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Fear as a Writing Prompt? ‘Tis the Season!

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HeaderFear2

One of my favorite holidays is Halloween. I loved planning who I would morph into for the day. Would I be a cowgirl, a sleeping princess, a witch? I also loved haunted houses and ghost stories, and reveled in the day I was terrified at every turn—but knew deep down it was make-believe. One Halloween I scared a kid, convincing him vampires lived in our neighborhood (and wow—did I get in trouble for that one). The thought that monsters were right there, lurking under the playground at school, was just too much for the poor kid to handle.

In NOS4A2, Joe Hill makes a literary statement on the commercialism of Christmas by turning it into sheer terror. His dad, Stephen King, has turned a dog, a car, and a grocery store into the backdrop for stories that terrify. Dean Koontz’s hero, Odd Thomas, is a fry cook in a diner in a small town. These writers know one of the keys to delicious, terrifying writing is to turn something everyday into threatening or include the everyday in a story of horror.

Try it yourself. Following are writing prompts to put you in the Halloween state of mind:
Make a list of ordinary places.
Make a list of ordinary happenings—good things like a wedding, a birthday party, going out with friends, a band concert—any events you’ve attended in the last year or two, and don’t be surprised if you writing about something in your past. If the muse shows up be sure to follow!
Make a list of everyday objects.
Next list people you see in everyday life. Minister, teacher, deli-clerk, toll-booth collector, neighbor, landscaper, nanny—keep going until you run out of ideas.

Now, turn these ordinary events, objects and people into something frightening. Whatever grabs you—write about it!

And What About the Opposite?

Remember Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird? He lived in a scary house, had a scary father, and lived a scary life. Yet Scout discovers Boo is not-so-scary. Take the above lists and turn them to the opposite (scary places in life, terrifying happenings, bad events, horrific objects, people who frighten). Brainstorm how each could be the opposite. Write a story.

Scary Not Your Cup of Tea?

Write about your favorite Halloween costume.
How did you feel when you put it on?
What about that persona was like you?
What about that persona was opposite?
Why did that particular costume appeal to you?
Did you trick-or-treat with friends or go to a Halloween party?
Write about what happened.

Next, venture into the world of the opposite—write about when were you frightened or someone terrified you and it was simply your perception that scared the bejeebers out of you. And be sure to have a safe, haunting, and happy Halloween!

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com
  1. I have set myself the task of writing a gothic novel. Unfortunately as I near the end of my plotting I realize I have a hard time making the house terrifying. I have however made the protagonist seem scary and do scary mysterious things. But sinisterizing (made up word) the house itself continues to escape me.

    One can only have so many unexplained cold drafts, creaking doors and whispers before you must go somewhere with it. And the truth is what terrified us and worked well in the greats (Victoria Holt, Daphne Du Marier etc) just does not work that well today.

  2. Lisa M. Scuderi-Burkimsher says:

    Good examples for a haunting story.

  3. Thea, you are right–scary these days is much harder because of how much the reader has already seen! Writing horror or a gothic novel is a difficult task so kudos to you for working on a challenging project! (I love your word–sinisterizing–Shakespeare made up many words we use today!) In the book I mention above (Joe Hill’s NOS4A2) he makes a simple covered bridge terrifying–not only for where it takes the protagonist, but the bridge itself. There are bats in that bridge. Does not seem like that would be a frightening thing (after all, we’ve seen them before in fiction) but what he does is make them terrifying by the ultimate meaning that is attached to them (they are more than bats)–and what they mean to the protagonist and her life. Also, the reactions the protagonist has going through that bridge and what it means to her–and what the bridge means to the story. In THE SHINING it’s more than frightening things in the hotel, but its affect on Jack Torrence and how helpless Danny is in the grip of the house–how helpless they all are. So the fear comes from, ultimately, the affect on the protagonist and others in the story–not only how they relate to the setting but the meaning behind the setting (what is really going on.) Good luck with your book!

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