Sunday, May 8, 2011

Storymaker Conference - Report 1: How to Scare People

I came back last evening after an incredible three days. I got to meet some wonderful people and learn skads about writing. I attended bootcamp where four writers met with a published author (though one of the bootcampers was published). Our drill sargeant was Melanie Jacobson, author of the The List, and we spent six hours together reading and critiquing 15 pages from each of our WIPS. Learned SO much.

In this blog I'm going to report on the class that Dan Wells taught on how to scare people. Dan is the author of I Am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster (which tied with Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings for the Whitney Awards Novel of the Year last night), and I Don't Want to Kill You.

His class was titled "There's a Bomb Under the Table: How to Write Thrills, Chills, and Suspense".  He broke down the process of how to scare people (in 5 easy steps). Dan only had 50 minutes, and he used movies to make his point, some of which he showed excerpts of. I don't write horror, but I do have suspense in my books, so it's important for me to understand how to make it work for my readers.

Establish normal and then break it.
He had a couple of examples for this one. One was a scene with Drew Barrymore in Scream where she gets a phone call that starts out seeming very normal ... until she realizes the caller is watching her from somewhere. Suddenly the norm is broken and it's a shock. Dan showed a clip of the George C. Scott movie The Changeling.

The familiar becomes unfamiliar.
He reviewed that dock scene from the movie Jaws, where the two guys throw out the Sunday roast as bait for the shark and one is very nearly killed. Personally, that was one of the scariest scenes in the movie for me. Dan said that the story is so well set up because everything acts normally ... until the floating dock turns around and heads back toward the man in the water. Freak out!

Delay the other shoe.
He showed the clip from Jaws where Brody is stressing because he knows there's a shark out there but the mayor won't close the beaches. We're given several scenes where people are doing just what people do at the beach (normal) but Brody's also seeing potential dangers everywhere. As viewers we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. We keep thinking, 'this time it'll happen' but it doesn't. And when it does ...

Pushing fear buttons.
Dan's example for this one was from Silence of the Lambs. It's almost to the end of the film, when Jodi Foster has gone into the building where the kidnap victim is trapped. One of the brilliant techniques in this scene is how the viewer is shown things people are scared of. We have the character's obvious fear--let's be real here; if it scares an armed FBI agent it's going to scare me--then we have a room full of scary, creepy things (closed doors, bathtubs full of icky stuff, a screaming victim, etc. and then the lights go out and the viewer then gets to watch the murderer watch the character without her knowing it. *shivers*

Show the monster when the time is right.
Unfortunately we ran out of time on this one and didn't get to see the last video clip. From my personal experience, I would suggest in this one to make sure the monster isn't ridiculous. I remember watching a movie on TV with gargoyles. They did a decent job creeping me out in the beginning ... until I actually saw the monsters (gargoyles). They were so ridiculous I laughed. Not good.

If you're interested, I'm providing the link to the first of a five-part training Dan did on Story Structure at LTUE in 2010. Very informative.


  1. Sounds like you had an amazing time! Thanks for sharing this. :D

  2. What a great opportunity! I'd love to attend a workshop on suspense. I'm going to try my hand at it in my next novel.

  3. These are all great tips. I remember feeling sorry for the sheriff in jaws when he was so stressed out and then nothing happens. That's a good way to pull it get us the next time!

  4. Excellent post, Donna. Thanks for reporting back to those of us who couldn't attend (because we're on the other side of the world).
    Chapter One Analysis: The Hunger Games

  5. Laura, it was such a great experience. I've got tons of notes I need to get typed up so I can refresh my memory and make them more easily accessible.

    Susie, I'm fortunate to live somewhere that seems to have quite a writing community, so there're opportunities like this.

    Kimberly, I loved Brody, too. They did a great job making him sympathetic.

    Mooderino, there will be several posts about the conference.

  6. Wow. I'm soooo jealous. Sounds like you had an amazing time and thank you for sharing it with us!

    Ellie Garratt

  7. OMG what an awesome time that sounds!! JEALOUS! Those are amazing examples too. Wow. So. Jealous!

  8. Ok - clearly if I'd read these chronologically, my question would have been answered!! :) I'll definitely have to do bootcamp next year. And I missed Dan Wells workshop, too - so thank you, thank you for the recap!!


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