Those Long Seconds Before... (October Theme)

by Naomi Kinsman

Yesterday, I visited a Young Inklings writing class. Many of the young writers were creating scenes in which a series of increasingly terrifying events happened. One after the other. For instance, first, Mr. Bob might fall through a dark portal. Then, he might find himself in a vampire bat forest. Next, he might face a fire-breathing, spike-tailed dragon.

I pulled up next to a few of the writers to discuss strategies to turn these chains of events into scenes that might make a reader sit at the edge of her seat. As I struggled to wrap words around the concept of suspense into words, I remembered my second grade year. At the time, many cereal boxes had toys inside them, a common toy being these fake spiders that one might throw against a wall. Made of sticky rubber, the spiders would creepy-crawl down any wall.

Now, I wasn't the bravest of second grade girls, and one of the things I hated most was spiders. Between my fear of spiders and my tempting long hair, the boys in my class realized that I was the perfect target for the spider game. Here's how it worked. I would be sitting at my desk minding my own business, or out at recess reading a book, and one of the boys would catch my eye and open his palm. There, ready to throw, was one of those spiders. My stomach would drop, my body would seize up, and I couldn't do anything. Not one thing. I couldn't move. The boy would take aim, and the seconds would slow. One second, two, three... and then that spider would catch hold of my hair and start traveling toward my shoulders.

The moment the spider struck was terrible, of course, but the seconds between were worse. That's where the creepy lives... in the stretched-out moments before the event.

One of my favorite parts of working with young people is that while I may intuitively know to do something in my writing, I may not realize why I'm doing it. Finding a visceral memory, a clear example of feeling a specific emotion, not only helps me explain a writing strategy to a young writer, but also helps me understand what might be going wrong in my own work. Why isn't the moment scary enough? Take a look at the moments before.

Can you remember an event that truly scared you as a young person? Can you put your finger on the exact moment in the event when you were most afraid? That's a powerful tool for your writer's toolbox. At least it is for me!


  1. Naomi,
    Your spider story reminded me of a toy my sister and I had. Creepy Crawlers, where you poured plastic goop into a mold and pressed it closed until a spider or other crawly insect formed. I can't tell you how many times we "got" Mom with a fake spider on the counter, in her drink, in the chair. We wicked girls found fun in scaring our mother silly. Poor Mom wore out a broom smacking plastic spiders all around the house.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Plastic creepy-crawlies are such a source of amusement, aren't they? One year I was a camp counselor and my campers had a plastic rat. That rat showed up everywhere around camp, and each time, someone screamed. And then, we'd all laugh at ourselves because we KNEW it was a plastic rat, but we kept being caught off guard.

  3. First day of seventh grade. My elementary-school best friend had moved away the summer before, and I was terrified. I don't think I've ever been that afraid of ANY first day scenario. Not first day of teaching, not first day of college...NOTHING scared me like that day...

  4. GREAT question: "Can you put your finger on the moment when you were most afraid?" Such a terrific technique for trying to figure out what makes a literary scene work, or not.

  5. My first memory is one of being up in the Space Needle in an elevator--I was terrified as the elevator went down in the dark!


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