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Review: Writing Scary Scenes

(The author provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

The majority of the tips in Writing Scary Scenes are what I have taught middle school students. Time and again through this book, I imagined Hall leaning over to instruct seventh graders. So, when in the introduction she states outright "Writing Scary Scenes is a book for advanced-level and professional writers", I admit I scoffed. It is difficult to believe this is for adults when she imparts wisdom such as "A scene which ends where the PoV is in acute trouble with no obvious way out [...] is called a ‘cliffhanger’ and it's a sure way to make the reader turn to the next page" or "Readers buy romance novels because of the love story" and "Readers who buy horror books want to be scared." If I judged this as a beginner’s guide to writing, I could agree that it is a good jumping off point. If I am to judge it as Hall insists it is, as a book for professional and adult writers, I must hold it to a much higher standard.

If you are the sort of writer who prefers to scan through a manual, find someone else’s sentence to express a particular mood or emotion, and slot it into your work, you may find more value in Hall’s book than I did. One bit of marginalia from my initial reading of this book is that it "sometimes reads like a technically manual for aliens on how to fake being human". Anyone finding this book brilliant is going to write similar stories fit for high school literary magazines published in October, but that likely won’t be seen anywhere else. Writing is creativity and this book advocates for formulaic but technically competent authorship. That is not remotely the same thing as interesting, and predictability is the least scary thing I can imagine.

Some of the advice is sound, such as "you can increase the horror [...] by mentioning something innocuous in the same sentence as the gory detail", "The last word touches the reader's psyche more than any other, so make it count", or "gruesome openings have no effect [before you know the characters]", but it is too little too far between. There is nothing prior to page 73 that I find advice that strains the upper limit of middle school writing, by varying sentence length to add tension, giving a satisfying story beyond the twist ending, or draw out scenes. She gets distracted by alliteration and assonance, which would draw me completely out of a story. If the villain speaks all in slithering sounds, I am going to put the book down for being immature.

Most of her examples of mastery are from people who are hardly commonplace names. Doing a bit more research and using luminaries of their genres in particularly well-crafted scenes would improve these. This is especially glaring where she decides for one chapter that copyright prevents her from quoting excerpts, even though she did so in the prior chapters.

The last fifteen percent of the book is a selection of Hall's stories, presented without comment other than a preamble amounting to "see if you can figure out what I was doing." This seems filler where it could have been used to dissect a story without fear of copyright infringement. Given how often I found chapters bloated, this seemed a wasted opportunity. Whenever she gave some small advice, she provides a dozen needless examples, to the extent that she once lists different time pieces ("a grandfather clock which goes tock-tock-tock, a clock on the steeple of a German village church, an expensive Rolex watch with silver hands, a children's alarm-clock with a Winnie-the-Pooh face, or an egg-timer with purple sand"). I learned to skip these. The book itself is repetitive, even when it discusses how overly using the same techniques is guaranteed to turn the reader off. It felt as though she worked from a template of chapter to reduce original text rather than writing what she thought would be genuinely helpful to readers.

Despite this, there was a point in the book (page 136) where she offers horror opening that beginning writers overuse. While indeed terrible and ill-advised, she can only think of two. I know for a fact that she edits anthologies - one of them is in my review pile - and so she must have more examples. I cannot fathom why she chose this moment to be tight-lipped.

The whole section on Wimp Points grated on me, especially as she describes as "wimpy" a character who experiences grief at another’s death. It does not matter if this informs the character, explains her actions, and gives her impetus to grow strong, Hall thinks it is wimpy and should be avoided for fear of gaining Wimp Points. She brings up romance novels several times when they did not seems applicable, but there is a curious absence of mentions of them when discussing heroines crying. (I guess the love of a Fabio absolves one of wimpiness.) She is also not a fan of characters thinking. My note here reads "Thinking is verboten (British: "forbidden"). Literacy, too. All characters must drive flaming motorcycles into werewolves so as to avoid Wimpy Points." Also, unwimpy characters must only be successful in all things, as "trying" or "attempting" anything makes them the equivalent of mincing nancies.

Some of her advice is strange, for example "Here's a nifty psychological trick to torment the reader's subconscious with suspense: tell your protagonist to strip off her clothes." Titillation isn’t suspense, as she proves when she described inert people taking off articles of clothing. I do not care at all why a man is taking off his jacket to prevent it creasing, one of her actual examples. It does not frighten me unless he is an Elder God with OCD. She later digresses that one might wish to limit describing unpleasant smells in erotica and then she informs the reader that there is very little gore in romance and children’s literature, apparently assuming I picked up Writing Sexy Kid’s Lit.

Several of my issues with this book boil down to that Hall and I ascribe to different schools of writing. She preaches telling, showing, telling again to make sure that the reader got what happened. As a reader and a writer, I find this frustrating and boring. I assume my readers are clever enough to see what happened. They did have the good sense to read a book I wrote, after all. I am sure that Hall and her kith would find my method just as frustrating because I am not making certain they saw what I did there. Hall, too, is not unaware of the flaw of this method: "Like everything, it can become tedious if overused. If every scene in the novel starts with the scene goal in the first sentence, the effect wears off." She is a proponent of relying on tropes (actually writing that one should use the forbidden phrase "A dog howled in the distance" to build mood) while I prefer those who seek to subvert what which is predictable and thus weak.

My final issue, snarkily alluded to above, is how Hall felt the need to interrupt herself to point out what a British English word meant in American English - e.g., abseiling (American: "rapelling") skills, mobile phones (American: "cell phones")", goose-pimples ("goosebumps" in American), loo ("bathroom" in American), football (American: "soccer") . Professional writers, to whom Hall says she is writing, should be assumed to not need this chiding (and, yes, rappelling is spelled as such in the book, thus invoking some version of Muphry’s Law that I an no doubt now going to be victim to myself for pointing this out).

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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