Tell Me a Scary Story
An introduction to the art of by-the-seat-of-your-pants storytelling
Published: September 1, 2001
|Stars sparkled against the dark shroud of night.|
were mere crumbs and smudges. Embers glowed moodily in the fire pit. Far
across the lake, loons lamented their haunting autumn farewell. In a
half-circle, smoldering embers between us, sat a group of 12 adults and
children, all patiently waiting for my story to begin.
Halloween is my second-favorite holiday of the year for this very reason. Telling scary stories is my forté.
was never a night by the lake, stream, bonfire or fireplace without
pleas of, “Dad! Tell us a scary story.” Time has changed the petitions
from “Dad” to “Grampa,” “Andy” and “Uncle Andy,” but “tell us a scary
story,” remains a steadfast entreaty. Over the years, I’ve garnered a
bag of tried-and-true storytelling methodologies, but I always enjoy
making up stories as I tell them. Improvisation, I’ve found, is as
essential to telling vibrant scary stories as a dark night and
fills your storytelling with energy, imagination, freshness and
flexibility. The plot, characters and story ideas abound wherever you
look – you merely have to know what to look for.
Know Your Audience
all the aspects of good storytelling, the most important is finding the
right story for your audience. That means you need to know your
audience’s age, sophistication and tastes. Which themes can your
audience handle? What sort of prior knowledge do they possess? How long
can they sit still? Adults might appreciate a little risqué romance in
your story; they’ll appreciate some blood and guts, but keep it subtle.
Teenage audiences can relate to a touch of romance, but you might
consider steering clear of the libidinous stuff. Blood and guts works
well with teens and preteens, however. Romance makes very young groups
squeamish, and violence isn’t appropriate.
Once you know your audience, set the appropriate boundaries, and remember to stick to these boundaries as the story unfolds.
Awakening the Mind’s Eye
First, though, the germ of your story needs to sprout.
abound when you’ve awakened your mind’s eye. Start by picking an
element from your surroundings – something that is out of place, maybe
by just a little bit – and let your fancy take over. A bent sign on the
side of the road may be from a terrified teen fleeing a dangerous
animal, person, automobile or monster. A missing letter on the side of a
building might awaken a long dead, but dangerous, spirit. The floating
embers of a campfire might become the wishes of angels or the desires of
devils. A tree with clawlike branches could become the beckoning
fingers of a trouble-making troll who will steal away everyone in the
audience. A spider tells the story of “The People of the Tarantula.”
a blank? Put some pressure on audience members. If the audience is
small, start a story-in-the-round: give each person about one and a half
minutes to contribute to the story, and then pass the narration onto
the person sitting next to them. When your turn rolls around, plot
themes will be dancing for your attention. Now your creative fantasy can
begin (more often than not, the audience will ask you to keep telling),
or if you’re not yet ready, you can finish the story on the next round.
Once the theme has blossomed, the rest of the story is easy.
on the way to tell a story to a youth group about 150 strong, ages
ranging from 12 to 14, I spotted a piece of driftwood making its way
across a local lake. Several accounts of that driftwood danced before my
eyes: I saw it as a murder weapon (not right for this group), as a
piece of an old boat that had been torn apart by some unknown force
(some potential), as a snakelike monster ready to strike anything, or
anyone, that ventured too close (a little too young for this group). I
settled on it bearing an ominous message from a hapless soul searching
for eternal peace.
|Once you’ve developed your initial
plot idea, think about your story’s background events. These can
introduce your story and lead your listeners toward the main plot. Ask
yourself questions to flesh out your plot ideas. Answer these questions
and you’ve developed a good, solid beginning. |
determined the driftwood bore an ominous message from a wandering soul,
I had to fill in the blanks. Why was the soul lost? Why couldn’t it find
peace? How long had it been searching? What happened to the physical
body this soul once inhabited? What was its ominous message? As you lead
yourself and your audience through your forest of thoughts about this
lost soul, your story begins to take shape.
With story ideas firmly in mind, you’re ready to begin.
