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Guest Post: Mike Mullin on What Makes a Story Scary

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

By Mike Mullin, author of ASHFALL

My debut novel, Ashfall, started shipping about a month ago (9/27). My aunt Ann, and cousin Ivan, have been among the first readers. Ashfall gave Ann nightmares so terrifying that she couldn’t read it anytime after lunch. Ivan, on the other hand, finished the book late one night and said, “Eh, I’ve read scarier books.”

I’m with Ivan on this one. I don’t think Ashfall is particularly scary. What makes a book scary isn’t violence or destruction—it’s what the reader imagines may be going on behind the scenes. Fear isn’t created with words on the page—it’s created from the conceptual white spaces around the words, spaces the reader’s mind plays in, creating the terror the author merely hints at.

My intention with Ashfall was to write an intensely realistic disaster novel, not to scare readers per se, although I consider it high praise when someone tells me I gave them nightmares. (If you connected with a book deeply enough to dream about it, I figure the author must be doing something right.)

I’ll illustrate what I mean about fear in writing with a true story. When my wife and I moved back to Indianapolis about ten years ago, we bought a wrecked Victorian mansion downtown. (It’s the house William Bobbs owned during the first part of the 20th century, when Bobbs Merrill was publishing James Whitcomb Riley and L. Frank Baum.)

The exterior stair into the basement had collapsed, leaving a huge pile of junk and dirt, so one day I set about clearing the space in preparation for building a new stair. It was grueling work, scooping up spadesful of detritus and hurling them out the door at ground level, above my head. About a half hour into the job, I turned up a scrap of half-rotted clothing—a flannel sleeve. Strange, I thought, that someone would abandon their clothes under the old stair. I kept digging.

A moment later my spade turned up a filthy leather boot. I slowly turned it over, not certain I wanted to know whether the boot held anything. It appeared to contain only dirt. Still, for some reason I didn’t want to touch it. I used my shovel to hurl the boot out the door.

The very next time I stabbed my spade into the dirt, I hit something solid. I got the shovel under it and I pried it up. As the earth fell away, it revealed a long brown object, crusted with dirt and pitted from an uneasy rest under the basement stair.

So let me pause here. What’s scary about this isn’t what I’ve shown you: a bit of cloth, a shoe, and a brown object. It’s what you’re imagining—that I’m in the midst of unearthing a long-buried corpse. The art of the scary story isn’t in what you tell the reader—it’s in what you don’t. That’s why Ashfall isn’t fundamentally a scary novel—it’s written in a realistic, factual style.

If I were telling my basement staircase story in that style, I’d probably clue you in right away on what the brown thing was and take all the suspense out of the story. Here, I’ll demonstrate: it turned out to be a pipe. It was about the right size and shape for a femur, so I was worried for a moment, but quite happy not to have to call the police and abandon my project while they investigated a corpse.

For an even better example of what I’m writing about, read the master: Stephen King. In his first novel, Carrie, he wraps up all the plotlines nicely at the end. Carrie, a telekinetic, has killed nearly 500 people before succumbing to a knife wound. At that point, a lesser writer might crack open a beer and call it a day. Instead, King gives us a chilling postscript that hints at another telekinetic waiting in the wings—a postscript that leaves it entirely to his readers’ imaginations as to what new horror will play out when she comes into her full powers. King’s mastery isn’t in what he writes, but in what he leaves to our imaginations.

Mike Mullin’s first job was scraping the gum off the undersides of desks at his high school. From there, things went steadily downhill. He almost got fired by the owner of a bookstore due to his poor taste in earrings. He worked at a place that showed slides of poopy diapers during lunch (it did cut down on the cafeteria budget). The hazing process at the next company included eating live termites raised by the resident entomologist, so that didn’t last long either. For a while Mike juggled bottles at a wine shop, sometimes to disastrous effect. Oh, and then there was the job where swarms of wasps occasionally tried to chase him off ladders. So he’s really hoping this writing thing works out.

Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and her three cats. Ashfall is his first novel.

Visit Mike at

Follow @Mike_Mullin on Twitter.

Comment on this guest blog and you’ll gain an extra entry for the big Halloween giveaway on October 31, containing prize packs of signed books plus books and ARCs donated by my publisher Penguin Teen!  

Here’s a sneak peek of some books I’m giving away:

You can keep track of all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.

22 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mike Mullin on What Makes a Story Scary

  1. Your author bio has to be one of the funniest I’ve ever read- hope this job works out, indeed. And you’re right in that it’s what’s left to our imaginations that’s most terrifying.

  2. Thanks, Dot. I wrote three different author bios and posted them all on my website. I’m really glad my publisher was willing to run the goofy one in ASHFALL, though; it’s my favorite.

  3. Great post–I enjoyed the way you showed your point.
    I much prefer the psychological suspense over the murderess rampage.
    I’ll be checking out Ashfall–good like on the “writing thing”

  4. Great insights. I’m always grilling friends and family for what they find frightening in books and movies, I think this helps me understand what they couldn’t put into words🙂

  5. OH my god, my heart was pounding while I was reading the basement story. Like, no way, OMG. Just tell me already!

    Masterful🙂 This is a wonderful insight into the psychology of scary stories.

  6. Imagination can be a scary thing. And I thought for sure you were going to say you found a dead body in your house. You totally had me!

  7. I definitely thought parts of Ashfall were creepy and disturbing (in the best possible way!), and they stayed with me, but not “scary”, exactly. Love your example of the clothes under the stairs. Now that gave me chills!

  8. I love the book/movie, Carrie. I once encountered a kid who had seen that movie and when I told him my name he got really scared.

  9. I agree, what is most scary is what isn’t explicitly stated, but what our imaginations conjure up themselves. Thanks for the guest post!

  10. This, exactly: “Fear isn’t created with words on the page—it’s created from the conceptual white spaces around the words, spaces the reader’s mind plays in, creating the terror the author merely hints at.”

    Great post Mike, thanks! BTW, I totally thought it was a body you were digging up.

  11. The tension authors create definitely makes the storytelling scarier. I can read horror stories all day long, but put me in front of a movie or tv show like that, and I’m a big old baby. I have to dvr True Blood because of all the murder & blood, and my sister, the horror movie junkie, laughs at me all the time!

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