How To Be Scary Without Saying Anything

Introduction

I was originally going to call this article "The Five Habits That Make For a Bland SCP," identifying what I thought were the five most common sentences or habits that I thought made new SCP articles boring or uninteresting - not conceptually, but structurally and writing-wise.

About halfway through the second Bad Habit, I realized that there was only one Bad Habit that I really objected to:

Showing The Monster

If you've ever seen a horror movie, you know that the best horror movies hide more than they show. Human beings fear the unknown, and they particularly fear that which they cannot see. Still, there needs to be glimpses, hints of the horror that exist, so that the mind can fill in the blanks on their own.

And this is the BIGGEST problem with "boring" SCP articles these days. In an attempt to be "scientific" and "realistic," they show the monster under a bright spotlight, killing the horror entirely.

In this guide, I'm going to identify the top five ways in which an SCP article can "show the monster," and talk about ways that we can avoid doing so. In so doing, it is my hope that we can take a closer look at our own writing and try to punch things up, make them more interesting, and add a little spice to your SCP.


A Caveat

If you are a beginning SCP writer, do not read this article. If you do not yet have an SCP article on the wiki, please go write one. If you do not have a mastery of the English language, go work on that first. This is an advanced-level guide intended not to help you make a good article, but to punch up an article that you may have already written, or are working on, to a higher level of quality.

Secondly, I will not be addressing "content" at any point. It's my firm belief that even a "bad idea" can be made good through excellent execution. Everything I discuss in this guide will be concerned with structure and writing only.


What is elision?

To "elide" means to leave out or omit. "Elision" is, therefore, deliberate omission of something.

The SCP Foundation uses elision as one of its most common tools, in the form of blanking text and [DATA EXPUNGED]. I will not be concerning myself with these tools. Instead, I will be focusing on more subtle forms of elision: implying that which is never stated outright.


Exercise 1

I'm going to begin by asking you to do something for me. Please open up my SCP-001 proposal, found here. Read it through from beginning to end.

Now, please go back through the article and count how many times the following words are used.

1. Angel
2. Eden

You can find the answer below.

Here's another one. Read SCP-087. Now read the logs. Now answer this question: what does SCP-087 do to the people it catches?

Answer here:

Think about that for a moment.


Exercise 2

Open up an SCP article that you're working on. Alternatively, go to the "most recently created" page of the SCP Foundation wiki and pick any one of the newer SCP articles. Doesn't have to be the most recent, just pick something from the page.

Now read the article and check for one or more of the following phrases:

  • SCP-XXXX is a [OBJECT OR CREATURE] [PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION.]
  • When [CAUSE], [EFFECT].
    • (also:) Any human subject [TAKING ACTION] will [EFFECT].
  • As [ACTION], [EFFECT GROWS STRONGER] until [END RESULT].
  • Human subjects will have the mistaken belief that [SOMETHING CRAZY].

Now open up another article and do the same thing.

Maybe try it with a third.

Once you've finished this exercise, sit back and think for a moment. I certainly did.


So what is the problem?

The four (or five, depending on how you group them) phrases that I listed in Exercise 2 are the most obvious examples of "showing the monster" in SCP articles. Like a horror movie that shows its monster in glowing broad daylight, outright stating the SCP object's anomalous properties reduces the horror and mystery to a single sentence.

What's worse is that this "showing the monster" usually happens early in the article, around the beginning of the "description" section, right after "Special Containment Procedures." If you think of "finding out what the object is and does" as the high point of engagement in the article, the article "peaks" right at the beginning, and everything else is a downward slope.

This isn't a good thing. The best story telling keeps its high point of engagement towards the middle or end of the story. You want that "oh wow!" moment fresh in the reader's memory. You want them to carry that revelation with them.

How can you avoid this? Well, one method is to extend the Special Containment Procedures section: make it longer and more interesting, so that the "peak" gets moved towards the end of the story, relatively speaking. Or you can make the "peak" of the story something other than the reveal of the SCP: something like an exploration log or an experiment log. Or take SCP-1926, where the entire story happens in the very last line.

Of course, "showing the monster" is just a problem with an individual article. In the bigger picture, these phrases are so overused that a reader of the site will eventually start to pick up on the fact that these phrases keep popping up over and over again. Eventually, this leads a bit of a comic, "Mad Libs" air to the site. That's actually how I first noticed this problem, after the umpteenth time that I read an article that used the (most overused) "WHEN [CAUSE] [EFFECT]" structure to describe its object.


Exercise 3

Pick one of the articles you used for Exercise 2. If you pick something that you did not write, please be polite and don't tell them that you used their article for this exercise. Yes, this does mean that even if you make their article "better," you are not to tell them about it. First of all, it's rude. Secondly, due to the nature of the way people think, the poor authors of the most recent articles on the site are going to basically be deluged with "SO I DID CLEF'S EXERCISE AND MADE YOUR ARTICLE BETTER" PMs and comments. If they want to improve their article, they can do Exercise 3 themselves.

All right. Now that you have the article, copy-paste it into Notepad. Now go through it and pick out one example of one of the Five Deadly Phrases from Exercise 2. Delete that phrase and reread the article.

Ask yourself this:

Does the rest of the article contain enough information that the reader could get a solid idea of what is going on?

If the answer to the first question is "no," then ask this one:

Can I make a small addition to the rest of the article that will provide the missing information?

Then do so.

Repeat steps one and two until you have eliminated all examples of the Five Deadly Phrases.

Then reread the original draft of the article (before Exercise 3), and compare it with your revised version.

Take a step back and think for a moment.


When not to elide

Every rule has its exception. So when should you break the rule never to show the monster?

Well, first of all, if there's no monster to show. For instance, it would be kind of silly if we tried to elide the fact that SCP-294 is a coffee machine that can give you anything you want. After all, there's nothing mysterious about what it is. How it does it, maybe. Anyway, the point of the article isn't that the nature of SCP-294 is mysterious or scary, it's the experiments log and the journey of the researchers exploring its potential. SCP-093 is another example: the writer in this case outright states what SCP-093 is to get that part out of the way and make room for the meat of the article: the exploration logs.

Here's another example: My article uses a clever writing trick to pique the reader's interest in the Special Containment Procedures section, then does a quick reveal in "Description" before quickly raising the ante. Now that the reader understands what I am, the rest of the article is focused on raising the stakes very slowly up until the last sentence, which caps it all off by breaking out of the article's "meta" and into the "SCP Universe" itself.

I (Clef, not SCP-426) would, however, suggest that any instance of the Five Deadly Phrases should be avoided whenever possible. Since the phrasing and structure are so common, it's just problematic if they keep getting used as often as they are. It's especially bad if more than one of the Five Deadly Phrases gets used in succession. The effect can be almost comedic.


Conclusion

I guess that's all I really had to say on this matter. Feel free to discuss this article on the forums or in comments. Hoping this gives you a little insight on what I see as a common problem in new SCP articles, and hoping this helps you to raise your own writing to a higher level.

- Clef

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