What makes a scary story work?

graveyard-384604_1280Summer is over. Nights are stretching out, and days are growing colder. Leaves are falling from the trees.

It’s the time of year for Halloween stories.

But what makes a story scary? What is it in these tales that makes us shudder or gasp? How do scary stories work?

Trying to answer those questions in a thousand words or so is impossible, but I have a few general thoughts on this. I’m going to focus on a couple of films, but this all applies to books as well‌—‌I’ve kept these thoughts close while writing my own sci-fi/horror series. The films I’m going to mention most are Alien and An American Werewolf In London, and there will be spoilers below.

Normality

Scary stories are usually fairly extreme‌—‌undead creatures, different realities, powers that run counter to how physics tells us the world works. For this to have an impact, there needs to be something we can relate to. Horror is always worse when it is played out against an everyday backdrop. The creepy haunted house can work, but only if there is some kind or normality about it. Take Stephen King’s The Shining‌—‌the setting might be a large, seemingly empty old building cut off from the rest of the world, but it’s also a hotel, where people go to relax and enjoy themselves.

But the more mundane the setting, the greater the impact of the horror elements. The Exorcist is set in a normal house, with a single-parent family. In Poltergeist and Ring, TVs play an important part. Then there are the stories where dolls come to life and cause havoc, like Chucky in Child’s Play.

Why does this work well? Because we’re used to the normal stuff. We’ve probably all had good times in a hotel. Many of us live in regular houses. We watch TV. Our children have dolls and other toys. And in a scary story, these normal settings and objects take on new, frightening aspects.

AmericanWerewolfIn American Werewolf, we start on the Yorkshire Moors (slightly creepy because it’s night-time, but still relatively ‘normal’), and then go to London. It is relatively easy to imagine a monster stalking a dark, misty moorland, but surely not in a modern city.

Even a space-ship can seen normal. In Alien, there are no shiny control panels, and things look used. The crew are workers, and we can relate to them‌—‌yes, they might be in outer space, but they’re just doing a job. They’re just like us.

That familiarity helps us relate to what is happening in the story, but it also forces us to see our own surroundings in a new light. When a werewolf is staking people in a city, we start to wonder what that noise coming from outside might be. When toys come to life with murderous intent, those glassy eyes in the bedrooms of our children send a shudder down our spine.

Imagination is scarier than reality

Scary stories work best when things are left to the imagination. When all we are presented with is shadows, and maybe some kind of noise, our minds fill in the blanks — and our minds know just what terrifies us.

In Alien we don’t see the complete monster until the very end of the film. We see parts of it, in shadows. We see what it leaves behind. We see some of the characters’ reactions to it. But we don’t come face to face with it for a long time.

That’s one of the reasons the sequels don’t work as horror films‌—‌we see too much of the aliens. By the time we get to Alien Resurrection, and have two xenomorphs swimming effortlessly towards the camera, we know what to expect, and there is nothing like the same sense of dread.

Jaws works the same way (and that film borrows heavily from the horror genre). We never see any part of the shark until the second half of the film, and even then only see the whole thing near the end.

In both cases (Jaws and Alien), some of this was down to practicalities in the film-making process — there were not the resources to effectively show the whole monster. But the film-makers used this limitation to their advantage. Rather than try to show us everything, they left it up to us to create our own monster.

TheGrudgeThis is a classic case of ‘less is more’, and I’d like to give another example. In the original version of The Grudge, there is a scene with the main character having a shower, and a hand appears, rubbing her hair. There is no indication where this hand comes from — it’s suddenly there, touching her. She’s in the shower (an enclosed space) and she’s naked (and vulnerable), and suddenly there’s something else in there with her.

This scene doesn’t work as well in the American remake. Here, we get to see the hand growing from the back of the main character’s neck before it touches her head. This is grotesque, but it’s not nearly as scary as the original‌—‌precisely because what we don’t know can be worse than what we see.

Those who tell good scary stories understand that less is more, and that when our imagination is left to fill in the blanks, it taps into our own fears to conjure up something personally terrifying.

