How to tell a scary story

October 21, 2019 Alex Williamson

It’s ghost story season, and nobody knows how to tell a story better than the experts at The Moth, the New York-based storytelling nonprofit.

Ahead of two upcoming live events in Brooklyn, one at Green-Wood Cemetery Oct. 25 and 26 and one at The Bell House Nov. 4, the Brooklyn Eagle asked Jenifer Hixson, a senior director at The Moth, for her top tips for telling a good scary story — or a good story of any genre.

More than 34,000 performers have told their nonfiction narratives live on The Moth’s stage since the series began in 1997. The best ones are rebroadcast on The Moth Podcast and The Moth Radio Hour, which airs on more than 500 stations around the country.

Hixson, in a 20-plus year career at the nonprofit, has helped thousands of performers shape their personal anecdotes into concise, engaging stories, complete with character development and a narrative arch, to capture an audience’s attention and hold it.

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By now, she’s grown familiar with the most common storytelling pitfalls.

“You begin to see patterns in things,” she said. “You can begin to identify, ‘Oh that thing works, or, that thing never works.’”

For a captivating story that keeps your audience on the edge of their seats, these are her top tips:

Give it a sense of direction

“We’ve all been trapped some place with a story where you’ve kind of lost the thread and it seems like the storyteller doesn’t know where it’s going either. You start to feel rudderless,” said Hixson. “Good storytelling, you feel that the person telling you is in command all the time and knows exactly where we’re going next.”


To never lose sight of where your story is headed, practice writing it down or telling it to friends before busting it out in a higher-stakes situation… like onstage in front of a crowd of strangers.

Something has to happen

Preferably something unexpected.

“There aren’t stories about a day that went just as planned,” said Hixson. “Unless of course your plan was, ‘I’m going to take over a country’ or something.”

Furthermore, Hixson says, storytellers should begin their story closer to the key action, rather than giving the audience too much exposition and risk losing their attention.

“There are a lot of people who do a lot of describing, who set the scene a lot and then I’m like, okay, but we have to have a plot point,” Hixson said. “It can’t be an essay. That’s a hard clarification for some people.”

Make sure your story has some verbs, along with a distinct beginning, middle and end. That’s a sign you’re telling an actual story, rather than giving a loose collection of your thoughts on a topic.

Something needs to be at stake

“We need to understand from the storyteller’s perspective what is desired and what is to be avoided,” said Hixson. “Making that clear really helps the through-line of a story.”

For a scary story, those stakes could be getting attacked by an axe-wielding psychopath or making it to safety. For a funny story, they could be making a fool of yourself in front of your crush or winning them over. In any case, there should be some clear risk or reward for the storyteller that hinges on the outcome of events.

Put the audience in your headspace

For a scary story, it’s not enough to say you were scared. You have to show the audience why by recounting the events as you experienced them, and the feelings those events churned up in the moment.

“Storytelling is a bit of a striptease of facts and details,” said Hixson. “Say you were in a room at the end of the hallway. You’re not going to say, ‘I heard the guy try every door knob.’ You’d rather have it like, ‘I heard the elevator open. I heard [him try] the door knob at the farthest end. And then the next door knob,’” she said.

Describing the things you saw, heard and felt can also help the audience understand your state of mind.

Something has to change

If everything remains the same, there’s probably no reason to tell the story in the first place, Hixson said.

“Figure out what it is that changes in you because of the story. Because stories aren’t that great unless you change somehow,” she said. “Or at least your perception. What’s new? What did you learn about yourself?”

Ready to put your skills to the test? Check out The Moth’s event Nov. 4 at The Bell House, an open mic StorySLAM open to anyone with a story to tell. 

 


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