Setting the Mood
and actions set the mood. It helps if you require silence and hold all
questions until after you’re done. If it’s appropriate for your story,
ask your audience members to shut their eyes and keep them closed while
you’re telling your story. You don’t want anything to interfere with
each audience member’s imagination.
A solemn note to begin setting the mood might go like this:
I start this story, you must – each and every one of you – be silent
until I am finished. You also must not move from where you are sitting.
There is a penalty. I do not know what that penalty is, since no one who
has broken this rule has been able to tell me what happened.”
One of the easiest ways to start a story is with theme-setting background information:
“I had some time, and the sign intrigued me. I went to the local
library and did some research. I discovered an old legend ...”
Or make yourself the main character and let your imagination run:
“One night I was walking down that old trail that goes out behind our
house. I noticed something amiss when I was passing the blueberry
Or the story can just start:
“On the East end of
town, just down Highway 66, there is an old house with very dark
windows. A once beautiful woman now lives there by herself …”
Let the Story Evolve
You’ve hatched an idea; now let the story grow. Allowing the story to
spontaneously unfold imbues it with that crucial element of surprise.
Never begin a story with an ending already established in your mind.
Start with the idea and let that creative spark take care of plot
development. Visualize specific events, characters and settings; make
the listeners see what you’ve conjured, and keep your options open.
“One night, Paul had a dream. He was at the top of a hill. The hill
was thick with beautiful green grass, and he looked down to the valley
below. In the valley stood a tiny church. He heard singing coming from
the church, but he could not understand the words. He suddenly felt he
was needed inside; he ran down to the church, clambered up the stone
stairs, and entered through large wooden doors. They creaked as he
pushed them open. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, he saw
that the pews were full. Every soul in the church was a woman dressed
in black, a black scarf over her head. Their beautiful song was now a
mournful wailing. In the place where the altar should’ve been was a
Persian carpet with a figure on it so ghastly that Paul could not bear
to even look at it. As he ran from the church in his dream, Paul
awakened with a start.”
characters quickly as each enters your story. One character is all you
really need to have, and three or four is best. (The fewer characters
you have to keep track of, the better.) Remember that each audience
member perceives the characters differently. Usually, therefore, the
attitude of a character is most important. Use your voice and actions to
relate the character’s attitude and characteristics, but don’t overdo
your description. Use only a handful of details, and your audience’s
imaginations will fill in the blanks. Descriptions can be as simple as:
“She was about 16 years old and very thin.”
But some characters – usually your antagonists – need abundant descriptions.
“In front of him stood the creature he saw in the carpet. It stood
nearly seven feet tall. Its thin stale body covered in black, a matching
hood on its head, made it seem to reach to the heavens though it surely
did not come from there. Beneath the hood a white face – the eyes
vacuous black holes reflecting nothing but evil.”
have a way of snapping into your mind as you’re telling a story. When
they do, introduce them and give them a place in your tale. Of course,
sometimes you’ll invent a character that initially has zero effect,
plot-wise. You can always use these minor characters to set the mood,
provide insight to your lead characters, or maybe make surprise
appearances later in the story, adding mystery and color.
characters will take on definition and detail as your story progresses.
When you introduce a character, you might begin with a vague visual
description and personality. As your characters move through your story,
you’ll add dimension to them. Give a seemingly mundane character a
heroic nature – or have him become the center of all evil. Transform
the monster from your story’s opening scenes into a benign giant or an
As the storyteller, you are also
an actor. Put yourself on an imaginary stage, even if you are sitting
down. Use large actions to emphasize your narrative and different voices
to speak for each character. Use actions sparingly at first and more
frequently (and vibrantly) as your story escalates. Allow your actions
to follow your characters’ actions as they lead you through the story.
Be very careful, however, to not overdo the theatrics. A well-timed and
well-executed scream is theater; screaming everytime your character
enters a room won’t do much except numb your audience. A little bit of
theater can go a
For greater effect preceding a
startling revelation, stillness together with a soft and mellow voice
can lull the audience. This can add tremendous emotion and dynamic
tension to your story when the action picks up – and you raise your
In a calm, dark voice, leaning forward with hands folded:
“The doors to outside freedom were wedged tight by some force of darkness.”
