Who hasn’t heard the story about the escaped inmate with a hook for a hand who goes after teenagers necking atop a hill—or maybe the one about the man hiding in the backseat of some pretty lady’s car—perhaps the story about the babysitter being phone stocked by a serial killer? These stories were famous when I was in my early teens and I still find them fascinating to hear. These are the scary stories that hit too close to home. They are urban legends.
With so many blockbuster movies based off urban legends I had to try and discover what makes these stories so successful.
Like most story structures there are rules that have to be followed. The most important rule with urban legends is that it has to be believable. There’s no suspension of belief here folks. Urban legends are reality…well, not really, but as writers of them you need to make it so. That is why most urban legends are told in a specific way. “Let me tell you a story that happened to my friend’s cousin’s friend one late night in October…” If the story is about someone you know, even long distantly, the story becomes closer. You don’t even have to have the story about someone you know it could just happen in your own backyard. Think about the way you feel when you see on the news that some woman was shot to death by her husband on the street just a block away. So, number one rule: make the story believable and familiar.
This is what makes up an urban legend:
1. An innocent victim, preferably a female is doing something they ought not (most of the time urban legends are trying to share a morality lesson). Most of the time they are isolated and alone. The victim, or victims, is unaware of their surroundings.
2. An evil attacker, preferably an ambiguous male with a mental instability.
3. The story needs to play off human fears.
4. The story normally happens at night and in a rural setting.
5. A hero, preferable male and in an authoritative position comes in right at the end to save the day—sometimes not.
6. There is what’s called the rule of three: meaning the same thing happens two times before the final third. Like in the story of “the Hook” the escaped inmate attempts to open the car door two times before the couple speed off in their car. The third time the hook is found on the car door. Remember the rule of three. The reader is aware something is going to happen, and happen, and BOOM—it happens.
I challenge you to create an urban legend, a story that seems plausible that happened to you or a close friend—perhaps in your neighborhood. Use the rules above to structure the story and see what happens.
That's my key on urban legends.