Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Paragraph Makeover: FEAR

So. Let's say you have scene in your novel or short fiction where there are a couple of paragraphs of FEAR. Your main character realizes she's being followed…by a wolf-like creature. (And just in time for Halloween, too.)

How do you write these paragraphs? How do you maximize the emotion of fear?

FIRST TRY. You could write it like this:
Sherise threw a glance over her shoulder, and saw only gloomy evening shadows in the field behind her. She could've sworn she'd heard a noise, a noise that didn't belong. Her feet picked up speed. The noise came again, howling like a wolf, sounding way too close for comfort. Shivers rippled down her spine.

The howling came a third time, and a dark shaggy shadow darted in her peripheral. It looked like a big dog, or maybe a wolf, but she'd never known a wolf to come this close to the city limits. Her heart pounded up into her throat as the shaggy creature emerged from behind a bush right in front of her and stared at her with glowing yellow eyes. She halted in fear, not knowing which way to run.

While the example above works, it could be made stronger:
Don't use "renegade body parts." When things like "her feet picked up speed" are used, it sounds disjointed, like the feet are acting on their own, separated from a body.
Don't use cliché phrases for fear. Shivers rippling down one's spine and hearts pounding into one's throat have been used so often they don't deliver as much impact. Try for a dash of originality, or use inner thoughts rather than describing only physical reactions.
Saying phrases like "in fear" TELLS your reader the emotion your character is feeling rather than showing that fear. Try not to label emotions unless it's unclear or opposite from the normal reaction (like giggling when she's afraid or panicked).
Use shorter sentences. Fragments, even. They help convey a breathless urgency.
Consider using first person to give more of a sense of immediacy. Especially with young adult novels, readers love the close experiences that first person can give. Using present tense can add even more of a "you-are-there" feeling.
Be specific. What kind of noise did the character hear—what did it sound like? Utilize the five senses to make the scene come alive.
Add tension by formatting. Don't be afraid to start sentences on new lines to draw out the tension. Use well-placed dashes or italics for emphasis (but don't overdo them).

I threw a glance over my shoulder. Fingers of evening shadows blurred out across the field behind me. I could've sworn I'd heard a noise, a disjointed whine. Too creepy. I shivered and picked up speed, grasses whipping the legs of my jeans.

Some shortcut. I wish I'd stuck to the streets, now.

The cry came again to my left, rising to an unearthly howl. Eerie, unhinged. A dark shaggy shadow darted in my peripheral. A big dog? A wolf, here in the city limits? It didn't sound like any dog or wolf I'd ever heard. I broke into a run. Air hissed in and out of my mouth. The shadow kept up.

I tried to swallow, but my throat just convulsed.

The creature flashed by with impossible speed and emerged from a bush in front of me. I staggered to a halt, pinned by a set of glowing yellow eyes. Running wouldn't help me now.  

Is it easy or difficult for you to write scenes of fear?
Do you have any other helpful tips for writing scenes with high emotions?
How would you intensify the fear and tension in these examples—adding a smell, maybe?


  1. Thank you for this great advice, Carol!

  2. Love this post, Carol. You always have awesome advice!

  3. Great makeover! I love writing scenes like this. Gets my own heart pumping. :)

  4. If I can put myself in the scenes I'm writing (becoming the characters), then the writing tends to flow, but if I try to write from a distance, it always ends badly ;)

  5. Oooh, excellent scene, Carol! I've learned to add emotion details using The Emotion Thesaurus. It helps SO much!

  6. I intense scenes; gives me a chance to "show" my character's reactions to the unexpected.

    Are the meds working for the glaucoma; do you feel a difference?


  7. Nice example, and great guidelines. I don't have any problem with the intense sentences or sensory detail, but sometimes I skimp on the character's emotional reactions. I think you have to be careful with those so they don't slow the prose in intense moments.

  8. This is awesome! So very helpful, Carol. I'm going to print it - it's just the sort of notes I like to keep handy while I edit!

  9. These are some great tips, Carol... Thanks...

    LOVE the disjointed body parts.... I remember you telling me that with you critiqued mystery... LOL... I don' t do it anymore. LOL

    Have a great weekend!

  10. I need to work harder at cutting the "telling" out of emotional scenes. Just because Koontz gets away with it doesn't mean I can.

  11. I almost never struggle with writing "fear" scenes. Usually it's when the character links to me best. Unfortunately, writing then leaves me jittery for days. :-D

  12. I love the advice and the makeover.

  13. The second one is o much better. You really amped the tension!

    I like your new picture.

  14. Awesome!!I now have many scenes to rewrite!! You are good. Your edit was so much better!!


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