Episode 164: White Knuckle Scenes

On October 23, 2021, Kasie and Rex continued the scary stories month with an episode on tension and fright. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Scary Series: White Knuckle Scenes


  • SCWA Upcoming events and goings-on
  • It’s October! Let’s Halloween!
  • Get the Reader Addicted to the Page
  • How to add tension (and fright!) to your story
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

October 30th Kasie’s out of town, so we recorded a special LGBTQ+ episode in honor of Columbia’s Pride festival (October 23rd) to air on the 30th. We visited with Mark Allan Gunnells. Here’s a link to his Amazon page and his blog.

SCWA has also announced an upcoming “Diversity in Publishing” event that will take place November 11th at 7 p.m. and feature Felice Laverne, Agent, Author, and Editor. Register here.

Ready to admit you’re a writer and want to be an author? Find a local SCWA chapter. Get your work critiqued. Live all of your wildest authorial dreams.

Okay. Let’s talk about scary scenes.

Google does it again. I found this link to the 30 scariest scenes in Western literature which was a goldmine for what we want to do today which is really break it down. What’s happening in the scene? How is it constructed and how does it work?

The rage of Achilles — when he arrives on the battlefield, the Trojans quake with fear and when he unleashes his battle cry, some of them fall back and impale themselves on their own spears. Um. Wow.

Banquo returns to haunt his killer — in Macbeth we know they won’t get away with it, right? But Shakespeare lets the dead man’s ghost show up with all of his descendents and scare the shit out of Macbeth.

The creature and the uncanny valley — in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes the creator’s rebuke of his creation as a rage-filled verbal lashing, but the creature’s response is exponentially worse.

Direct from the blog:

Murder by head, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (1820)

Poor Ichabod, his mind overawed by the power off horror stories, has his “cranium” “crashed” by the goblin’s “horrible missile” — his head. Maybe the whole thing is a parable about avoiding horror literature, which means you should probably stop reading this list.

Electroshock and lobotomy — in Invisible Man, Ellison takes us to a conversation that defines the inhumanity of racist medical scientists who would callously abuse their charge.

The rats — American Psycho episode involving a soon-to-be-dead woman and our serial killer main character selecting a new restaurant afterwards.

Segment 2 (and probably 3)

Where does the “scare” come from?

This blog suggests these eight ways to ratchet up the tension and maybe make the scene a little scarier. We talked about some of this in our episode on raising the stakes last September. But we’re going to really dive in today.

1: Create a conflict crucial to your characters

What does that mean? This is what we mean by “stakes.” What happens if the character makes a specific choice? Like to go in to the abandoned house instead of run away? What is driving the character to do it? Mere curiosity isn’t a great motivator, but being dared and wanting to save face is a great motivator. Or being chased and looking to hide. In any case, entering that house has to be critical to the character’s growth or survival.

2: Create engaging characters with opposing goals

Having opposing goals means that two characters will work against one another to achieve what they’re after. So what does each character want? Once may be looking for closure, answers, or to at least know the truth about something. The other might be trying to obscure that truth because it will damage the relationship, or might be protecting someone else by keeping the secret. 

In the filming of The Blair Witch Project, the director didn’t hand out scripts. Instead he gave the actors goals for each scene and intentionally had those goals conflict. One character would be told, “Convince the others to go south toward running water.” Another would be told, “Don’t go south toward the river, no matter what you’re told.”

3: Keep raising the stakes

Decisions have consequences. Every time a character makes one, the stakes need to get higher. The easiest way to do this is to create decisions that eliminate other choices. For example, in The Blair Witch example above, convincing the others to go south means they use their precious daylight to travel in a specific direction, further away from their car (maybe) and deeper into the woods (probably). They can’t get that time back.

In my vampire novel, I have four people “rescued” from death by being turned into vampires. One is indifferent, one is reluctant, one is pleased, the last is defiant. Turning into a vampire is irrevocable, but so is death. The stakes are, “which is better and why?”

4: Allow tension to ebb and flow

Intense scenes can keep the reader turning the page but be realistic, eventually they have to set the book down. If you don’t want them to do it in the middle of a scene because oh-my-gosh-this-book-is-so-intense, you need to build the breaks in there for them. Authors sometimes use exposition breaks for this. It breaks the action, gives us needed information to proceed, and helps the reader relax away from the character hanging off the ledge moment.

Low tension—that feeling of something’s coming and I want to stay engaged—can be a good simmering condition between high tension—someone’s going to die—scenes.

5: Keep making the reader ask questions

The best question is “What’s going to happen next?” But other questions should flutter around, too. Like how are the secondary characters going to react? What does the main character feel about this when it’s over? Is this decision irrevocable? Will it damage their relationships? 

I’m reading a romance novel now that has a really intense male lead. He beats up his girl’s male best friend three times. Like, just wails on him out of totally irrational jealousy. This is 1) not attractive and 2) fake drama. How many times, in real life, do we really see people get physically violent with one another? All things in moderation, even violence.

6: Create internal and external conflict

When a decision has consequences both internal and external, it’s even more intense. And if it’s made rashly, or quickly, the fallout can be spectacular. 

There’s a great scene in Beaches when, after the Barbara Hershey character has witnessed her daughter playing on the beach with the Bette Midler character, she gets jealous and lashes out. “You asked me to play with her!” Bette Midler says. “I didn’t know it was going to make me feel this way!” Barbara Hershey replies.

I know, I know. Beaches, Kasie? In a horror episode? But hear me out. The internal conflict doesn’t have to stay inside their heads, it can erupt. Because internal conflict is hidden from the other characters, when it surfaces, it can catch the other characters by surprise and force them to say and do things the wouldn’t have normally said or done.

7: Create secondary sources of tension

Subplots work as great devices to introduce complications. We did an entire episode on romantic subplots talking about how the love interest can complicate the decision-making process. Maybe the character would do a thing (walk away from danger) but the love interest makes them more willing to do another thing (investigate the creepy cave to show how brave they are).

The store bell is a great secondary source of tension. How often have we watched a scene where two characters—the clerk and the shopper—are working toward opposing goals and the entry of a third character—sounded by the bell—ratchets up the tension in the work?

8: Make the story unfold in a shorter space of time

The ticking clock. This is a great tension creator. It’s why sports are so engaging. There’s limited time for this drama to play out. For whatever reason. As the time to end draws near, characters get desperate and start making compromises.

Segment 4

So how is it done? The list of 8 ways to add tension above is pretty comprehensive but if you need a few more, here’s what others have written:

Three nail-biting ways:

  • Opposing goals
  • Stakes
  • Time

Five tips for building tension into your scenes:

  • The time bomb (introduce an aggravator)
  • Information breakdown (what they don’t know, assumptions they make)
  • Dialogue (rapid-fire and miscommunication)
  • Humor (interrupt everyone’s good time with violence, it’s unexpected)
  • Mechanics (sound words, white space, fragments)

Six ways (some were repeats from above):

  • Make it personal (use exposition — previous conflict — to make it harder for people to trust one another, less willing to compromise, more likely to refuse)
  • Mine your protagonist’s fears and phobias (introduce an element that is just too similar to a previous experience)
  • Give a character a secret — something they’re unwilling to reveal unless or until
  • The man with the fun — Raymond Carver’s advice was when all else fails, have a man enter holding a gun. (Store bell ring turned up to eleven.)

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