Tales from the Cabin
E-mail Article to a FriendPrint ArticleBookmark and Share

Tell Me a Scary Story

An introduction to the art of by-the-seat-of-your-pants storytelling
By Andrew Nygren
Published: September 1, 2001
Stars sparkled against the dark shroud of night.
The s’mores were mere crumbs and smudges. Embers glowed moodily in the fire pit. Far across the lake, loons lamented their haunting autumn farewell. In a half-circle, smoldering embers between us, sat a group of 12 adults and children, all patiently waiting for my story to begin.
Halloween is my second-favorite holiday of the year for this very reason. Telling scary stories is my forté.
There was never a night by the lake, stream, bonfire or fireplace without pleas of, “Dad! Tell us a scary story.” Time has changed the petitions from “Dad” to “Grampa,” “Andy” and “Uncle Andy,” but “tell us a scary story,” remains a steadfast entreaty. Over the years, I’ve garnered a bag of tried-and-true storytelling methodologies, but I always enjoy making up stories as I tell them. Improvisation, I’ve found, is as essential to telling vibrant scary stories as a dark night and
flickering bonfire.
Extemporization fills your storytelling with energy, imagination, freshness and flexibility. The plot, characters and story ideas abound wherever you look – you merely have to know what to look for.

Know Your Audience
Of all the aspects of good storytelling, the most important is finding the right story for your audience. That means you need to know your audience’s age, sophistication and tastes. Which themes can your audience handle? What sort of prior knowledge do they possess? How long can they sit still? Adults might appreciate a little risqué romance in your story; they’ll appreciate some blood and guts, but keep it subtle. Teenage audiences can relate to a touch of romance, but you might consider steering clear of the libidinous stuff. Blood and guts works well with teens and preteens, however. Romance makes very young groups squeamish, and violence isn’t appropriate.
Once you know your audience, set the appropriate boundaries, and remember to stick to these boundaries as the story unfolds.

Awakening the Mind’s Eye
First, though, the germ of your story needs to sprout.
Ideas abound when you’ve awakened your mind’s eye. Start by picking an element from your surroundings – something that is out of place, maybe by just a little bit – and let your fancy take over. A bent sign on the side of the road may be from a terrified teen fleeing a dangerous animal, person, automobile or monster. A missing letter on the side of a building might awaken a long dead, but dangerous, spirit. The floating embers of a campfire might become the wishes of angels or the desires of devils. A tree with clawlike branches could become the beckoning fingers of a trouble-making troll who will steal away everyone in the audience. A spider tells the story of “The People of the Tarantula.”
Drawing a blank? Put some pressure on audience members. If the audience is small, start a story-in-the-round: give each person about one and a half minutes to contribute to the story, and then pass the narration onto the person sitting next to them. When your turn rolls around, plot themes will be dancing for your attention. Now your creative fantasy can begin (more often than not, the audience will ask you to keep telling), or if you’re not yet ready, you can finish the story on the next round.
Once the theme has blossomed, the rest of the story is easy.
While on the way to tell a story to a youth group about 150 strong, ages ranging from 12 to 14, I spotted a piece of driftwood making its way across a local lake. Several accounts of that driftwood danced before my eyes: I saw it as a murder weapon (not right for this group), as a piece of an old boat that had been torn apart by some unknown force (some potential), as a snakelike monster ready to strike anything, or anyone, that ventured too close (a little too young for this group). I settled on it bearing an ominous message from a hapless soul searching for eternal peace.

Once you’ve developed your initial plot idea, think about your story’s background events. These can introduce your story and lead your listeners toward the main plot. Ask yourself questions to flesh out your plot ideas. Answer these questions and you’ve developed a good, solid beginning.  
Once I’d determined the driftwood bore an ominous message from a wandering soul, I had to fill in the blanks. Why was the soul lost? Why couldn’t it find peace? How long had it been searching? What happened to the physical body this soul once inhabited? What was its ominous message? As you lead yourself and your audience through your forest of thoughts about this lost soul, your story begins to take shape.
With story ideas firmly in mind, you’re ready to begin.

