But It Was Only the Cat…

The main character’s parents are away.  His sister is sleeping over at a friend’s house, and he’s home alone.  Normally, this would be fine– but normally, there aren’t werewolves sneaking around his neighborhood.  Werewolves that like the taste of calzones as only he knows how to make them.  And he’s plumb out of silver bullets.

He hears a noise outside.  It sounds like the claws of a werewolf scraping over the lid of their trash can, which would be picked up in the morning.  Until then, however, the wolves were free to search for scraps of delicious calzone.

The main character swallows his fear and turns back to his book, hoping the werewolves will go away.  He hears another scratch, and another, and another, until he can’t take it anymore.  He goes to the window and cracks open the blinds, peering out into the shadows beyond the porch lights.

There’s nothing to be seen.  He can barely make out the shape of the trash can at the end of the driveway, but nothing is near it– wait.  He peers closer.  Something is there.  Two eyes, reflecting the porch lights, shine back at him.  He jumps away from the window, trying to keep a level head.  It’s a werewolf, but that’s no problem– it was just sniffing around the garbage.  Perhaps it won’t come near.  He cracks open the blinds again to look.

The eyes stare steadily back at him.  They haven’t moved.  They know he’s here.

The main character feels his heart rate speed up, feels the blood pumping through his ears, and hopes he can outrun a werewolf if it comes to it.

The eyes blink once.  They come closer.  The dark shape steps into the light, revealing what it truly is: a cat.

This is exactly what you call a cat scare.  The scene slowly builds in suspense until it’s reached a fever pitch, at which point it turns out to be harmless.  Cat scares are simply annoying.

Or are they?

Why have they lasted so long if they just serve to annoy the audience?  In fact, why do they turn up in stories at all?  No one likes something unknown jumping out of the shadows at them, even if it is a cat– why would they add it to a story?

Reason number one: authors are jerks.  They love to make you squirm with anguish as the scene unfolds; they love to make us wonder whether this is the main character’s last stand; and of course, they just hate cats.  They like pumping the suspense up above healthy levels, even if it has no real result.

Reason number two: it shows the character’s mood.  A calm person would barely notice– a jumpy one probably would.  But that isn’t really that important.

The best thing a cat scare can do for suspense is to relieve it.  Yes, it sounds counterproductive, but for a while now I’ve been trying to figure out how to write lighthearted segments, quickly to be followed by extreme danger.  I’ve already posted about contrast from scene to scene.  That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  Cat scares, I recently realized, work extremely well for this.

The main character and a friend are home alone for the night.  They hear a noise, go to the windows to check, and see eyes staring back at them from the garbage can.  The friend has no idea about the werewolves, but the main character knows.  The friend is mildly curious about these eyes in the dark and wonders if it’s Gollum.  The main character tries to keep from hiding in the closet.

Then the cat steps into the light, and the tension is relieved.  No werewolves after all.  The main character heaves a sigh of relief, upon which the friend begins to tease him about how frightened he had been.  It was just a cat, nothing to worry about.  Why had he been so afraid?  Let’s go watch a movie.

They leave the window, still laughing about it.  The main character is just glad it wasn’t a werewolf after his calzones.  He goes to get a bag of chips from the pantry while his friend warns him about meeting strange animals in the dead of night.  He stops short.

There’s a werewolf sniffing around the pantry.

The cat scare produces contrast with the werewolf scare.  The first part of the scene is mildly suspenseful, but it collapses like a house of cards.  The overall effect is a lighthearted scene as the main character is embarrassed at his jumpiness– but when he finds a werewolf in the pantry, that’s the least of his concerns.

The cat scare, therefore, produces an artificial suspense that collapses easily.  It lends contrast to the real suspense of a werewolf in the pantry, which is fully realized in the next scene.  The cat scare just lets the author say, “Oh, you think that was scary?  How about this?”

Authors are jerks.

As I said before, cat scares are extremely annoying when done too much.  Sometimes you can spend so much time building up suspense through cat scares that you forget the real suspense– the audience starts to get bored and expect that the third door on the right is actually the one the serial killer is hiding behind, instead of the first two, which seem to only have cats.

Cat scares aren’t only for horror novels and thrillers, however.  That sort of contrast can be used for anything, just as suspense could be used for anything.  In fact, I believe some would say that they don’t have any reason for a cat to jump out at the main character when they’re writing a high school romance– but is that true?  Furthermore, must cat scares always include cats?

Consider the girl with the slightly crooked eyebrows, standing by her locker between classes wishing Bartholomew, captain of the school ping pong team, would speak to her.  He’s already looked at her– twice– and she thinks he might actually say hello.  Sigh…  She glances around and sees Barty walking down the hall with a bunch of his ping pong buddies.  He glances in her direction, and she quickly turns her attention back to her locker.  He could come up any second.  She combs a strand of hair away from her eyes and hopes her eyebrows aren’t that crooked.  Someone taps her on the shoulder and she squeaks.  Barty?  Sigh…

No, it’s the bespectacled Gladys, one of her only friends.  Gladys smiles a crooked smile and asks if she can cheat from her test paper next period.  Before she can hear the answer, she’s already prattling on about where she plans to sit at lunch.  The girl smiles and nods, then turns back to her locker as Gladys drifts away, still talking.  She ignores the hubbub around her for a few moments, rearranging the sparkly bits on her backpack.  Someone taps her on the shoulder.