Clapping your hands together and suddenly sitting up straight:
“Allen turned in panic. In front of him stood the creature on the carpet. It stood nearly seven feet tall!”
Pointing your index finger out toward the audience and lowering your voice:
“The apparition crooked its finger and said, ‘C-o-m-m-me ... w-i-i-i-i-th ... m-e-e-e-e!’”
When you’re telling a story to an audience whose members have their
eyes shut (per your instructions), your voice becomes even more
expressive and emotive. Use it to enhance mood, define characters and beguile or startle the audience.
Try using accomplices to boost the fright factor. Before you begin your
story, ask an audience member to shout, bang a door or suddenly yell
out “What’s that?” when you deliver a specific cue.
flashlight to shine into the surrounding darkness as you look for the
lake monster. When you’re playing the role of your antagonist, shine the
flashlight on your face from below your chin. To emphasize an action or
change your appearance, bring yourself closer to or farther from
the flickering firelight of a candle or campfire. Props (a hat, scarf,
glove or other accessory) are quick-and-easy tools to help personify
Endings should surprise your
audiences. You can be surprised too, but make sure it’s a little bit
sooner than your listeners. My endings sometimes seem overly obvious as
I’m developing a story. When that occurs, I’ll lead the audience to that
obvious ending and then finish with a startling twist, one the audience
didn’t expect. Surprise endings are often the best.
be startling, subtle, humorous, delightful, cunning, twisted or just
plain strange. Audience sophistication is the determining factor. Your
story’s climax could occur with a funeral or cremation, a huge scream,
or with the storyteller – you – taking on the persona of your
antagonist. (For another twist, demonize an audience member by the end
of the story; it can be a lot of fun.)
Most importantly, have a good time telling your stories. If you’re having fun, your audience will have fun.
This is just the beginning of a long and illustrious career as a
spinner of tales that startle the tranquil, curdle the blood of the
stoic and haunt the fearless. Plunge on into your storytelling and enjoy
One word of warning: In the midst of your story when
you feel your blood chill, goosebumps rise on your skin and the hair at
the nape of your neck stands at attention, look behind you. You may have conjured up more than your imagination!
On a full moon, Andrew Nygren can be found by a bonfire at the lake, telling stories to himself and anyone who will listen.
Bag of Tricks
storytelling technique of winging it – making up a scary story at the
same time you are telling it – can be a forbidding (or should we say
“scary”?) process for some. If you can’t say more than five words at a
time without breaking into a cold sweat, you might want to start small –
say, by telling stories to the mirror or your dog. With time and
practice, however, you’ll become skilled enough to hold your own.
Regardless of your initial propensity toward acting and storytelling,
everybody needs a little jump-start now and then. Here are several
essential elements that will make your story successful.
- Keep your stories short. Between 5 and 10 minutes is best; any longer, and your audience might start fidgeting.
- Keep your audience on its toes with an unexpected twist or surprise ending.
- Consider common horror conventions – the stalking bog monster, a mysterious ghost ship, brain-eating zombies, the greedy
protagonist who gets what he or she deserves, a group of
innocent kids who find themselves trapped in these very
woods – and give these a clever spin.
- Keep on going, even if you get stuck. Chances are, your audience will think it’s just a random plot twist.
- If you lose a great thought while you’re describing something else, forget about it. If it was truly great, it’ll pop back in.
- A ravenous monster, greedy villain, shrieking demon or mysterious soul is a must.
- A flickering fire helps to set the mood. In the absence of fire, use a candle, flashlight or very soft lighting.
- Turn off all radio, television and other noisemakers.
- Start with a gentle, narrative voice. Save your scary voice for later.
- Do not allow any talking or moving around during the story.
- Do not answer any questions, even after you’ve finished.
- Use different voices/actions for different characters. Just keep track of them!
- Enlist an assistant to lurk in the shadows and scream, moan or suddenly leap out of the darkness at your cue.
- Keep a safe distance from your audience - they may strike out if you get too close (yep, it really happens).
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