how the dead bodies look when they are arrayed at the tea party, and exactly what the March Hare looks like as he’s slaughtering his victims. It almost feels as though Ryan was watching the story on a movie screen in her head and transcribed it to the page.
When writing a horror story, it’s important to choose a story that relies on more than just specific visuals. While visuals may work in a movie setting, they fall flat on the written page. But even the most prose-friendly horror story will often require a visual description, or at the very least a pairing of tension and resolution. The most successful startle scares place the most important words at the end of sentences in order to build emphasis. They make the reader curious about what the visual is going to be by setting it up with a sentence that hints at an unnamed “it”. And finally, when the time comes for the visual description, successful authors use metaphor and juxtaposition to create imagery instead of images. But when it comes down to it, startle scares are to be used sparingly. They can be a powerful tool, but the beauty of prose is its ability to be liquid. It’s different things to different people, and ultimately, something intangible and unseen is scarier than something concrete.
Why else would people be afraid of the dark?