Do you wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath after reading scary stories? Huddle under the covers afraid to peek closely into the shadows? Do you keep the light on all night?
Leap Books introduces guest blogger, Courtney Warren, who tells about the scary stories that kept her awake as a child as well what scares her now. And she offers tips on how to write your own scary stories. We look forward to hearing more from Courtney, who will blog regularly with us.
So, What Scares Me?
“Stop reading the book, Courtney,” she would say every night.
“I can’t! It’s so good!”
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz would be made into a movie, I was so excited. Even though it’s Christmas time, I still love a good scary story, so this news article was definitely welcomed. This also got me thinking—I’ve never tried to write a scary story before, so why are these stories so great? Can I do this?
Last summer I reread as many Goosebumps books as I could get my hands on and then watched the movies. I was at Hollins University for my very first summer in their graduate program and my interest level in all things YA (young adult) was through the roof.
Even as a 23-year-old adult, I still became terrified when Carly Beth couldn’t get the mask off on Halloween, and wanted to cry when the kids were locked in the medieval tower. I was terrified! More so while reading the books than while watching the movies.
So, after my Goosebumps obsession, when I saw that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark would be made into a movie, I immediately went to the library to get the book. However, I was a little disappointed. This was the book that left me so scared I had to sleep with my younger brothers, and yet when I read it….it seemed a little stupid.
In the beginning of the book, a story is written with cues for the storyteller like (now scream) or (now jump at one of your friends). The stories are pretty cut and dried with your basic witches, ghosts, ghouls, and axe murderers. As I read on, I really couldn’t understand what had scared me so badly as a child.
Then I turned the page and immediately figured it out. It was the illustrations, which were done by Stephen Gammell.
The stories are basic, run-of-the-mill scary stories that attack basic childhood fears, but it’s the illustrations that make you want to cry in the middle of the night for you mom.
So why is this series by Schwartz successful and just as memorable as Goosebumps by R.L. Stine?
I will definitely say hands down that Goosebumps was more popular and more successful in the long run, however, at the house of Stevens, Schwartz and Stine were my main obsessions.
So, let’s break it down.
So, What about Goosebumps?
Books turned into a television series and a few movies, the Goosebumps books are still around and going strong, with Stine writing the books that appear on the shelves. After rereading, I think a lot of this is because the stories are original, created by Stine himself and not something we have read before. Many of these stories deal with the supernatural – not something we can ever read about in a newspaper on a Sunday afternoon – and so these stories haunt our imaginations.
For more than twenty years, Stine has created new stories, taken his older stories and twisted them, and played with our imaginations in such a way that don't only draw in children. The classic Goosebumps do not have much blood and gore (from what I have read and remember), but they do have a lot of creepiness, jumping out, and detailed horror.
That’s what I realized about Goosebumps…the terror is in the details.
Stine shows us terrible things rather than tells us, so he is not only expanding the imaginations of youngsters, he’s also painting a horrifying picture. His books are for middle-grade and not YA, which is made clear through the interactions of the characters. Sometimes, as a writer, changing the way your characters react can change the level of your story.
For example, in The Haunted Mask, Carly Beth is picked on for being such a scaredy cat when her two friends at school play pranks on her. However, rather than scream and curse at them (YA), she cries and runs away (middle-grade). Also, when she vows revenge, her revenge isn’t to kill them—typical in a YA horror—but to SCARE them just like they have been doing to her.
Simple changes in writing can change the audience for your stories. The story is still scary, with a terrifying mask that attaches itself to the wearer and alters his or her personality, but remains appropriate for middle-grade readers because of the nature of the characters and the language.
So, What about Scary Stories?
Scary Stories seems to take a different angle. Schwartz plays on legends and folklore—stories that have been told for generations. However, he plays these stories down so the reading level is much different and appropriate for middle-grade.(Read some here.)
Rather than giving gruesome details about ripping a person’s guts out, Schwartz says they are dead. Simple and cut-to-the-chase (yet still terrifying) works here, especially when paired with Gammell’s illustrations. I stand by the fact that, although the stories were okay to me as an adult but terrifying when I was a child, it’s the illustrations that kept me from sleeping. The three books in this series written by Schwartz were banned and challenged often throughout the years, more so for the pictures rather than the stories.
I tutor a little girl every day and, when I checked this book out, I read her a story. She scares easily, so I stopped halfway through because I was pretty sure she couldn’t take anymore. I knew some of the pictures would have sent her over the edge.
The way these pictures are drawn, with long lines and a sketchy unfinished feel, makes them so creepy they are almost unbearable. With Gammell’s illustrations, the more you look, the more scared you become, because the more you see in his details. On the title page at first glance you see an abandoned house, then a rocking chair, then a moon above the rocking chair. So wait… Is the house suspended in the air? And is that the silhouette of a man who has hung himself?
You haven’t even gotten past the title of the book and already you want to crawl in a hole.
These stories, whether detailed or not, illustrated or not, still touch the middle-grade readers in such a way that they are excited for more and running back to the book shelves (in the light of day, of course). The stories may be incredibly different, but the concepts are the same—clean horror. The characters are simple, with easy-to-understand thoughts and ideas, while the language is basic, so it doesn’t confuse the readers. Children can understand it, they can relate, and they get scared—it works.
So, What Do I Do?
So, how can you create a story for a middle-grade reader that leaves them shaking in their Ugg boots?
Start off with a story you already know and add a twist.
Maybe it’s the story of the babysitter and the man upstairs, but your twist is that the babysitter has never babysat before, but luckily she takes karate. Or maybe the killer is her friend trying to spook her, and it turns out that when she catches her friend, they realize there’s a REAL killer upstairs.
Begin with a legend you already know and run with it. Perhaps in your run, you’ll create something entirely new!
Remember, a lot of the time parents are controlling what their kids read, and although the F-word might be used on the playground at school, parents and teachers won’t appreciate a fourth grader reading it on every single page. Drop the language, keep it basic at first—scary and to the point.
So, What about You?
What are some stories that have kept you up at night?
If you answer this question or comment on the blog, we'll put your name in a drawing for your choice of one of Leap's scary books. Drawing on January 13, 2014.
Courtney Warren is a writer for her local newspaper, as well as a graduate student at Hollins University where she is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature. She has a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, the home of the Fighting Okra (which she is incredibly proud of). She loves to read just about anything placed on the shelves but has a special place in her heart for the Harry Potter series.
When she is not writing about herself in third person, she loves to write stories about middle schoolers with spunky attitudes who intend to save the world, as well as drinking Earl Grey tea from a very prissy teacup.
Check out her blog, Tea, the Spirit, & a Pen.