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How to Scare Kids: 13 Rules for Writing Middle-Grade Horror Fiction

How do books by R. L. Stine such as the Goosebumps series diverge from those written by Stephen King — if both authors scare their audiences?

If you are just curious about how horror works for children, or if you are an aspiring author thinking about writing children literature, or even if you just love the Goosebumps series, perhaps you would like to read the 13 rules that follow.

13 because, well, it is a scary number. Even Stephen King is afraid of it.

So, first of all: It isn’t easier to scare children than it is to scare grown-ups.

It is not a matter of complexity, but a matter of understanding what frightens each audience.

You can think, “Why, of course it is easier to scare children. I’ll just put a corpse with its entrails coming out of its open belly and they will be scared to death.”

The Ashworth House (Haunt Division #1) cover art / Provided by the author.

Well, I don’t agree with this line of thought because, as hard as it is to define the purpose of (horror) fiction, I’d say it serves at the very least to entertain. Horror fiction is not meant to distress the audience with cheap tricks — even if I can think of dozens of bad examples that actually do this.

Horror fiction, like any other type of fiction, is about the story.

That’s what your book, and your characters, and your work will be remembered for. If your goal is simply to make people jump out of their seats, your work won’t be better than a ghost train, with spooky cardboard characters popping up now and then and giving the audience momentaneous, and possibly meaningless, scares.

Horror fiction, like any other type of fiction, is about the story.

That said, think about examples of children’s horror. The Goosebumps series, or Scooby-Doo, or Courage the Cowardly Dog (as a nineties kid, these are the first ones in my mind). We could also think of more recent examples like Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. Why are they so compelling for children?

To scare children through fiction is to use their comprehension of the world to entertain them with frights.

All the examples above achieve this — and do it very well.

Not delving too deeply into this topic, horror is intrinsically associated with our comprehension of the world, and it emerges from those dark corners where our understanding dims. It is the person acting strangely on the street, and that noise coming from the kitchen late at night, and even reflecting on the death of our loved ones.

“The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar.”

— Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

In this sense, children have a whole different comprehension of the world when we compare them with adults. By children, here, I mean the middle-grade audience: between ages 8–12.

If your goal is simply to make people jump out of their seats, your work won’t be better than a ghost train, with spooky cardboard characters popping up now and then and giving the audience momentaneous, and possibly meaningless, scares.

And because discussing the underlying psychology of what scares children would be a hell of an off-topic here, I limit myself to present to you…

THE 13 RULES OF MIDDLE-GRADE HORROR FICTION

1. People don’t die. Even villains. If someone died, it was way long ago — in a historical setting, for example.

2. Never mention sex. Never. This includes heavy kissing and other kinds of intense affection.

3. Never mention drugs. Also, never. This includes alcohol and cigarettes.

4. Be gentle with violence. Stay miles away from gore. No firearms. Use blood sparingly — if any. If there is any depiction of a physical struggle, it must be part of the fantasy.

5. Don’t date the story. Children must be able to relate to the book even if it was written years or decades ago. Don’t mention events restricted to a year or period — a Britney Spears show, for example. Kids nowadays won’t know what you are talking about.

6. It can’t be real. There must be a veil of unreality between the reader and the situations depicted. They must be scared, yes — but they must know that these things aren’t real and probably couldn’t have happened. You can depict a vampire wanting to suck someone’s blood or a werewolf chasing down some kids, that’s fine. But don’t portray an alcoholic father beating up his wife, or two brothers punching each other. That’s just too much. It’s too real.

7. The protagonist has a relatable POV. That means the main character must resonate with a young reader in matters of speaking, thinking, and acting. There must be circumstances characteristic of childhood, such as the fear of being grounded or being bullied in school. Take care not to underestimate your audiences, though. Kids are smart — especially nowadays.

8. The main character is twelve years old. Children prefer it when the main character is slightly older than them. If you write middle-grade fiction, make the protagonists 11 or 12. If you go for young adult fiction, though, create 16 to 18-year-old protagonists.

9. Appropriate readability. Don’t teach them fancy words. Don’t patronize them. Paragraphs are short. Words are simple to understand. There is no complex implicit meaning.

10. Mix horror with humor. Yes, scare the young crap out of them, but also make them smile and laugh.

11. There must be a monster. A ghost, a vampire, a werewolf, a living puppet, a something-out-of-the-swamp, I don’t know. It’s up to you. But the villain shouldn’t be a plausible human being with a strong motivation. See also rule 6.

12. Chapters are short with an obligatory cliffhanger at the end. This is not a must, but the basic Goosebumps structure. Action is fast-paced, and the children always have a motivation to read the next chapter.

13. A happy ending with a twist. The character must end the story unharmed, and the villain must be — whenever appropriate, and according to its nature — defeated. But add something that intrigues them at the very end. Yes, they defeated the vampire, cool. But… what’s that bat flying away from the attic?

I based these rules on the following material:

  • Books by R. L. Stine (notably the Goosebumps series), Katherine Arden, Neil Gaiman, and many other authors of middle-grade fiction;
  • The R.L. Stine’s Masterclass on writing for young audiences;
  • Danse Macabre and On Writing by Stephen King.

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Morton Newberry

Morton Newberry

Interactive fiction and horror writer based in Germany. Check out The Vampire Regent: https://www.choiceofgames.com/user-contributed/vampire-regent

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