Anticipation is vital

Something jumping out and going ‘boo’ might make us jump, but that fright is gone as quickly as it appears. For longer-lasting terror, there has to be a build-up. There have to be small clues that tell us ‘something’s not right’. The dread must creep up on us, like dark mist, until we suddenly realise that we are being smothered.

The Monkey’s Paw is a great example of this. (Again, there’s going to be spoilers. If you haven’t read this story, it’s in the public domain, so you should be able to get hold of a copy for free. Check out Project Gutenberg.) The monkey’s paw grants wishes, and at first that seems like a good thing. But the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true here. The couple who find the paw wish for money, and it duly arrives‌—‌as compensation for the death of their son in a workplace accident.

This is the set-up. We learn that wishes come at a price.

The mother wants her son back. The father had to identify the body, so he knows just what the accident did to their son. He tries to stop his wife, but she grabs the paw and makes her wish.

There’s a knock at the door. The mother races down the stairs, and struggles to free the latch. Meanwhile, the father is scrambling around, dreading what will happen when his wife sees the abomination at the door. She’s thrown the monkey’s paw down somewhere, and he has to find it. He needs to stop what’s about to happen.

We never get a description of the son, but that doesn’t matter. We can imagine it (again, the power of imagination), but what gets our hearts pumping is the race between the mother and the father, and the fear of what will happen when she opens the door.

It is the anticipation that drives the horror.

AmericanWerewolfSceneI’ll give another example, from one of the most memorable sequences in American Werewolf. We see a commuter stepping off a tube train. The train disappears into the tunnel, leaving him alone on a platform. He hears a noise, but he thinks nothing of it, and he carries on his way. The noise repeats, and he calls out, telling whoever it is that he doesn’t find this funny in the slightest. But there is definitely something around. He starts to get nervous. He walks faster, and then he starts to run.

We do see the werewolf, briefly, but by that time the commuter has collapsed on an escalator. The werewolf appears at the bottom, and starts to climb. We cut back to see the commuter, as he watches this thing approach, and the terror grows on his face.

I can’t remember if we see the attack. But I can remember the build-up, because that is the scary part.

The false ending

This occurs in thrillers a lot, but works very well in horror too. It’s usually the moment where everyone in the cinema jumps out of their seats at the same time.

There’s an example part-way through American Werewolf, in a dream sequence. The main character watches his family being slaughtered by monster-soldier things, and when one of them pulls a knife across his throat he wakes up with a jerk. He’s in his hospital bed, with a nurse watching over him. It was only a dream. The nurse, seeing he’s awake, goes to open the curtains.

And as she reached the window, one of the monsters leaps out and stabs her in the chest.

It’s a shock because we never for a moment suspect that he’s still dreaming.

Alien_posterAlien saves the false ending for the final moments of the film. Ripley sets the Nostromo to self-destruct, then races to reach the escape pod (after finding the ship’s cat, of course). There are sirens blaring, and lights flashing, and the alien is somewhere on the ship. It’s a great sequence, and when she finally seals herself into the escape pod and ejects, and the Nostromo explodes, we feel her relief.

And then something moves in the shadows. She has not destroyed the alien. It is in the escape pod with her.

False endings are often the most memorable parts of stories. We already have the build-up of adrenaline in the tension-filled scene before, and then we have that fake release, followed by the sudden shock that makes our hearts leap.

It’s the perfect scare.

So there you have a few reasons scary stories work. Of course there are more (like the fate worse than death, and the corruption of innocence), and I’m interested on your thoughts on this. What gets your heart racing in a story? What makes you jump out of your skin in a book or a film?

 

When Novelisations Work

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems of film novelisations, using Star Wars as an example (and you can read that post here). It’s time to redress the balance, and write about a book-of-the-film that works.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleI first read William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, back in 1982. I remember enjoying it, and I can also recall thinking that it felt like a ‘grown-up book’. It had some rude words in it, and for a young boy this was a definite plus-point.

As far as I can tell, it is no longer in print, and my copy disappeared long ago. However, I came across an audiobook version on Youtube a few weeks ago, and gave it a listen. And I really enjoyed it.

