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.