Saturday, March 28, 2009

Welcome Guest Blogger Jack Kilborn: Anatomy of a Horror Scene

It gives me great pleasure to welcome author Jack Kilborn today, with a preview and discussion of suspense techniques in his debut horror novel, AFRAID - by all accounts a hit even before it hits the shelves this week on March 31.

Jack Kilborn is actually the alter ego of the iniminable JA Konrath, the author of the Jack Daniels mystery series. I'm a big fan of Jack, a heroine like no other, and of Joe's funny, scary, vivid, surprisingly character-driven books.

In addition to being a terrific writer and motivational speaker, Joe hosts writes the indispensable blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. He's the best panel moderator on the planet, a generous supporter of fellow and sister authors, and a hell of a good time in -- I mean, at parties.

Welcome, Jack and Joe!


Anatomy of a Horror Scene

A guest post by Jack Kilborn

Thanks, Alex, for having me on your wonderful blog. The writing rules you post here are spot-on, and they're must-reads for writers. It's a bit intimidating, because today I'm going to attempt to explicate a section of my own writing.

This is from my technohorror novel, AFRAID, being released on March 31. I've annotated an early scene from the book with numbers that lead to footnotes at the bottom of the page. After reading the excerpt, you can check out the associated notes to learn why I did what I did, sort of like a DVD commentary.

The set-up is simple; a boy alone in his house at night...


Duncan Stauffer awoke to the sound of Woof barking. Woof was supposed to be a beagle, but Duncan had a lot of dog books and decided that Woof looked more like a basset hound. Woof was pudgy, with stubby legs and floppy ears and sad red eyes. It was funny because even though his eyes were sad, Woof played all the time. All the time. Duncan wondered how he could be so fat, since he ran around all day. (1)

Woof barked again, and Duncan sat up. The dog normally slept on Duncans bed, sprawled out on his back with his legs in the air. He only left to get a drink of water, let himself out through the doggy door to poop (Mom called it doing his dirty business), or greet Mom when she came home from the diner.

Duncan looked over at his SpongeBob digital clock next to the bed, but it wasnt on for some reason. Instead he checked his Dads watch, which he wore all the time since Mom had the links removed so it could fit.

The watch told him it was twelve forty-three.

Woof barked once more, a deep, loud bark that sounded exactly like his name, which was the reason Duncan named him Woof. But this wasnt the welcome home bark that Woof used when Mom came home. This was Woofs warning bark, the one he used for his fiercest enemies, like the squirrel who had a nest in the maple tree out front, or the Johnsons gray cat, who liked to hiss at Woof and scare him. (2)

Woof! Come here, boy!

Duncan waited. Normally, Woof came running when Duncan called, jumping on him and bathing his face with a tongue that was longer than Duncans foot.

But Woof didnt come.

Mom! Duncan called. You home?

No one answered. (3)

Duncan didnt mind being by himself while Mom worked late. He was ten years old, which was practically an adult. His mom used to insist that he have a babysitter, and the one she usually got was Mrs. Teller, who was all bent over because she was so old and sometimes she smelled like pee. Duncan liked her okay, but she made him go to bed early, and wouldnt let him watch his favorite shows on TV like South Park because they said bad words, and she always wanted to talk about her husband who died years ago.

Duncan didnt like to talk about death.

After a long session with Dr. Walker, the therapist convinced Mom that Duncan was mature enough to stay home alone, if thats what Duncan wanted. Which he did. Duncan knew what to do in the case of any emergency. Hed taken the Stranger Danger class in school. He had three planned escape routes if there was a fire. He knew not to let anyone in the house, and how to call 911, and to never cook on the stove or use the fireplace or take a bath while home alone. He thought Mom was being a little crazy about the bath thing, like Duncan would fall asleep in the tub and drown. But he listened to Mom anyway, and she trusted him, and for the three months hed been without a babysitter it had worked out fine. Duncan hadnt gotten scared once.

Until now. (4)

Woof! Duncan yelled again.

Woof didnt come.

It was possible his dog had gone outside, to do his dirty business. Or maybe he saw the Johnsons cat and went to chase him, even though the cat scared Woof a lot.

Or maybe something got him.

Duncan would never admit it to anyone, not even his best friend Jerry Halprin, but he sometimes believed monsters were real. He wasnt scared of monsters, exactly. He loved watching monster movies, and reading R.L. Stine books with monsters in them, but deep down he thought maybe monsters really did exist.

He didnt tell this to Dr. Walker, but when they had the car accident, and Mom thought Duncan was unconscious in the back seat, he wasnt really unconscious. He saw what happened to Dad, how bloody he was. For weeks afterwards, Duncan had horrible nightmares about monsters, biting and clawing and ripping up him and Mom, making them bleed and die. Since he got Woof, most of the nightmares had gone away.

But sitting in his bed, holding his breath and waiting for his dog to come, Duncan wondered if maybe a monster got Woof. (5)

Then he heard itthe jingle of metal tags from Woofs dog collar, just down the hallway.

