How to tell a scary story

3/14/15 (Pi Day!) L A.S.

How to tell a scary story

He's so good, he's scarin' himself!

He’s so good, he’s scarin’ himself!

It’s a wonderful thing to tell and hear stories. People have been doing it for as long as there have been people and maybe even a bit before then. Before the invention of writing, people used oral stories to warn others of danger, to entertain each other, to teach their children, and to pass down virtues that were valued in their society. Plays, with increasingly complicated plots, costumes, and set designs, as well as bigger casts, developed out of early groups of humans telling stories around campfires. In my own life, I’ve engaged in the theatrical form of storytelling in Cub Scout and Boy Scout skits at camp, as well as in a couple high school plays. Working with others to tell a story through acting is a fun and rewarding experience!

Today though, I want to focus on the most traditional form of storytelling: one person narrating a story to others, often including dialogue and sound effects in the mix. I’ll get more specific, and make this post about how to tell a good scary story, though much of this advice can apply to telling funny stories or jokes, too. These pieces of advice come from my own experience, both in telling stories and in hearing good storytellers, such as my old scoutmaster, Mr. James P. Harte.

  1. Know your story well, and know how to improvise.This might seem obvious, but it’s critical to remember. Goofing up a story and having a long awkward pause of confusion totally breaks whatever mood you’ve already created! Re-read, re-listen, and rehearse your story many times before telling it to a large audience. Practice with a close friend or family member first if you can, someone who you know will be a friendly audience. Truly get to know the “feel” of your story, and all the important details of characterization and setting. Don’t fret over memorizing the exact wording of most of the lines: no one will have a script in front of them, checking that you’re remaining perfectly on track. Don’t show your audience that you messed up or forgot a detail a couple sentences ago: just go with the flow, as best as you remember. Know your story, but know how to adapt if and when you do mess up.
  2. Establish a good setting before beginning.In this sense of the word “setting,” I’m not talking about the time and place where your story takes place. Rather, I’m referring to the people and area around you and your audience as you tell your story. For example, trying to tell a scary story in broad daylight, in the middle of a park, with a bunch of kids and dogs running around, would be a dumb idea. Ideal would be late at night, with a low camp fire, and a quiet and willing audience who isn’t currently distracted by food. You can (and may have to) be assertive in getting everyone to quiet down for your story, but sometimes it just isn’t gonna happen, and you gotta wait for a better time, sadly. When you begin your story, establish credentials and mood quickly to increase the power of the setting, such as saying that the events of the scary story happened right in these very woods, or that your strange great uncle told you this story and totally swore it was true. Speak slowly, solemnly, let your words (and the crackling low fires, soft breeze in the trees, darkness of the area all around) sink in. This leads to my next point!
  3. Vary the pace of your telling for maximum impact.Think of noises that put you to sleep. For most people, these are repetitive noises with little to no change in tempo or volume. No pauses, no crescendos. A boring lecturer has the same quality. He or she doesn’t send any signals to your brain to “listen up!” at any particular moment: it’s all just the same “blah, blah, blah, blah” droning on and on at the same pitch and volume. Don’t tell a story that way! If you look at good political public speakers, such as Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, they all speak dynamically, meaning that the way they speak changes sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. They may speak softly and slowly for a while to draw an audience in close, then build and build their volume, with pauses thrown in on their most key words, until they reach a crescendo of great poignancy. The audience hangs on their every word. Adolf Hitler was a master of great dynamic public speaking that led his audiences to feel the emotions he wanted them to feel. Use the same sort of magic in your storytelling. Describe the unseen creature creaking up the front steps and knocking one, two, threeeee times at the door with slow and deliberate tension. Speak in frantic, gasping tones as your main character flees and fumbles through the dark Egyptian tomb away from the pursuing mummy. Turn your voice low and grave as the axe-wielding serial killer slowly reaches the closet door where your main character lies huddled, suppressing a scream, and then YELL to shock your audience as the killer smashes through the door. Dynamism is crucial to a truly scary story. Don’t be like that teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!

Here are a few more small tips on scary story telling:

  • Don’t be an asshole. Sure, your job is to scare people, but don’t traumatize kids with content that is too graphic for them. (At least, don’t do that too much…)
  • Do, however, use details to make the story more real for your listeners. Readers will be more engaged and scared if you slow down and really describe the cold, sharp, steel of the blood-stained knife, or the absolutely bizarre and troubling other-worldiness of the mysterious glow coming from the meteorite, or the horrible black emptiness of the zombie’s eye sockets.
  • Don’t sweat it. Have fun! If people are willingly quieting down to listen to your story, they’re looking for a good scary campfire story, and think that you’re competent enough to tell one. Have fun with it.
  • To find good scary stories to tell, I recommend the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, (terrifically scary illustrations in those by the way!) as they are not only creepy, but also relatively simple to memorize and tell. Look up “CreepyPastas” on the Web, too. Not all work well for campfires, but some of the most popular ones are perfect. Of course, there’s always my books as sources of scary stories, too. (Especially The Golden Arm, in Right Behind You!)

I hope these tips help you get a good start on scary story telling. Get out there and make some people jump out of their seats in terror!


-G.R. Wilson


One thought on “How to tell a scary story

  1. Mark

    I think you meant AXE-wielding serial killer, bud. Unless he’s a gambler who has psychopathic urges to cheat at poker….


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