Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When was the last time you were afraid – I mean really afraid? Close your eyes and play the scene. Try to capture everything: the sounds and the smells, what you saw and how your body reacted. What did you do afterward to cope with those feelings of fear? Can you identify why the event made you afraid in the first place?
Fear is such a universal and primal emotion. When it comes to exploring it in fiction, the most important thing is to create a believable emotion that grips the reader and creates some degree of character development. But every writer who has tried this knows it’s easier said than done. Consider the following dos and don’ts to help you master writing fear in fiction.Fear is a primal emotion: master writing it to put your reader in a character’s head.Click To Tweet
Writing shallow or insincere emotions is one of the quickest ways to alienate a reader. It’s easy to rely on clichés: sweaty palms, a racing heart, a clenched stomach. These aren’t inherently bad – and I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them – but if clichéd expressions are the only way you frame a frightening scene, it likely won’t go far enough in terms of character development. So, how can you go beyond clichés to create something with more depth?
DON’T stick to surface causes of fear
Think about fear for more than a few seconds and you’ll find that the surface causes give way to deeper issues, ingrained anxieties, and negative thought patterns cultivated over many years. Exploring these root causes can give readers insight into characters’ desires, motives, and insecurities. It may even expose patterns over time and develop main themes of the novel. Ingrained or subconscious fears often play unexpected roles in characters’ motives, desires, and self-imposed obstacles.
DO explore the psychology behind your characters’ fears
One major reason fear is so nuanced is that every person’s fears arise from particular psychological patterns. Two people might be afraid of losing a job – but for two very different reasons. Explore the psychology behind your characters’ fears; let it inform the way you write their response to a triggering situation.Where does your character’s fear come from, and how can that inform how it manifests?Click To Tweet
If you need help constructing this psychological background, think about your own fears, their roots, and how they manifest in your life. What about the people closest to you? Are they conscious of the role fear plays in their thoughts, behaviors, and interactions with others? Or do they seem unaware of the ways they’re motivated by fear? Applying those lessons to your characters will bring them to life in new ways.
Another trap fiction writers fall into is treating frightening situations too uniformly. Readers notice when the writing becomes formulaic. If fear arises from a character’s individual psychology and environment, it’s informed by wildly unique circumstances. That means the experience of fear should reflect the complexity of the factors that triggered it.
DON’T ignore nuance
It’s also important to recognize that fear shows up in many different ways. We experience fear in our bodies when our survival is threatened. We feel anxious when under prolonged stress. We face psychological fear about uncertainties in our lives. And every type of fear affects us in different ways. Don’t ignore those nuances.
DO use specific imagery, memory, and dialogue
The more you can tailor the scene to that specific character in that precise situation, the more fully you’ll engage your reader. Are there images, metaphors, or phrases unique to your character that might make a memorable scene? I’ll never forget Olive Kitteridge declaring, “It’s time for me to go home. I stink like fish,” when her fears that she’ll alienate her son start to materialize.Make your characters’ reactions to fear unique. What can you say about who they are?Click To Tweet
Memory can be another powerful force in frightening moments. And dialogue can be particularly telling about a character’s emotional state. When she’s stressed, does she repeat a word or phrase that she heard growing up? Does he have a habit of praying when he’s cornered? Drawing on those unique aspects of your character can keep from letting emotional scenes get stale.
The mechanics of how you write the scene can make or break the reader’s connection to the character. You want your readers to feel the fear, not watch your character being afraid.
DO get a strong balance of show and tell
The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to get the balance right between show and tell. Start by engaging the senses. Close your eyes. Put yourself in the character’s place. Imagine what he or she feels, hears, sees, smells, and tastes. Does the experience involve intuition or arise from the character’s subconscious? Explore every aspect of the scene, then write from the senses that stand out to you most. You don’t need to engage every one of these; it’s about writing those senses that make the strongest impression.
DON’T neglect deep POV
Deep POV is essential for writing a scene that grips readers in the emotion of the moment. Rhay Christou explains, “In deep point of view the character owns the page and the author becomes nonexistent. Deep point of view allows the reader to live vicariously through the actions, reactions, and emotions of a character.”
Two big tricks to get into deep POV are:
- Write dialogue and internal thought without tags, and
- Remove thought words and sense words that put distance between the reader and the action.
Unless you’ve practiced this before, you’ll likely need to read up on this approach to get a feel for it. Check out Rhay Christou’s full post on Writers In The Storm and this post on The Editor’s Blog to get started. You’ll be amazed at the difference deep POV can make.Use deep POV to get the right balance of show and tell when depicting fear.Click To Tweet
There’s nothing to fear but writing fear itself
Writing compelling fear scenes is hard work. It means rejecting the idea that fear is formulaic, predictable, and cliché. But by looking beneath the surface, exploring root causes of fear, and engaging deep POV, you’ll be writing a nail-biter in no time!
What techniques do you use to explore your characters’ psychology? What are some of your most memorable frightening scenes in fiction? Share a time one of your characters surprised you with their response to a fearful event in the comments below, or check out Primary and Secondary Emotions Can Unlock Your Characters and 10 Facts That Tell You How To Use Tension In Your Story for more great advice on this topic.