Woof! he yelled, happily. He tucked his legs under his butt so when Woof hopped on the bed he wouldnt step on them, and waited in the dark for his dog to come.

But Woof didnt come.

Duncan listened hard, then called Woofs name again. He heard jingling, in the hall.

Come on, Woof, Duncan urged.

The jingling got a little closer, then stopped. What was wrong with that dog? (6)

Speak, Woof!

Woof, who didnt really need to be told to speak because he spoke all the time, still loved to follow that command because he usually got a treat afterward. But Woof stayed quiet. Duncan wondered if he was maybe hurt, which is why he stopped barking. (7)

Duncan reached over to the light switch on the wall behind him. He flipped it up. It didnt do anything. He tried flicking it up and down a few times, but his bedroom light didnt come on. The electricity must be out, Duncan thought. Or maybe a monster stole the light bulb. (8)

Woof! Duncan said it hard, the way Mom did when Woof did his dirty business on the kitchen floor.

Woofs collar jingled, and Duncan heard him pant. But the dog stayed in the hallway. Did Woof want him to come there for some reason? Or was he afraid of something in the bedroom?

Duncan peeled back the covers and climbed out of bed. The house was warm but he shivered anyway. Mom made him wear pajamas when she was home, but on the nights she worked Duncan liked to sleep in his underwear. He wished he had his pajamas on now. Being almost naked made him feel small and alone. (9)

The room was too dark to see, and Duncan walked by memory, heading for the doorway to the hall, hands out in front of him like a zombie to stop him from bumping into walls. After some groping he found the door and stopped before walking through.

Woofs collar jingled, only a few feet in front of him. The panting got louder.

Whats the matter, boy?

Duncan knelt down and held out his hands, waiting for the dog to approach. When Woof didnt, Duncan felt goosebumps break out all over. He knew something was wrong, really wrong. Maybe Mom was right about leaving him home all alone. Maybe something bad happened to Woof, and Duncan wouldnt be able to help him because he was just a kid. (10)

Duncan stood up and reached for the hall light switch, but it didnt go on. So he pressed the button on his Dads watch and the blue bezel light came on, which was bright enough for him to see the man standing in the hallway, jingling Woofs collar and panting. (11)


(1) This is our introduction to Duncan and his point of view. It begins with Duncan jarred from his sleep by his dog, Woof, who is key to the scene. Prior to this scene, the reader knows it is night time, and his mother isn't home.

(2) While thinking in Duncan's voice, I'm establing some things in rapid succession. Duncan's mom should be home, Woof normally doesn't bark, and Duncan doesn't have a father.

(3) The reader, aware of what is happening elsewhere in the book, knows Duncan is probably in trouble, but doesn't know what form the trouble is going to take.

(4) Backstory on Duncan, establishing he's a smart, responsible kid who had some sort of tragedy in his past. It also introduces Mrs. Teller, who comes into the book later. Duncan isn't scared yet, because he doesn't know what the reader knows.

(5) Now the reader knows the tragedy, and Duncan is starting to get scared.

(6) The jingling collar is a device that's familiar to Duncan, and puts him at easy. But the jingling soon becomes sinister, because Woof isn't coming.

(7) Woof isn't acting the way he should, and now Duncan expresses concern for his dog, rather than himself. Selflessness is a trait of heroes. But at the same time, the reader doesn't want Duncan to go look for his dog, knowing it isn't going to end well.

(8) More problems with common, everyday things people take for granted. Woof normally comes when he calls. Lights usually turn on. But things aren't normal, and Duncan is now becoming frightened.

(9) The hero has been called to action, and the reader hopefully wishes he would just get the hell out of there. More ont he jingling motif, now with panting as well.

(10) Duncan's fear reaches its peak, his anxieties replace his confidence, and he recognizes his true limitiations, even though earlier he beleived he could handle anything.

(11) Here's the shocker. It isn't his dog panting and jingling his collar. It's a strange man in his house.


Fear, like humor, is subjective, so this scene may not have scared you. But it was deliberately written to do so.

Duncan already has reader sympathy because we've met his mother, who is also in trouble. He's a child, he has a dog, and he seems like a good kid--all done on purpose to make him likeable. So we don't want to see anything bad happen to him.

The cadence of Duncan's interior monologue is specifically patterned after my son's, to make him sound like a child.

I begin the scene with him being woken up. Waking up is never pleasant. Being jarred awake by something out of the ordinary, with Mom not home, is starting in the middle of the action.

I used mundane things going wrong--both the sound cues of the dog collar and the clock and lights being out--to increase both Duncan's and the reader's anxiety. Both want to know where Woof is, why he was barking and now isn't, why he won't respond. Presenting this conflict without revelaing the answer right away makes the reader wonder what is going on, and keep reading to find out.

The backstory, which touches on the tragedy Duncan faced and his fight to grow past it, make the stakes even higher for the poor kid.