She smiles and turns.  Gladys had forgotten to listen to the answer, but of course she could cheat if she wanted to– oh.  It’s Barty.  Sigh…

And boom, without any semblance of sense or sensibility– or cats– you have a cat scare.  This tricks works just as well on shallow high school girls as it does on hardened private detectives, so use it wisely.

Think about adding cat scares into your scenes.  They don’t take much, but they help the suspense if you can do it right.

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38 thoughts on “But It Was Only the Cat…

  1. You really have a thing with the name Gladys, don’t you?

    I agree. Cat scares highten the scare when the scare actually happens, even though it just knocked the suspense down. And yeah, authors are jerks. We like scaring the living snot out of readers as well as giving them nasty cliffhangers. But I don’t agree that authors hate cats.

    You know what’s better than a cat scare? Make the cat actually what the MC was fearing… still a cat scare, but he realizes he’s snuggling that man-eating kitten too late. Doesn’t really work in your romance scenario, though.
    By the way, was that a Jane Austin reference I saw?

  2. Yep. I definitely agree with that. Authors aren’t exactly the nicest people, are we?

    This is a good point however. I’ve only experimented with these a few times, I think, but I’ll definitely try some more.

  3. I usually hate cat scares (and cats in general); they always seem like a lazy way to get cheap scares out of the readers. They’re even more annoying in movies. But this post changed my opinion on it (though I still find it annoying).

    I think the best “Oh, it’s only a cat,” moment for me was in an episode of “Monk,” where you think a serial killer’s about pop up, and it turns out to be a cat. There was a split second of relief, and then the woman said something along the lines of, “Wait a minute, who let you in?” and the suspense immediately rises.

    I’d also be less annoyed if the cat turned out to be the killer, like in a certain disturbing Stephen King short story.

  4. I really like this idea of using the cat scare to relieve suspense, although I do agree that they’re a bit annoying in movies. And it does make sense that they would heighten the actual scare when it happens (what with adrenaline already rushing through the system). There’s a lot for me to chew over here, thanks so much for writing about this!

  5. I actually wondered why cats are used. Then I came to the conclusion that cats walk soooo quietly and are such stealthy hunters that they can almost always give a scare (not to mention sharp claws, snapping jaws and the fatal bite that neatly delivered to the neck. Just thinking about Warrior cats makes me shiver.) .

      1. YOU’VE READ IT? I’VE JUST BEEN WONDERING WHAT A SUCKER I AM BECAUSE NO ONE BUT THE TWO PPL AT SCHOOL WHO’VE INTRODUCED ME TO WARRIORS EVEN LIKE WARRIORS, SO I’M LIKE A STUPID PERSON TALKING ABOUT THE WARRIOR CODE ALL DAY LONG WITH PEOPLE LOOKING AT ME AND THINKING I NEED SOME DOCTORS FROM MENTAL HOSPITALS TO GIVE ME A VISIT. yay!

      2. I have read it, though it was a long time ago. I stopped reading because there were too many books to keep track of. They came out too fast for me to be able to reread the series beforehand and remember what had happened, but too slow to remember what had happened without a reread. I liked the first and second series, but the third started deteriorating. I don’t even want to know what they’ve done with the fourth series by now.

      3. About everything but the last book in the third series, the fourth series (Omen of the Stars), The Fifth Series (Dawn of the Clans), Firestar’s Quest, Tallstar’s Revenge, Crookedstar’s Promise, Enter the Clans, Battle of the Clans, Cats of the Clans, Yellowfang’s Secret, Mistystar’s Omen, all the Manga (I don’t really like comics, don’t judge me.)….

        Which means I’ve read The Original Arc, The New Prophecy, 1-5 of The Power of Three, Bluestar’s Prophecy and Skyclan’s Destiny. (All in one month not including the weeks I have to WAIT for the slow readers to return the books to the library….BRAGGING RIGHTS!)

        The school doesn’t even have all of them, I borrowed most of the books from my friends…they have like, the WHOLE of EVERYTHING.

      4. The thing that sucks is the fact that the school doesn’t have the whole set of the Omen of the Stars. (I actually waited 3 months for Dark River (Power of Three) because THAT’S how many books the library has.) I’m not allowed to buy any of the books that the library has…. 😦

      5. (Irrelevance)I think the only book I physically (as in actually putting it down) gave up on was “The Blue Sword”. I was eight and I thought it was ultra boring since I read more than half of the book and I was SO bored since there wasn’t any action or practically ANYTHING. I don’t even know if it was in a series or anything, but I was bored out of my mind so I returned it to the library. If you were me, I would be SO confident that the story (about me returning the book) would be way more interesting than that (‘cuz I have IMAGINATION.).

      6. There was nothing more for me to say, but I like to say something so the other person can at least continue the conversation if they wish without feeling awkward.

  6. Personally, I quite like cat scares. Especially as you can lower the tension with a “phew!” . . . and then make the characters turn around and realise that the thing they thought was out there is the least of their problems because something much bigger and scarier is standing right behind them. Not always easy to pull off without looking contrived, but when it works, it’s one of my favourite scare devices.

    That said, I think cat scares have to be suited to the tone and environment of either the book or situation to be effective. They’re a lot more at home in something like a light comedy-horror pastiche because they’re poking fun. They’d look a bit daft and flimsy if you were trying to build up some genuine fear.

    1. That’s very true. I realized what cat scares do when I was watching Despicable Me 2– a decidedly comedic movie. However, I don’t think they are exclusively used for comedy. They might work with thrillers, too. I have yet to find an example, though.

      1. Nor I, but theoretically they are workable – mixing in cat scares with true scares would really keep a reader on their toes, never sure if the danger was real.

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