Firstly, I would like to thank Jonathan for joining us here at Dark Readers...so over to Jonathan with his top tips for a scary story....I shall be reading and reviewing Lockwood & Co at a later date so watch this space.
1. Character comes first.
We’ve all seen those films where an identikit group of idiots walks into the haunted shed / house / wood and gets picked off one by one by cannibals / ghosts / monsters / religious zealots or a combo of them all. And how hard it often is to care. In fact, one thing separates the memorable and watchable from the rest of the dross: characterisation. It doesn’t take much. Just a little bit of humour, a little establishing work to make the protagonists seem 3-D. Because if you feel even the minutest bit of empathy and interest for the protagonists, you’ll start getting interested in their ordeal. At the very least you’ll start hoping the unpleasant spiteful cheerleader gets it in the neck before the wry, modest, quietly humorous bookworm. Which is a start.
2. Dark Rumours
Hand-in-hand with point 1 comes this basic requirement. While you’re spending a little time picking out the finer points of your characters, you can intersperse a few subtle hints about your ghostly set-up. A few background rumours, a tall tale or two about the supposed massacre that took place in the old warehouse, or about the frock-coated killer who once dragged his victims back to the windmill by the lake. Whatever. The casual way your characters react to the rumours will re-enforce their normality, and make them more vulnerable in the audience’s eyes.
3. Slow Build of Tension
Time to introduce the scares. Begin with a gentle drip-feed of odd sightings, sensations, misunderstandings and half-noticed anomalies that have the effect of agitating your protagonists and readers. Subtle changes in atmosphere; figures glimpsed from the corner of the eye; little sounds that not everyone is able to hear. Start isolating your characters from each other, let their latent emotions (see point 1) come out as the stress begins to tell.
4. Don’t Over-Egg the Apparition
Even rubbish movies are generally quite competent at points 2 and 3, but they always fall down when it gets to the climax. The best ghosts are briefly seen and succinctly described: it’s all in the build-up, in the audience’s anticipation of what’s hidden in the dark. If they see too much, if they witness too many special effects, the shock and terror is inevitably reduced. By the same token, not too much ketchup, please: gore is another thing best left to the imagination.
5. Bind Ghost and Character together
The very best ghost stories are as much about internal darkness as external ghoulies. It’s through the emotional weaknesses of your main protagonists that the ghosts gain their ultimate power. If the final crisis features the hero/heroine confronting their own demons in the same act as facing down the supernatural foe, you’re on to a winner, and will have a story that’ll live in the memory long after the fear dies down.