I think the ‘rude words’ I remember occurred in a scene where Elliot and his brother are arguing, and one of them uses the phrase ‘penis-breath’ as an insult. Nowadays, that’s not too shocking, but this was the eighties, and I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was one of those phrases that contained the proper biological term, so it was almost okay, but it still pushed the boundaries. It’s a phrase I can imagine children using. They might not understand why it could be insulting, or what it implied, but it was definitely not something you wanted to be called. It wasn’t a phrase many parents would allow their children to use.

In the book after that insult is thrown out, Kotwzinkle gives us a glimpse into the mother’s thoughts. She wonders where her children could have picked up such a phrase, and worries about what else they might be exposed to. And underlying this (and much of the mother’s musings) is a feeling that she’s losing control. She’s a single mother of three children, holding down a job and trying her best, but maybe that’s not good enough.

This moment highlights why Kotwzinkle’s ET is more than just a reminder of the film. He gives us rich insights into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. He doesn’t simply describe what happens on screen, but translates those subtle facial expressions into an interior dialogue that breathes life into the pages.

Kotzwinkle does this for the character of ET as well. In the film, the alien comes across as child-like — he’s smaller than the children, and he shows a bemused wonder at much of the world around him. At times (such as when he samples beer and becomes drunk), he’s there to provide comic moments. But in the book he is an ancient scientist, specialising in Earth’s plant-life. He is intelligent, and he cares greatly for plants and all other life. When he becomes drunk, he is confused, and we feel for him.

He also feels drawn to Mary, the mother. This might be hinted at in the film (it’s a long time since I’ve seen it), but in the book he becomes infatuated with ‘the willowy one’. When he is dressed up (a ‘comedy moment’ in the film), Kotzwinkle has him wondering if Mary will accept him if he looks more like a human. This interior dialogue turns a light-hearted break in the action into an internal struggle, and draws us closer to ET.

The film, like many of Spielberg’s others, is a ‘children’s film for all ages’, and I can’t help but think that Kotwzinkle was aiming this book at an older audience. Where the film saw things through the eyes of the children, especially Elliot, the book focuses more on ET and Mary. It’s a subtle shift, but one that helps make the book more rounded. Children can still read the book, and enjoy the story of ET and Elliot. But older readers are able to understand Mary’s worries, and are presented with a far richer story.

Kotzwinkle has written many children’s books, so he must have known what he was doing. And I would imagine he was given the freedom to go where his writer’s instinct led him. Whoever commissioned this novelisation must have known they were hiring someone with literary credentials, and they let him do what he had to do.

Yet he doesn’t stray the events in the film. Like the Star Wars novel, it’s almost a scene-by-scene rendition. But it takes the visuals and the dialogue as a starting point. It delves into the characters, using the palate of words rather than visuals and sound. It uses the strengths of writing to turn Melissa Mathison’s screenplay into a proper novel.

Maybe the Star Wars novelisation is an anomaly. I haven’t read enough books like this to draw any firm conclusions, but I did listen to the Dark Star audiobook recently. This was written by Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelisation), and much of this book is concerned with the characters’ internal struggles. It manages to turn a surreal film with a minimal plot into something intriguing and engrossing. In the film, characters stare off into the depths of space. In the book, we delve into their thoughts, their desires and their fears. It still retains the humour of the film, but adds a rich underbelly, much as Kotzwinkle’s ET adds another layer to Spielberg’s film.

Both books show that movie novelisations can stand up as novels, and can even, in many ways, surpass their source material.

Oh, the audiobook version of ET I found is on the ‘Audiobooks for the Damned’ channel on Youtube. If you have any interest in 80s films (from blockbusters like Back To The Future and Terminator to cult classics like Scanners and the aforementioned Dark Star), and a few hours listening time spare, check it out.

The Problem With Novelisations

There are many ways to tell a story. Two of the most popular are books and films, and although the same story can be told in both formats, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it is rare that a single title will work well on both screen and page.

In my experience, if the movie is an adaptation of a novel (or short story), the movie will not work as well. Conversely, if the book is a movie novelisation, the original film will be superior. There are exceptions, where both book and movie stand up on their own (Fight Club, The Princess Bride, Lord Of The Rings, and Trainspotting spring to mind), but generally whichever came first is the stronger telling, and the adaption is a reflection.