Then, when he finally goes to investigate, BAM! The reveal. And this reveal is the worst possible outcome for Duncan, having his dog gone and a weirdo toying with him.

Having someone break into your house to hurt or kill you is bad. Having someone tease you first is really bad.

It's even worse for the reader, because the previous scenes have featured a lot of death and mayhem. Even this early in the story (page 48) I've already killed off a sympathetic character, so all bets are off when it comes to my characters' safety.

At the end of the scene, I skip to another POV. AFRAID doesn't have chapters; it quickly bounces from one character in jeopardy to the next. The reason behind this is to not give the reader any chance to put the book down. Each scene ends on a cliffhanger, the stakes getting higher and higher.

Obviously, I can't accurately judge my own work, because I'm biased. I'll leave it up to the readers to decide if AFRAID is scary or not. If you'd like to hear what other people are saying, or read a much longer excerpt for free, please visit my website at

Pleasant dreams...


Bobby Mangahas said...

Joe, thanks for this detailed breakdown of the scene. Between your breakdown of the scene, along with Alex's great breakdowns of movie scenes, it's really driving the point home for me.

Looking forward to reading Afraid and having you on my blog on Monday.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for having me here, Alex. I send my readers your way all the time.

The whole book is like that????

Afraid is a non-stop scare machine. But it's worth noting that the dog survives. :)

The book doesn't let up, ever. No humor, no tension breaks, no falling action. Fun to write, but it may be the most deliberate thing I've ever penned, because I tried to make sure each scene built on the previous one.

I've gotten well over a dozen reviews from people who say they read it in one sitting, going without sleep, some even missing work to finish it. It warms my heart to know I'm scaring the crap out of so many folks. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

This is a wrenching scene. I love Duncan right away; he does seem like a completely real little kid.

The scene really beautifully employs a lot of suspense techniques we've been talking about here.

The foreshadowing and dread about the electricity being off (and that passing thought of Dylan's that "a monster stole the light bulb", is excruciating - even without having read the opening chapters I get that a monster DID steal the light bulb. Great example of SAYING what we're supposed to be afraid of.

This scene is also a heartbreaking example of how using animals in a scene, and the characters' connection to animals, to raise the emotional stakes. Danger to animals just gets under my skin in a way that nothing else does, and I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.

And the worst of it is that this human monster is deliberately toying with Dylan's connection to his dog. That IS monstrous, and tells us more than we want to know about the true nature of the antagonist.

I'm a wreck after just one scene. The whole book is like that????

Anonymous said...

I love this. Both the teaser and the lesson. I enjoy learning what works, what does, and what makes it so. Great post. Great blog.

Karen from Mentor said...

"He's the best panel moderator on the planet, a generous supporter of fellow and sister authors, and a hell of a good time in -- I mean, at parties."

Ok, now I can go out and walk in the sunshine. I've had my HUGE LAUGH for the day, Thanks Alexandra.
My two favorite blogs in the universe meshing. Whew. almost too much to take.
Karen :)

jane, candid said...

Alex, I'm with you: just this little glimpse into Afraid has me freaked out. What was I thinking???? I'll just have to display the book prominently in my entryway so guests can see it and be impressed. 'Cause I can't read it, that is now clear...

Good to find your blog, which I can add to my must-reads (along with Joe's)


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, Michelle, it just goes to show that it may LOOK like we writers have no idea what we're doing, but actually we do. Sometimes.

You've got a great blog there, too - right up my alley.

For those who can't get enough of Jack -

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Karen, it's nice to be the one who gets the laugh for a change - that doesn't happen often with Mr. Konrath in the room.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jane, thanks for stopping by! If you haven't read the Jack Daniels series, that's probably an easier place to start than with AFRAID! Personally I'm going to have to have the bf read it first and steer me through it.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Yes, but what's the meta-structure? (Bwa-ha-ha-ha)

yvonne said...

I was scared! :) Looks like a great book. Thanks for sharing the breakdown with us.

Karen from Mentor said...

Alexandra, thanks for having Joe here today. We won't go into whether or not you've had him before...:)

He still didn't get me to read the exerpt. lol
I skimmed to the bottom and read the comments.
I'm impressed that Jane read the exerpt.(wtg Jane!) We just had this conversation yesterday about reading the book and how impressed I'd be with her if she read it.
I think the book should come with a pair of arms to hug you while you read it...and a freezer to put it in when you're scared (obvious pop culture reference) and a fuzzy blanket to hide your head under.
But then it would cost a WHOLE lot more than usual, and might be a drain on book sales.
I'm going to be so sad when April comes and the tour is over.
Karen :)

laughingwolf said...

superb advice, thx both :D

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

It really was good to read the excerpt and have the actual author talk about techniques. I should invite more people to do that here, for particular principles we're talking about. It's great to get a bunch of examples all at once.

Morgan Mandel said...

You put that poor kid through hell. Well, that's what good writers are supposed to do.

Morgan Mandel