By Bryan Patrick Avery
Friday the 13th just passed, and that got me thinking about scary stories and why they appeal to readers. We have all experienced it: you’re reading a book and keep telling yourself “just one more chapter.” Before you know it, it’s way past bedtime but you still can’t stop. You just must find out what happens next. This month, let’s look at three books that give examples of how to craft a story readers won’t want to put down.
First, we’ll look at a classic story from a master of suspense for children, R.L. Stine. “Say Cheese and Die!”, from the famed Goosebumps series, is the story of Greg, who finds (steals, really) a very strange camera. The pictures he takes with the camera are never quite right. When he takes a picture of his friend Mike, the photograph shows Mike falling down the stairs. Then, Mike actually falls down the stairs. A picture of his father’s new car shows the car completely wrecked. Than, his father is in a horrible accident. As things get stranger and scarier, Mike decides he must return the camera to the old abandoned house where he got it, but even that proves to be difficult.
his book is hard to put down, in no small part because of R.L. Stine’s chapter ending cliffhangers which demand you keep reading. I know many see cliffhangers as a cheap plot device but they really can be effective in driving the story, and the reader forward.
The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street, written by Lindsay Currie, is equal parts creepy and heartwarming. The tale centers around Tessa, who has relocated to Chicago with her family. Almost immediately, strange things start happening around the house. She hears crying at night, her little brother’s ventriloquist doll cries real tears and, at times, the house gets frighteningly cold.
With a few new friends, Tessa begins to investigate the history of this haunted house and discovers an old mystery. She also, perhaps most important, discovers the value of friendship and learns that her new home isn’t so bad after all. What makes this story work so well is that, mingled with the creepy goings on in the house is a story of friendship and family that everyone can relate to. That gives the reader a break from the fright and provides an emotional connection between the reader and Tessa. Currie’s novel is an excellent example of suspenseful writing at it’s best.
Lastly, I’d like to share what has become, for me, a very useful resource in my writing, Mastering Suspense Structure and Plot by Jane K. Cleland. Winner of the 2016 Agatha Awards for Best Nonfiction, Cleland’s book is broken into two equally important sections: Thinking and Writing. Part One: Thinking, covers the planning and plotting process of the book. Part Two: Writing, covers useful approaches for ratcheting up suspense and engaging the reader. It includes helpful sidebars activities. My favorite is the Metaphor Machine, which helps authors find ways to express things that are abstract or intangible, like isolation.
Of course, Mastering Suspense Structure and Plot isn’t just for horror or suspense writers. Every story can benefit from the tools and techniques Cleland shares with us. After all, every story asks a question that must be answered. The road the story takes en route to answering question will determine whether readers keep reading or not.
That’s all for this month. No cliffhangers here. I’ll see you next month. Happy writing.
We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with Clear Fork/Spork editor/art director, former agent and former kidlit professor Mira Reisberg PhD who is also the Director of the Children's Book Academy.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays will feature the fabulous debut author/illustrator Maggie Brown.
And 5th Mondays will feature a surprise reprise from over nine years of archives.