Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Writing FEAR

Pre-Post Note: My bloggy friend Liz Davis (yep, that's her photo) has released her new romance novel, CHOCOLATE AFTERTASTE. Click HERE to celebrate with her and enter her ebook giveaway going on until April 13th. Or buy it HERE for only $1.99!

Writing Fear
Another big emotion besides sadness and happiness that writers usually include in their manuscripts is FEAR. This comes naturally with the obstacles, tough problems, and major life changes that accompany a challenging plot. And if you're writing in the paranormal and horror genres, there are even more opportunities to explore this emotion. It can add a powerful sense of realism to your work.

So how do we show this fear?

Ways to Show Fear or Terror
Screams, shivers, and racing heartbeats are solid, traditional ways to display fear, but can end up feeling melodramatic or cliché. A few instances go a long way. You can unintentionally create a disconnect if your reader doesn't relate to the degree of fear your character is feeling.

1. BODY LANGUAGE. Along with screams and increased heartbeats, you can include things like wide eyes, trembling hands or bodies, and shallow or ragged breathing. An inability to think straight. A paralysis, being frozen in one place, or loss of other bodily functions. White or paling faces. A hand covering one's mouth. White knuckles. Jumping, flinching, and fleeing. Sweat. Nausea. Shivers running up and down the spine. Dry throats. All these things are great ways of showing fear without writing the words fear, terror, or frightened.

Key concept: SHOW not TELL your characters' emotions.

2. INTERACTIONS. How your characters react to the world when they are fearful is very revealing. They may shout or rant--displaying their terror by deflecting it to anger. They may cling tightly to someone else's arm, jabber incoherently, or be unable to stop shrieking. On the flip side, they may be the kind who freezes up and cannot act or hide. As with other strong emotions, often judgment is skewed, and your characters can make (plot-interesting) mistakes while in the throes of terror. Stay true to your characters' personalities, and how they would react to fearful events.

Especially if you're writing in a genre that involves a lot of terrifying situations, you'll find yourself pushed to go beyond descriptions of what your character's body is experiencing. Writing (and reading) about trembling limbs, spine-tingling shivers, and fast-beating hearts can get old really fast. The best strategy is to spread out these physical reactions over the manuscript, as well as explore different ways to describe the emotion.

Get creative! Turn cliché descriptions on their head, infuse them with a shot of originality. Don't try too hard, though; your writing will sound overwrought and awkward.

Yawners: His heart raced./His heart pounded.
Better: His heart hammered against his ribs./His heart jack-hammered under his ribs.
Fresher yet: His heart skidded into hyperspeed. (Although this focuses more on speed, whereas the jackhammer sounds more intense or forceful. It depends on your intent.)

Another way to make your character (and reader) feel fear is to amp up the tension, tautness, and suspense of your scenes. This can be accomplished by shorter sentences, smaller paragraphs, and even sentence fragments. Don't include details your frightened character wouldn't notice; this is NOT the place for a tour, or a flashback or memory. Keep a sense of mystery--a sense of the shadowy unknown. Have unexpected things fall, jump out, or make noises.

Make sure something is at stake, and that the reader knows what the consequences are. Include shortened timeframes to accomplish a task, or the threat of ruination, injury, or death if your character fails. And make sure your plot has enough twists and nasty surprises to elicit shock and fear from your readers. They will experience it along with your main character.

Do you read or write in the horror genre?
Do you write stories where your character is fearful? How does he/she show it?
Are you weary of writing about pounding heartbeats and shallow breathing--and do you think you can go beyond those clichés?

Good luck, and have fun!


  1. Great post, Carol! I love the "His heart skidded into hyperspeed." LOL!

  2. Nice examples. I prefer tension to fear. Fear is one dimensional, tension and suspense are unknowns. As a reader, I love when I ask, "What's happening?" Then two pages later I find out.

  3. Another great post on emotions, Carol. Incorporating fear can be fun and exciting, but challenging. I often run into problems with repeating the same descriptions of what a character experiences with fear. There are only so many ways to describe a racing heart, etc. But that's the fun of writing--overcoming the challenges. : )

  4. I agree with Emily. Creating tension is important, and is a challenging part of writing.

  5. I agree with Emily, too. It's the tension in Dean Koontz books that keep me reading. The anticipation of something big is about to happen that is often more powerful than the actual event. Not that it means you can go all whimpy on the event.

  6. I'll read some horror but I've not attempted to write it.
    Gotta love those racing hearts. It's all too easy to fall into the same cliches when writing that type of thing. I know I do it all the time. Must...stop...!

  7. Great tips as usual! Heck, I'm a fan of fragments even when not writing a tense scene... in moderation of course.

    Hope you're having a great week!

  8. It's so hard to do fear sometimes in my writing. I love your example though--it was so great! I don't write horror, though. Not my thing. ;)

  9. Carol - Great advice once again. This post is very timely; I will definitely be able to incoporate some of your suggetions on showing fear. Thanks so much!

  10. Oh, nice piece! I am not in horror, but cozy mystery, so there is real fear, but sometimes also slightly comincal fear (a character who gets jabbering when she's scared because she's trying to distract herself (thereby annoying my MC). But the real fear scene that comes to mind, "Cam tried to swallow, but it seemed her heart had settled in her throat." I do a lot of changes in breathing rate, too (holding breath or hyperventilating)--possibly because these are MY most common fear reactions.

  11. Very educational, Carol, especially for writers. And it was nice of you to showcase Liz Davis.

  12. This post made me think of C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy. Throughout the entire three books there were strong overtones of fear, but she managed to pull it off in an original fashion through different character reactions.

  13. I think it IS hard to come up with fresh ways of showing emotion. But it's pretty rewarding when you do :)

  14. It's extremely challenging to keep suspense fresh when writing it. My last ms was a YA thriller where my MC faced lots of fear. Luckily I had a teen beta reader who isolated every instance where she didnt feel enough fear from the MC and I could amp it up and not feel like I was overdoing it. But after awhile, it's easy to run out of thumping hearts, sweaty palms, spinning heads, and need fresher ways to show fear. I like the "ragged breathing" I'm writing that down.

  15. Great post! I don't write in the horror genre, but my characters get into situations where they experience fear. These are all really useful tips!

  16. I was awed imediately by the look of this page. I am in the middle of revising a fiction story. My main character is fearful of the real life situation she is in. This is a big help. I bookmarked your site.

  17. Carol, these are such great examples of what we should be doing. I don't read horror, but I do read mysteries and thrillers. I love it when fear is written well. Now, whether or not I'm hitting the mark with my own work? I'll get back to you on that ;)

  18. Hi Carol. Loved this. We all like to think about new ways to show not tell.

    Don't respond by email. I know you appreciate my comment.


  19. Great examples, Carol. I read a lot of horror, but don't write it. I do have scenes showing fear, though.

    I'll have to check out Liz's writing.

  20. Congratulations to Liz!

    I don't read horror. I do love horror movies though. I tried to write a scary story for a contest and I freaked myself out...I didn't finish it. LOL, it gave me bad dreams....

  21. I definitely try not to use too many thundering hearts. It's such a natural go-to since it's the first thing I notice about myself when I'm scared, but it does get old very fast! Thanks for the great alternatives you suggested!

  22. My character's heart seems to be beating all over the place lately! :) Those are some great options you've given us - thanks!


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