How to write a scary story: "show" don't "tell"

I've been hearing it for years from writing coaches, show don't tell. I've attended songwriting workshops where we examined the precious few words that make up a hit song: show don't tell the instructors would say. I took a creative writing class where the teacher would drone on about effective setting, plot, characters, point of view, and the eloquence of building a story by showing not telling. But what did it all mean?

Let's examine this in the context of Halloween, shall we.

As we prepare our costumes this year, proudly showing our allegiance to The Walking Dead franchise, we're sure to pay a lot of attention to the details of our makeup and ghoulish attributes. We'll carefully apply the fake blood to the bullet hole in the side of our head and rip our clothing just so, letting the tattered fabric hang. We'll be quite literal with our costumes so there'll be no mistaking who we are: zombies of the earth.

However, when it comes to writing, we don't have to be quite so literal. There is power in leaving details up to the imagination of the reader, stirring up his or her own memories based on past experiences and fears, which can be much more potent than imposing our own descriptions. In other words, we don't know what scares our readers, but if we give them a chance to impose some of their own insecurities into the story, we might just be able to affect them on a deeper level.

For example:

Telling: When Jessica arrived home, she was so tired that she couldn't even make it upstairs to her bedroom, so she took a nap on the couch. Then she heard a disturbing noise. 

Showing: Jessica stumbled into the house and flopped on the couch, closing her eyes for just a moment. Creak

Telling: I could see the vicious wolf standing among the trees, and I loaded my gun so I could stop the beast if it moved any closer to me. 

Showing: I could hear it growling in the woods and I knew it was close. I cocked the gun and waited.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Stacey D. Atkinson is a freelance editor and author of Stuck, a novel she published via her independent company Mirror Image Publishing. 

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