Setting the Mood
Voice and actions set the mood. It helps if you require silence and hold all questions until after you’re done. If it’s appropriate for your story, ask your audience members to shut their eyes and keep them closed while you’re telling your story. You don’t want anything to interfere with each audience member’s imagination.
A solemn note to begin setting the mood might go like this:
“Before I start this story, you must – each and every one of you – be silent until I am finished. You also must not move from where you are sitting. There is a penalty. I do not know what that penalty is, since no one who has broken this rule has been able to tell me what happened.

The Beginning
One of the easiest ways to start a story is with theme-setting background information:
“I had some time, and the sign intrigued me. I went to the local library and did some research. I discovered an old legend ...”
Or make yourself the main character and let your imagination run:
“One night I was walking down that old trail that goes out behind our house. I noticed something amiss when I was passing the blueberry patch.”
Or the story can just start:
“On the East end of town, just down Highway 66, there is an old house with very dark windows. A once beautiful woman now lives there by herself …”

Let the Story Evolve
You’ve hatched an idea; now let the story grow. Allowing the story to spontaneously unfold imbues it with that crucial element of surprise. Never begin a story with an ending already established in your mind. Start with the idea and let that creative spark take care of plot development. Visualize specific events, characters and settings; make the listeners see what you’ve conjured, and keep your options open.
“One night, Paul had a dream. He was at the top of a hill. The hill was thick with beautiful green grass, and he looked down to the valley below. In the valley stood a tiny church. He heard singing coming from the church, but he could not understand the words. He suddenly felt he was needed inside; he ran down to the church, clambered up the stone stairs, and entered through large wooden doors. They creaked as he pushed them open. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, he saw that the pews were full. Every soul in the church was a woman dressed in black, a black scarf over her head. Their beautiful song was now a mournful wailing. In the place where the altar should’ve been was a Persian carpet with a figure on it so ghastly that Paul could not bear to even look at it. As he ran from the church in his dream, Paul awakened with a start.”

Character Development
Describe the characters quickly as each enters your story. One character is all you really need to have, and three or four is best. (The fewer characters you have to keep track of, the better.) Remember that each audience member perceives the characters differently. Usually, therefore, the attitude of a character is most important. Use your voice and actions to relate the character’s attitude and characteristics, but don’t overdo your description. Use only a handful of details, and your audience’s imaginations will fill in the blanks. Descriptions can be as simple as:
“She was about 16 years old and very thin.”
But some characters – usually your antagonists – need abundant descriptions.
“In front of him stood the creature he saw in the carpet. It stood nearly seven feet tall. Its thin stale body covered in black, a matching hood on its head, made it seem to reach to the heavens though it surely did not come from there. Beneath the hood a white face – the eyes vacuous black holes reflecting nothing but evil.”  
Characters have a way of snapping into your mind as you’re telling a story. When they do, introduce them and give them a place in your tale. Of course, sometimes you’ll invent a character that initially has zero effect, plot-wise. You can always use these minor characters to set the mood, provide insight to your lead characters, or maybe make surprise appearances later in the story, adding mystery and color.
Your characters will take on definition and detail as your story progresses. When you introduce a character, you might begin with a vague visual description and personality. As your characters move through your story, you’ll add dimension to them. Give a seemingly mundane character a
suddenly heroic nature – or have him become the center of all evil. Transform the monster from your story’s opening scenes into a benign giant or an unlikely hero.

The Actor
As the storyteller, you are also an actor. Put yourself on an imaginary stage, even if you are sitting down. Use large actions to emphasize your narrative and different voices to speak for each character. Use actions sparingly at first and more frequently (and vibrantly) as your story escalates. Allow your actions to follow your characters’ actions as they lead you through the story. Be very careful, however, to not overdo the theatrics. A well-timed and well-executed scream is theater; screaming everytime your character enters a room won’t do much except numb your audience. A little bit of theater can go a
long way.
For greater effect preceding a startling revelation, stillness together with a soft and mellow voice can lull the audience. This can add tremendous emotion and dynamic tension to your story when the action picks up – and you raise your voice.
In a calm, dark voice, leaning forward with hands folded:
“The doors to outside freedom were wedged tight by some force of darkness.”
Clapping your hands together and suddenly sitting up straight:
“Allen turned in panic. In front of him stood the creature on the carpet. It stood nearly seven feet tall!”
Pointing your index finger out toward the audience and lowering your voice:
“The apparition crooked its finger and said, ‘C-o-m-m-me ... w-i-i-i-i-th ... m-e-e-e-e!’”
When you’re telling a story to an audience whose members have their eyes shut (per your instructions), your voice becomes even more expressive and emotive. Use it to enhance mood, define characters and beguile or startle the audience.
Try using accomplices to boost the fright factor. Before you begin your story, ask an audience member to shout, bang a door or suddenly yell out “What’s that?” when you deliver a specific cue.
Use a flashlight to shine into the surrounding darkness as you look for the lake monster. When you’re playing the role of your antagonist, shine the flashlight on your face from below your chin. To emphasize an action or change your appearance, bring yourself closer to or farther from the flickering firelight of a candle or campfire. Props (a hat, scarf, glove or other accessory) are quick-and-easy tools to help personify your characters.

