How To Tell a Scary Story: 10 Tips From Master Storyteller Jeff Gere
One of Honolulu’s master raconteurs, Jeff Gere, shares how to tell a spooky tale that will leave your audience chilled to the bone.
This article was originally published in the October 2008 issue of HONOLULU Magazine.
“Feel your pulse. Find a story that moves you. The library is a huge resource,” says Gere. With Hawaii’s tradition of ghost tales, you can also just ask around. “People tell me stories all the time.”
Fill in the blanks.
Wherever your story came from, it will need tweaking for a live audience. “Tell it fully,” says Gere. “Make it graphic and psychologically true: ‘Why would that woman kill her own son? And how can I act that out?’ You don’t change the bare bones, you color it in.”
But don’t say too much.
“It doesn’t have to be a lot. I’m doing brush painting, not a novel,” says Gere. It’s got to be quick, to get the listener into it.
Get your body involved.
“People tend to use the words all the time. Sometimes that’s great, but there’s a lot you can do without saying anything,” says Gere. He often asks his workshop students to tell a story using only movement or sound effects, and build the words in later.
Now lead them into the dark.
Every teller of chicken-skin tales evolves his or her own way of getting the audience to come with them into the supernatural realm. Gere’s favorite technique is to tell a story as if it were coming from someone he happened to meet, which often, it did.
Make sure you know the terrain.
“Storytelling is a crafted journey,” says Gere. “If you’re the guide for that journey, you’d better know where the bumps are on the road, where you’re going to park, where it’s beautiful and scenic, where the guy jumps out of the bushes.”
Watch the audience.
Good storytellers take cues from their audience. Says Gere: “The audience is giving you feedback all the time. It doesn’t have to be words. It’s how they breathe, where they get fidgety, where they laugh.”
Get a rhythm going.
“I use a lot of tension and then release: it’s funny, then tension builds again, and then a funny line, and then the tension builds and doesn’t release, and the bottom falls out. And you can just hear the whole room breathe.”
Be prepared to wipe out sometimes.
“Storytelling is like surfing. How do you learn to surf? Well, you’ve got to play the wave. A lot of it is intuition, and, you know, failure: ‘That didn’t work, let me try it again.’”
If you’re too good:
If the smaller members of the audience are too spooked to sleep, give them a charm, says Gere. “I’ll say, ‘If you’re afraid you’re going to have bad dreams—and this is actual folklore—put your shoes by the bed facing out, so all the spooky stuff will have to face your shoes, and they’ll be afraid.’”
VIDEO: Watch Jeff Gere in action as he tells the spooky story of "The Man Who Met Pele."