Posted in Craft, Guest Post, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

How Do I Scare My Readers?

scaredsilh.pngBruce Hale aka the Writer Guy was asked these questions:
“I would like to hear from you, what tips can you give me for horror stories, whether novel or short story? How do I bring that horror feel to life? How can I keep my readers from sleeping for a few nights? How do I achieve the fear factor?”
And is allowing me to share his answers here:
Having just finished a horror series for kids (The Monstertown Mysteries), this topic is fresh in my mind. Creating a sense of horror is all about the expectation of something awful happening. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
From early on in your story, you should plant the seed in the reader’s mind that all is not well in this world, and then with each turn of the page, you bring that horror closer and closer. How? Here are four techniques:
1. Hide the monster
Take a tip from scary movies, and have the *effects* of the creature/ghost/whatever turn up much earlier than the creature itself does. You’ll notice we don’t see the shark in JAWS until well into the film. There’s a reason for that. Spielberg knows that the longer we delay the actual monster sighting, the more punch it will pack.
2. Mislead the reader
Be sure to employ a few red herrings, spots where you make us think that the creature is about to appear but it turns out to be the cat, a neighbor, or whatever. This can also be used if your hero is trying to figure out what’s behind the spooky happenings. Have them initially suspect the wrong people.
3. Hook ’em over and over
Horror is all about hooks. Your concept should hook your reader from the get-go. But that’s not the only hook to employ. Rather than having chapter endings resolve an issue, have them hook as well. End each chapter on a cliffhanger note of suspense, the equivalent of “and then…” in a picture book. Try this technique and you’ll have your readers flipping pages like mad.
4. Play on your fears
Have the source of horror in your story be something that particularly frightens your hero. If they’re clown-phobic, have them face sadistic clowns. If they’re kitten-phobic, have them encounter Evil Fluffy. Bonus points if you can draw from your own fears when building your hero. Because the more you feel it when you’re writing, the more your readers will feel it when they read.

MantisCover4.jpghat-club-fedora.jpgBruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 45 seriously funny books for young readers, including the Clark the Shark tales (one of which ended up in a Happy Meal — not the way you think) and the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries. Find out about his newest series, the Monstertown Mysteries, online at:

Posted in PB, Read-aloud, So Many Good Books

Snoring Beauty

Snoring BeautySnoring Beauty (Harper, 2014) by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and illustrated by Jane Manning is a fairy tale retelling done right. And it’s even in rhyme.
The main character is Mouse who is “dreaming of his dearie” on the night before his wedding day. As his eyes are closing, he’s kept awake by Sleeping Beauty’s terrible snoring. He knows “someday a prince will come to break this spell,” but meanwhile how will he get his sleep? When Mouse rises to close the shutters he sees a prince and thinks he’ll get to “sleep within the hour!” Of course, it’s not that easy when the prince hears the snoring.
I loved the humor both in text and illustrations. The rhyme isn’t always exact as there’s some near rhyme, but it doesn’t stop my enjoyment.
Author Sudpita Bardhan-Quallen talks about how her writing journey in her bio. She’s written many humorous picture books and nonfiction as well.
Illustrator Jane Manning has worked for a number of publishers including HarperCollins, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin.
What I find interesting is that there’s another picture book of the same title: Bruce Hale‘s Snoring Beauty about a princess turned into a dragon. It came out in 2008 from HMH Books for Young Readers and is illustrated by Howard Fine. The book description makes it sound hilarious. And that cover illustration of the dragon is great.
Another interesting fact is that Howard Fine has illustrated another of Sudipta’s books: Hampire!.

Posted in Craft, Guest Post, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Raise the stakes, honey!

image by kfjmiller on
men hanging from ladder

Raise the stakes, honey!

Guest post by Kathi Appelt

I have been a writer my whole life long, beginning with writing on walls as a toddler to writing professionally as an adult. In that life-long career, I have written articles, picture books, non-fiction, poetry, essays, short stories, a memoir, and even a song or two.

But for years and years the novel was a form that absolutely eluded me.

For a long time, I told myself that I didn’t need to write a novel. After all, I had plenty of published work to stand on, and I had plenty of ideas for new works.

But I was kidding myself, because in my heart of hearts, it was a novel that I wanted to write. So, I took courses, I bought how-to books, I went to workshops. I did all of the required groundwork. Why couldn’t I crack this genre?

In the meantime, I had drawer after drawer, boxes stacked upon boxes, of half-finished novels that were just that: half-finished.

It seemed like I could create wonderful characters, interesting landscapes, and great, colorful details. My characters, despite their goals, just didn’t seem to make much progress. I’d get about half way through and then my story would lose steam and whimper into oblivion.

It wasn’t until I took an on-line course with master teacher Dennis Foley that I realized that the essential element missing from my work was tension.

Now, plots are plots. I knew how to create plots. They involve a character who is moving toward a goal. And as Dennis so aptly puts it: “a goal is nothing more than whatever your character is trying to achieve, overcome or acquire.” Easy peasy.

Yeah, right!

How could it be that I could have a character, in search of a goal, with all of the other elements in place, but still come up short?

As it turns out, in order for a reader to care about your story, the stakes have to be raised. You can have a character overcome incredible odds and obstacles, but if there’s nothing at stake, then there’s no reason to pull for that same character.

