HOW TO TELL A SCARY STORY by Sara Hills

Start with setting

Think about someplace you know. A lonely walk to school, the back alleyways downtown, the dark crevices under the high school bleachers, a house from your childhood. Remember the sodium-yellow haze over the empty parking lot that time in college when a rugby player refused to get out of your car, and decide, instead, to catch the reader off-guard. Think about places that should be more comforting and familiara clean ribbon of asphalt under a cloudless sky, the upstairs bathroom at a family Christmas party, a sleepover at your best friends house, a city bus.

Add in the soundsthe cheering crowd, the seventeenth rendition of Jingle Bells pounded on the piano by your niece, a sharp inhale through a cigarette, a coffined silence, the steady drip from a leaky tap; the smellspine toilet cleaner, car exhaust, whiskey and vomit, buttered popcornknow youll come back to these details later and wonder which ones are worth telling.

Choose a protagonist

Pick someone likable, sympathetic; or not. A small girl whose yellow sundress tickles the tops of her knees, a teenager in ripped jeans on her way home late from school. Make her 32, a spinster, a mother. Make her thin as a mint Girl Scout cookie. Make her fat with thighs that rub together under her skirt. Give her glasses or a briefcase, let her clothes inform the time perioda chunky bow in her hair says 1983, a Holly Hobby lunchbox says 1979, a flannel shirt and ripped jeans says grunge, 1992. Make her proud or shy, make her a cookie-baking grandmother of four, or a boy with gapped teeth and a hole in his heart. A widower with three children at home. Make them hungry, unsuspecting, naive. Make them a little bit like you. Make them kind to kittens and afraid of breaking the rules. Or not.

Craft a villain

Surprise the reader; make them nonthreatening, approachable. Make them a teacher with a drawer full of snacks, a benevolent uncle, the older brother of your best friend. Remember drunk teenage boys in dark houses, fathers addicted to pills, neighbors with a new game to play. Pluck them out of thin air. Give them a uniforma police officer, a postman, a soldier, a doctor, a nurse. Think about the possibility of female villains. Controlling mothers who can reduce a child to the size of a tick with one glance, ready to pop you if they hear one more distasteful word. Angry teachers who make you call them Missand send you to sit in the hallway for being helpful. Decide it could be any one of them.

Choose a weapon

Start with what you know. Remember your mothers pinched face and her open palm, your brothers fists, your dads loaded pistol in the bedside table. Remember the boy who chased you home from school with a big stick, how fast you ran. Think legendary weaponsThor with his mighty hammer, Medusas eyes, Midass touchand wonder about touch as a weapon. Remember all the times your blood felt like it had stopped, clotted to stone, how your legs didnt movecouldnt. Think of celebritiesaccusers, think of girls in alleyways behind dumpsters, think of machetes and acid and knife attacks and bombs, and think how easy it would be to go quickly. Think of an unexpected weapon, the thing most villains have in common. Write penis.

Employ rising action. Quicken the pace.

Let your mind rest on the crocheted doll on the back of the toilet, her plastic smile, the exploded lunchbox with the blue thermos rolling into the bushes, the white-and-pink globs of bubble gum pressed under the bleachers, the empty beer cans, chocolate wrappers, the posters of boy bands on the walls. Recall the smells, you always do, the sound of laughter, disparaging remarks. Try not to cry.

The denouement

After, let your protagonist live. Fasten the memory like a tiny shadow tucked inside a heart, a womb, until it gnaws its way out. Let them tell no one what happened, or let them tell everyone. Have them whisper it to their diary, their best friend, their mother. Try to remember how the shards of words can catch in a throat; seeing yourself reflected in your mothers eyes when you told herhow distorted you felt, how dirty, how brokenand make your protagonist look away. Crimson their skin with shame until it feels bruised. Let them pray for help, for forgiveness, for death, for justice that never ever comes.

Let no one believe them.

Let it happen again.


Sara Hills has words at SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, and New Flash Fiction Review. Her work has been included in the BIFFY50 and twice shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and the Bridport Prize. Originally from America’s Desert Southwest, she lives in Warwickshire, England and tweets from @sarahillswrites.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

Read Next: IN WHICH PHOEBE DOES NOT MAKE THINGS HARDER by Devan Collins Del Conte