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Which is scarier, unexpected or anticipated?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jabrosky, Sep 28, 2014.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I don't recall ever writing a horror story, nor is horror the genre I usually read. I did however watch quite a handful of movies about wild animals attacking people back in my childhood, and some of those apply the same tropes you would associate with horror. One of those movies was called Deep Blue Sea, which had intellectually enhanced sharks running rampant in a broken-down aquatic laboratory. The scene from that movie that sticks out most in my memory had Samuel L. Jackson's character get ambushed by a shark from behind, which I thought was uniquely horrifying even for the genre. Its special efficacy lay in how unexpected it was since there was no preceding "da-dum-da-dum" or anything else that anticipated the shark's presence until it was too late. From that point on, I was on the edge of my seat wondering just when the next attack would come. Not even Jaws ever reached that level of scary (in fact I always felt Jaws was rather boring).

    For those of you interested in writing horror or anything else with scary things happening in them, do you also find that it's scarier if the antagonists' attacks are unexpected like that scene in Deep Blue Sea? Or do you prefer the anticipatory "da-dum-da-dum" approach that hints at the antagonist's presence before the attack itself? Which matters more, shock or suspense?
  2. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Shock might be better, but it's a form of suspense anyway.

    After all, once you've shocked the reader, is the story over? Okay, it could be (for all I know Deep Blue Sea did it that way), but more likely it's there to set up what happens next. So shock usually is a way of buillding suspense, except it's probably quick-crushing one thing to set the mood for threatening another, rather than (or before!) slowly threatening that other.
  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    This scene actually happened somewhere in the middle of the movie, but good point.
  4. Waz

    Waz Scribe

    wordwalker is right, "shock" is a better term for what happened (and I did see Deep Blue Sea). Scares are typically divided into suspense and jump scares. The first is what is found in Jaws or the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. The latter is when the ghost or other enemy moves suddenly, especially near the camera, causing the viewer to jump. Jump scares are almost impossible to do in a written story.

    Samuel L Jackson's death wasn't much of a jump scare for the viewer, but rather an unexpected and grisly death, hence a shock scene. Shock leaves a lasting impression (the ending of The Orphanage still haunts me), or lets us know the antagonist means business, thus setting up more tension later on.

    As for your original post, I think that suspense, jump scares, and shock are not mutually exclusive. In fact, and great horror story will incorporate all three. While I realize that some people are more drawn to shock and jump scares, I prefer suspense to be central. When it's done right, it primes the viewer for an even great jump scare, plus suspense can be maintained for long periods of time. If shock or jump scares were done throughout a movie or book, it would become so diluted as to become water-down and somewhat comical.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  5. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

    Shock isn't scary - it just makes you jump.
    To be really scary you need an underlying threat that makes the reader squirm as they anticipate what 'could' happen - this is effective even if the protagonist isn't aware of the threat.

    Interestingly scary is very dependent upon the audience and age range. If you read the Neil Gaiman book Coraline adults tend to find it much scarier than children as they can see the creepiness and threat that Coraline is in far clearer than children (enhanced by imagining their powerlessness if their own child was in that situation). I found this out while researching the book for a game pitch.

    Also if you want to experience a truly scary game - try the indie 'Amnesia' - alone with the lights out and headphones.
  6. Trick

    Trick Auror

    I agree. I've only seen one instance of a true jump scare in written form (that worked anyway). It was not by a famous author... it was a short story by Mythic Scribes' very own... Steerpike! It was an Iron Pen entry titled Appalachian Wind. I actually felt my heart jump and I nearly got up out of my seat. He does not have it posted currently as he's working on it's revision but once it's available, I advise you to read it.

    I think that if the shock, which is merely a technique, is used in a truly frightening situation for the character(s) and this properly effects the readers, Shock is the result of scary...
  7. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    Build-up, even if it's short build-up. Make people slowly realize that something's not right, starting from a point of normalcy and adding larger and larger hints, bringing in the scare when they know just enough to dread it.

    By way of example:

    (Yeah, Scooby-Doo was different in the 2010 run.)
  8. Waz

    Waz Scribe

    I second Amnesia. Great game. Here's a montage of scared reactions including the "Milky Way" one. Warning, the four-letter-words fly constantly in this video.
    Amnesia The Dark Decent Best Of Reactions Compilation - YouTube
  9. Xitra_Blud

    Xitra_Blud Sage

    I like surprise attacks. Always have. I've seen Deep Blue Sea so many times by this point I can que the scene you were talking about so the scenes not as fun as it used to be, lol. But I certainly love the sudden "gothcha" effect and try to use them in my writing. Issue is, with novel, it's harder to execute because you really have to make it jump out at the reader without using cliché's like "suddenly" and "just then". I write dark fantasy and horror more than anything so this is a challenge I have to face a lot, but I wouldn't let myself sleep if I chose to skip it.
  10. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    I've written a bit of horror, but I find it hard to read one and get a 'shock' or scared, simply because literature has its limitations, unfortunately movies can set a mood with an eerie soundtrack and then surprise and shock the viewer- not saying that can't be done with writing, but it's much harder to achieve.
    Creating an atmosphere is key- I think writing can create suspense and tension if you do it right- I like to build up through description and through the character's actions the notion that something is going to happen- the reader relates most closely to the character, so having the character appear scared or fearful definitely influences the reader- then I do whatever the 'shock' factor is supposed to be; after walking into an abandoned brick factory the main character trips on a dead body, or the dark statues come to life and begin to walk towards him/her etc.

    So yeah, I suppose a straight out unexpected shock doesn't really work in stories- it can be done, but it's hard to achieve when out of the blue something random happens. However, I think that the anticipation of something happening- through building up the suspense, definitely is more engaging to the reader- because they know something scary or unexpected is going to happen, they just don't know what- and that's what makes them uneasy.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2014
  11. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    What you're asking about is the Hitchcock's Ticking Bomb scenario on how suspense and surprise differ.

    The exception to this rule, I'd say, is when the surprise tells the audience that the rules the audience expects have changed. Surprise works in Deep Blue Sea because Jaws has conditioned us the hear the dun-dun before a shark attack. That there wasn't one disorients the audience and sets them on edge. Same's true with the beheading at the end of GoT, which tells viewers that no one is safe. Similarly, in Hitchcock's greatest scene, the one that prefigured the shower scene in Psycho, a child unknowingly carries a bomb on a bus. And he lets the bomb explode. You just don't expect that.

    This explains something the co-creator of Orphan Black didn't realize. I met him in a Toronto comic book store and we got to talking. He said he was surprised that the dance party scene worried so many people. Something bad had to happen, they thought, whereas he meant the scene to be a release from tension (and, admittedly, to show off a bit what they could do technologically). The end of the Sopranos changed everything, though. There is no longer a place for safe on TV. In fact, safe is the most suspicious moment of all. Walking Dead, for instance, is driven by that fact. Every show is essentially, "Zombies! Run. (huff huff huff) Hey, this place is safe, we could make a life here...Zombies, run!" The rules have changed. So consider suspense and surprise not just in the context of your work, but in those of all the books your readers have also likely read.

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