Some people cringe at the idea of jump scares. They have often been overused and are seen as a cheap way to frighten people. But, they keep appearing in just about every form of entertainment, so they must be appealing to someone. What is it that makes a good jump scare?
A jump scare is a short sequence of events that leads to startling the reader. First you alert the reader that something is wrong. Next, something harmless happens, making the reader think the danger is over. Finally, as the reader is lulled into a false sense of security, something shocking happens that causes them to jump.
The result of using a jump scare on your reader is that they will pay attention to every little detail just in case there is another jump scare about to happen. It is also fun. The startling effect of a jump scare gives the reader a thrill and gets them emotionally involved. By building atmosphere and playing with the tension, you can raise the jump scare to new levels and keep your reader coming back for more.
There are two ways to do a jump scare. The first is to have something scary happen that is completely unexpected. The second is to fake out the reader so they drop their guard, and then you scare them. Either way a good jump scare requires the right atmosphere, an atmosphere of danger and anticipation.
Usually, you’ll start by introducing something dangerous. This puts the reader on alert and they begin to anticipate that something bad is about to happen. There are many ways to do this. You can describe a curse that kills people horribly, or talk about a madman who butchered his family. You can also do it in a subtle way; for example, you could describe a cold dark night, which isn’t necessarily scary in itself, but is likely to make people think that you’re about to describe something scary.
The point is to create an air of anticipation. The reader knows that something is going to happen, but they don’t necessarily know when or how it will happen. They start trying to guess when the dangerous thing is going to happen and this makes them tense. This is the classic fight or flight response we have when we feel we are in danger. The reader is getting ready to react. Getting the reader into this state is the purpose of building atmosphere.
Create a false sense of security
If you scare your reader immediately after alerting them about the danger, it may be effective to some degree, but it generally won’t make them jump. To do a proper jump scare, you have to make the reader feel like the danger has passed. For example, after letting them know of the possibility that there is a murderer in the house, you then have a cat jump out. This makes the reader think that the noise coming from the basement was just the cat and there is nothing to worry about now.
Creating a false jump scare like this causes the reader to drop their guard. It’s a necessary step because now is the best possible time to hit them with a jump scare. By letting them know that there is danger and then making them think it has passed, they feel safe but will still assume that anything unexpected is more danger. For example, after the cat jumps out, the reader lets out a sigh of relief, but if you describe a door creaking, the reader will think it is the murderer once more.
The trick is not to waste the opportunity on something small. Once the reader’s guard has dropped, the next event has to be the jump scare. If you try to build more tension by describing creaky doors or something similar, you will waste your chance to really get under their skin.
Catching them by surprise
Now it’s time for the real jump scare. You have to have something unexpected happen just when the reader relaxes and starts to feel safe. The timing is important. If it’s too soon, the reader won’t understand what’s happening and the jump scare will seem weak and confusing. If you wait too long, the tension will dissipate and the scare won’t make the reader jump. You want to hit them with the scare before they have time to fully understand what’s happening but late enough that the tension reaches a peak in their mind.
The actual jump scare is more of a startling experience than a scare, but if combined with the right atmosphere the reader will be left with a mordid feeling of horror after being startled. If you just leave it at that, the reader may still be left unsatisified because jump scares have been used so often that they have become cliche. In order to make your jump scare satisfying it should tie into the plot somehow.
A good way to use a jump scare is to have the thing that is doing the scaring be important for later events in the story. For example, you may have a jump scare where a vicious dog jumps out and almost kills the protagonist. Later, you may have a scene where the villain is attacked by the same dog, allowing the protagonist to escape. Using jump scares this way makes them satisfying because they drive the story instead of being a lazy way to startle the reader.
So there you have it. The jump scare is a simple matter of slowly building tension and then suddenly breaking it with something shocking, but in the right hands, jump scares are an artform in themselves. If used sparingly, they are a great way to keep your reader in suspense as they wonder what is going to happen next. Think of them like spice; If you use too much it’s overpowering, but used in moderation, they add amazing flavour and make your stories that much more compelling.