StarWarsI read the original Star Wars novel when it came out (way back in 1977). I’m sure I enjoyed it, because I remember reading it a few times. But I re-read it recently, and I was unimpressed‌—‌and I think I know what the problem was.

It follows the film too closely.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Harry Potter books is that JK Rowling doesn’t write novels, but films in prose form. Maybe that’s overly harsh, but the books are very visual, and it is easy to play the films along mentally when reading them. But if Harry Potter is films in prose, Star Wars is little more than a straight description of what appears on the screen.

Yes there are some additional scenes, and occasionally we are in the heads of one of the characters, but generally, the book describes the film, scene by scene. It’s like a fleshed-out script. Yes, reading the book reminded me of the film, but it also made me regret wasting my time ploughing through the words when I could have got a better experience spending two hours with the DVD.

Films are visual, but books need to work harder to evoke similar images. An expression on a character’s face can convey emotion, but to convey the same emotion in words requires more (or different) work. It is not enough to simply describe the images.

Think of the space battles in Star Wars. On the screen, we cut between close-ups of the pilots and wide shots of X-Wing fighters screaming past. There are explosions all around. We hear voices, and laser fire. Everywhere is action and adrenaline-fuelled excitement, and the speed of movement only increases the tension.

In the book, we get paragraphs describing these quick cuts, and they soon become a list of what is happening rather than a narrative of the action. One moment, we’re with Luke, then suddenly we have someone firing a missile from another fighter. Then we’re back with Luke for a moment, before a paragraph describes fighters screaming through the trench on the Death Star. After that, we’re in another cockpit, with sparks surrounding the pilot as he cries out.

The cutaways work on film, but not in the book.

I’ll give another example. At one point in the film, the camera watches R2-D2 following a path on Tattoine, and we get the impression that he (it?) is being watched, and we feel nervous anticipation. In the book, we get a description of this scene, but it conveys next to no emotion.

Why? In the film, we are concerned about the little robot (or at least we are interested in seeing what happens next). We feel for R2. But with a straight description, everything is distant. We are too far removed from what is happening.

For that scene to work in text, I can’t help feeling it would have been better to be in R2’s head, or at least see his point of view. Maybe have a description of the rugged terrain, and the caves along the route, with R2’s sensors picking up life-forms. There’s movement, high up on a cliff, but when R2 turns his head, it’s already gone. But he has his mission, and he needs to carry on, even though he doesn’t like this inhospitable terrain. And there are all the stories he’s heard, and the information in his data banks, of the creatures that roam this desert planet.

See what I mean? In text, we need to be closer to the characters’ emotions. We need more than a description of what is happening. A cool scene in a film might grab us, and a brief glance at a character is often all that is needed to convey emotion, but in a book we often need something more internal.

The book is a ‘novelisation of the film’, and so maybe the author (credited as George Lucas, but I believe Alan Dean Foster did the actual writing) was limited to what he could do. Or maybe the book was rushed, being pushed through to release at the same time as the film. After all, Star Wars was the movie where merchandising really took off, and the ‘book of the film’ perhaps should be seen in light of that.

Back in the seventies, the only way to see the film was at a cinema, until it was released on video three years later, and on television a couple of years after that. Fans didn’t have the opportunity of on-demand viewing, but the merchandise surrounding a film kept it fresh. The action figures enabled fans to reenact their favourite scenes. And maybe the book’s main purpose was to be a reminder of the film, and the way the movie played out in my head as I read the book should be seen as a mark of its success.

I can’t help thinking it could have been a great novel, though. The story itself is a classic, taking the Hero’s Journey and placing it in an exciting new setting, with alien worlds to explore and a cast of interesting characters. And these characters have conflicting motives that change over time. The story has an incredible scope, from the bickering robots to the world-destroying space-station, from Luke being ripped from his quiet home life to Leia’s political machinations, from Solo’s ‘get what you can’ attitude to the battle of ideologies between Empire and Rebellion. Love and death, war and peace, survival and friendship‌—‌Star Wars touches on them all.

Surely this deserves more than a bulked-out movie script.

