Writer’s Online has a piece on December 10 this year written by Lori Ann Stevens about how to capture a real, frightening event in prose. It’s not easy. It can seem dry, exaggerated, stilted or difficult to believe. But Ms Stevens has some tips on how to make the terrible event real for the reader.
Ms Stevens is the author of Blue Running, published by Moonflower Books. She said, “My sister’s boyfriend was fourteen years old when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach while cleaning his hunting rifle. He was alone, and the wound was fatal. His sudden death left everyone shaken and horrified. I hoped that the school counsellors would help my little sister heal from the trauma. I’d recently had a baby, so I acknowledged and then buried the image as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized how profoundly this boy’s death had settled into my consciousness. In Blue Running, my new novel set in Texas, a similar accident occurs. I relived the accident as I typed the scene, watching quite helplessly as this girl – filled with dreams and imagination – bled out on the floor. In spite of her friend’s screams for help, in spite of a desperate race to find a phone, to flag down a car, the girl dies. Her best friend could only witness the horror, hold the girl in her arms, feel every moment. Like me, the writer who was finally reckoning with the memory.
“It was my imagination that had made the real event so long ago unbearable: what had gone through his head as he lost his grip on consciousness? To die violently and alone – I can’t imagine a more terrifying event. It’s this capacity for imagination, and the willingness to step through those doors, that makes us empathetic humans… and makes writers create believable scenes for their readers.
“But it’s not easy, writing out terrifying, real-life events. Robin Hemley in Turning Life into Fiction, puts it this way: “‘But it really happened!’ is such a lame defense for a story you’ve written. If it doesn’t seem believable, forget it.” It doesn’t matter that a scene is based on real events if the narrative choices aren’t authentic. Here are a couple of tips to make these terrifying scenes credible in fiction. Rather than describing the blind flight of adrenaline blurred by mayhem, try to capture the crystal clear moments that imprint on the brain in the midst of the event.
“It probably won’t come as a surprise that slowing the pacing of the story allows the reader to experience the event, moment by moment. On the one hand, it’s counterintuitive, because terrifying events are often experienced as a blur – a rush of adrenaline sending you into survival mode. On the other hand, it’s also the exact inverse: a slowing of time and space. Who’s been in a car wreck and doesn’t have a terrifying, slow-motion memory imprinted on the backs of their eyelids? The car fishtailing on the icy road, the classic music on the radio echoing like a phantom, your tight grip on the steering wheel, the car jumping the curb like a fledgling bird and plummeting down the frost-covered grassy knoll.
“In this ironic slowing of time, my characters notice things we don’t register in our everyday lives. Their frame or focus might be more limited in a frightening situation as they fixate on one thing and store it in their memory: the buzz of a fly on the windowsill or the odd swish of an overcoat. Sensorial details like the cold tip of your nose, the sand grabbing onto your feet, or the smell of burnt hair. If your character is frightened and alone, forget the heartbeat racing and focus on the sound of his breath whistling, giving his hiding spot away. One benefit of staying in the moment like this instead of rushing the narrative is that your sentences might stretch out, compound the images, keep the readers moving from detail to detail, phrase to phrase. Or use shorter sentences.”
I tend to agree with Ms Stevens that it is most effective to use short, graphic, incoherent details in brief sentences to convey the feelings of a frightening event. Trying to capture the event in all its horror comes across as false. We need a sense of time moving quickly, of snapshots of consciousness. Short sentences and phrases pick up the pace. Onomatopoeia can be useful. For example, if sliding is the issue, using many words with an ‘S’ sound can convey the feeling. Effective horror scenes tend to show, rather than tell. It is often more powerful not to deal directly with the central horror threat. For instance, rather than describing the site of a broken bone, show that the limb seems to be at an odd angle.