The Ending
Endings should surprise your audiences. You can be surprised too, but make sure it’s a little bit sooner than your listeners. My endings sometimes seem overly obvious as I’m developing a story. When that occurs, I’ll lead the audience to that obvious ending and then finish with a startling twist, one the audience didn’t expect. Surprise endings are often the best.
Endings can be startling, subtle, humorous, delightful, cunning, twisted or just plain strange. Audience sophistication is the determining factor. Your story’s climax could occur with a funeral or cremation, a huge scream, or with the storyteller – you – taking on the persona of  your antagonist. (For another twist, demonize an audience member by the end of the story; it can be a lot of fun.)
Most importantly, have a good time telling your stories. If you’re having fun, your audience will have fun.
This is just the beginning of a long and illustrious career as a spinner of tales that startle the tranquil, curdle the blood of the stoic and haunt the fearless. Plunge on into your storytelling and enjoy the ride.
One word of warning: In the midst of your story when you feel your blood chill, goosebumps rise on your skin and the hair at the nape of your neck stands at attention, look behind you. You may have conjured up more than your imagination!

On a full moon, Andrew Nygren can be found by a bonfire at the lake, telling stories to himself and anyone who will listen.

Bag of Tricks

The storytelling technique of winging it – making up a scary story at the same time you are telling it – can be a forbidding (or should we say “scary”?) process for some. If you can’t say more than five words at a time without breaking into a cold sweat, you might want to start small – say, by telling stories to the mirror or your dog. With time and practice, however, you’ll become skilled enough to hold your own.
Regardless of your initial propensity toward acting and storytelling, everybody needs a little jump-start now and then. Here are several essential elements that will make your story successful.


  • Keep your stories short. Between 5 and 10 minutes is best; any longer, and your audience might start fidgeting.
  • Keep your audience on its toes with an unexpected twist or surprise ending. 
  • Consider common horror conventions – the stalking bog monster, a mysterious ghost ship, brain-eating zombies, the greedy protagonist who gets what he or she deserves, a group of innocent kids who find   themselves trapped in these very woods – and give these a clever spin.  
  • Keep on going, even if you get stuck. Chances are, your audience will think it’s just a random plot twist.  
  • If you lose a great thought while you’re describing something else, forget about it. If it was truly great, it’ll pop back in.
  • A ravenous monster, greedy villain, shrieking demon or mysterious soul is a must.

  • A flickering fire helps to set the mood. In the absence of fire, use a candle, flashlight or very soft lighting.   
  • Turn off all radio, television and other noisemakers.
  • Start with a gentle, narrative voice. Save your scary voice for later.
  • Do not allow any talking or moving around during the story.
  • Do not answer any questions, even after you’ve finished.
  • Use different voices/actions for different characters. Just keep track of them!
  • Enlist an assistant to lurk in the shadows and scream, moan or suddenly leap out of the darkness at your cue.
  • Keep a safe distance from your audience - they may strike out if you get too close (yep, it really happens).
Subscriber Only Content
Subscriber Only Content
Look for this icon. This denotes premium subscriber content.  Learn more »
Become a Member
Register online for access to more valuable resource information.
Don't miss your connection to the reader forums, projects, photo galleries, and more.
Subscriber and Member Login

Free Twice-Monthly E-Newsletter

Receive useful tips & inspiration from Cabin Life