Let’s consider an example. Say we have a great guy named Phillip who is a cross-country racer and whose goal is to win the regional track meet. We’ll put Phillip at the starting line and pull the trigger on the starting pistol. Kapow! Off he goes.

If we use a basic plot, with three obstacles of increasing difficulty, we can first have Phillip develop an annoying blister on his heel. But because Phillip is tough, he runs through the pain. Next, it starts to snow. Now Phillip is having trouble seeing the track because of the snow, and his blister is getting worse, so the odds against his winning are increasing. Finally, he stumbles and turns his ankle. The entire pack is well ahead of him and Phillip is trailing badly.

We’ll leave it there. Whether Phillip wins or not doesn’t really matter. But what is missing from this story is the why of it. Why is it so important that Phillip win this race?

You see, there’s nothing wrong with this plot, nothing wrong with the obstacles, nothing wrong with the character. But we have no idea what the stakes are and why it matters so much to Phillip to win that race. Is a college scholarship at stake? Is he racing to prove something to his family, something about honor, about perseverance, about stamina? Is he racing to win enough money to buy medicine for his little daughter?

What will be irrevocably lost if he doesn’t win? Why is it so important to Phillip?

And that’s the key word – important. The stakes have to be so important to the main character that if they don’t achieve, acquire or overcome their goal, we the reader will care. If not, then it’s just a race.
Winning or losing doesn’t matter unless the stakes are high.
Raise ’em, honey. Otherwise, nobody will care.

This article appeared in Bruce Hale‘s January 2014 THE INSIDE STORY
– used by permission. Go here for more from Bruce.

kathi-225x300.jpegKathi Appelt is a National Book Award finalist (for THE UNDERNEATH), and the author of over 20 books for kids and teens. Her tales have won numerous national and state awards, and she serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Children’s Writing program. Catch up with her online at:

Posted in Craft, Guest Post, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

4 Ways to Make Your Characters “Talk Different”

Guest post by the wonderful Bruce Hale!
aka The Writer Guy

Have you ever read a manuscript where everybody talks alike, and you can’t tell the characters apart without a constant “said Jack”? I have. This problem crops up again and again in unpublished manuscripts I’ve critiqued, and it’s one of the things keeping those authors from getting published.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you want to make your characters stand out and be unique (i.e.: see the light of day in a published book), first try running your dialog through the cliché detector. Figures of speech can be so common you don’t even notice them – phrases like, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” or “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” tend to slip right past our radar. Don’t let them.
Make your dialog better than that, more original. In your dialog revision, take the time to establish a voice, even a lexicon for each of your main characters. It’ll make them stand out from each other, and more, it’ll make them jump off the page. Here are four ways to make your characters “talk different.”

Is your character defensive, combative, a know-it-all, a joker? Make sure that her dialog consistently reflects this.
Let your character’s attitude inform every utterance. As an example, take Deborah Wiles’ EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. The obnoxious little boy, Peach, could have just said, “Good morning, Comfort,” when he came into her room. Instead he says, “It’s morning and I’ve come to see you!”
That little tweak shows us his quirky personality, as well as his attitude. Is he excited to see Comfort? Oh, yes. (Is she excited to see him? Not so much — and her dialog reflects this.)


Your characters’ level of education determines so much of their speech, from word choice to sentence length and complexity. Make sure that you take this into consideration and use it to set characters apart from each other.
Have the smart characters use bigger words than the rest; have the not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are characters MISuse bigger words. In my book, FAREWELL, MY LUNCHBAG, janitor Maureen DeBree aspires to a more sophisticated means of expression than her education allows. That’s why she says things like “Don’t cast nasturtiums” instead of “Don’t cast aspersions,” and advises the detectives to use their powers of “reduction,” instead of “deduction.”

What does your character obsess over? What kind of background did he come from? What kind of world does she live in? These considerations will inform what your characters say and how they say it.
For example, in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, Comfort’s older brother, Tidings, is obsessed with all things military. When he greets her, he says, “Easy, Private!” When asked where the visitors are, he says, “The troops are reconnoitered in the back parking lot.” It’s never a challenge to know when Tidings is speaking, and his dialog reveals a lot about who he is and what his aspirations are.


What kind of character would say, “Criminently”? What character would say, “Eeww, gross”? (Hint: probably not the same character.) Exclamations are a small touch, but if you use them right, they can help the reader zero in on the personality of whoever is speaking in a heartbeat.
For example, in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, the hero, Harry Dresden, is a wizard/private investigator. He uses phrases like “Hell’s bells” and “Stars and stones” as exclamations, giving him a uniquely wizardly way of expressing himself. If he just said “damn” and “holy moley,” it wouldn’t have the same effect.
Take these four considerations into account, the next time you’re taking a closer look at dialog. And I guarantee, to paraphrase David Sedaris, that your characters will “talk pretty one day.”

bruce_hale.jpgEdgar-nominated author-illustrator Bruce Hale is passionate about inspiring reluctant readers to open books (and read them). He has written or illustrated more than 25 seriously funny books for children, including the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries series, Snoring Beauty (one of Oprah’s Recommended Reads for Kids), and the comics-novel hybrid, Underwhere. Read more about the books on Bruce’s website.
An actor and Fulbright Scholar in Storytelling, Bruce is in demand as a speaker, having presented at conferences, universities, and schools all across North America.
Plus, he’s one nice guy.