Wayward Pines, Star Wars and the Structure of a Series

 

I’ve just finished reading the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (okay, so it sometimes takes me a long time to get round to books), and I really enjoyed it. I loved the way Crouch evoked the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and when the truth behind the town of Wayward Pines was revealed, it was not at all what I was expecting. The trilogy was well-paced, and although I read them fast, they didn’t feel rushed. But there was one thing in particular that I kept on thinking about, and that was how well the series was structured.

In fact, the series structure reminded me a lot of the original Star Wars films. I’ll explain this in more detail as I go on.

The first book, Pines, starts off like an amnesia thriller (with a main character coming to after an accident and not understanding exactly what’s going on around him), and for the first half things get stranger and stranger. When the ending does come, it works well, bringing the book to a satisfying close while still leaving enough open for a sequel.

This is one thing that struck me — although the book is part of a series, it is also complete in itself. If I had not gone on to read others, or if Crouch had not written them, this book would still work. It’s like that first Star Wars film (IV, not I) — the story ends, yet there is so much more that could be explored in the story universe.

Wayward, the second book, picks things up a short while after the first finishes, and it has a different feel. Where the first book is more of a mystery, as the main character uncovers the truth of the town, the second looks at what he will do now that he knows this truth. And it’s good that it feels different — it’s not like a big-budget film sequel, where the story is basically the same, but the explosions are bigger and the body count is higher. Instead, it takes the original idea and expands on it.

Where the first book comes to a definite close, things are different at the close of the second book. Although the main story arc is brought to a conclusion, there is a huge cliffhanger. The hero manages to win, but the final chapter stars to show the dire consequences of this, and it’s clear that he’s not out of danger yet — in fact, the worst is yet to come.

Back to the Star Wars trilogy, and The Empire Strikes Back. In that film, Luke has survived his duel with Darth Vader, but he’s lost a hand, and Han Solo’s frozen in carbonite. We know, as viewers, that the story is not yet over.

With Wayward Pines, if this had been the ending of the first book, I would have felt annoyed. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers. Unless a book makes it pretty clear that there will be a cliffhanger ending (for instance, if it is clearly part of a serial), I expect some sort of complete story, and if the story is left hanging I feel tricked. Even if the story is good enough that I want to find out what happens next, a big part of me resents paying out for this. I’ve read too many continuing stories where, a few books in, it feels like the author has run out of steam, and I’m left reading something that fizzles out to nothing.

Yet I didn’t have a problem with this ending in Wayward. I think there’s two reasons for this. First, there was a full story, despite the cliffhanger. Second, it was the second book in the series, not the first. I’d read enough to know I was enjoying the ride, and I was invested in the series. I went on to get the third because I genuinely wanted to, and not because I needed to know what happened next.

So on to the third book, The Last Town. It starts off exactly where the second ends, and the initial third is pretty much non-stop action. Initially this concerned me — I wondered if the action was being used to disguise a weak plot — but the story is solid when it kicks in. And, again, it was not simply a rehash of what had gone before.

The ending of the book works well, and also brings the complete trilogy to a solid conclusion. There is a single-line epilogue that leaves scope for more books, and there are plenty of aspects of the story-world that could be developed, but the trilogy feels like a whole. Although I’d happily buy more Wayward Pines books, I don’t need them in order to feel that I’ve had a great reading experience.

Again, this is like that original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, there are all the other stories, either films or books, and more are planned. But the original three films work on their own. I can explore more of this universe, but I don’t have to in order to understand the originals.

The way the Wayward Pines trilogy is structured gives me something else — confidence that Crouch won’t write a follow-on simply because ‘it will sell’. If there are more books, I would imagine they will be thought-out, and will expand on rather than retread ideas.

So as a summary, what have I learnt about the structure of a series from these books? This is personal, and you might not agree with this, but for me, there are three main things:

  • I don’t like to feel tricked into buying more books, so for me a complete story, with sequel potential, works well (especially as the first book in a series).
  • If there is a cliffhanger ending, the book still needs an overall story arc that is satisfying.
  • Second and third books should not simply be ‘more of the same’, but should push into other areas.

I’ll probably write more at some point on what I think makes a good or bad series (or serial), but I’ll leave it for now.

(See what I’ve done there? I’ve come to the conclusion of this post, but I’ve left it open for a sequel. Maybe the next time I write about this topic, I’ll have to make it a two-parter.)