Fear, like all the big primary emotions, can have infinite root causes. Two people can fear the same thing — say, their partner discovering their secret credit card debt — but for completely different reasons. Bear this in mind when you write about fear.
Fear alone won’t make your prose compelling. Readers want to see nuance. Knowing your character is afraid isn’t interesting. Knowing why they’re afraid and how that fear affects their behavior and relationships? Now that’s something worth turning the page for.
As you write and revise fearful scenes, keep these tips in mind:
Avoid cliches, especially when describing physical manifestations of fear
When we think of fear, a number of cliches come to mind, including:
- Cold sweat
- Racing pulse
- Rapid breathing
- Trembling hands
Each instance of fear is complex and unique. This provides an excellent opportunity for character development. How does your character experience fear? How do they mask it? And how does it affect their behavior and choices?
If you do use a cliche like trembling hands, weave it into the scene. Show its effects. Don’t tell readers “he shook with fear.” Instead, show your character fumbling to unlock the door, dropping his keys, trying to force those trembling hands to do his bidding. You can write a very evocative moment here without ever using the words “shake,” “tremble,” or “fear.”
Explore unexpected emotions beneath the fear
Likewise, avoid using the words “fear” and “afraid” where you could instead describe a more specific emotion. Big primary emotions are often too vague to evoke strong feelings in your readers.
Returning to our credit card debt example: readers will assume your character is afraid of their partner finding out. Don’t waste word count reinforcing what they already know. Expose the layers beneath that all-encompassing Fear heading. Your character may fear their secret coming out for any number of reasons, including:
- If they separate, your protagonist will have to move back in with their emotionally abusive parents
- Revealing the debt would require your character to share a second, darker secret from that time in their life
- Your protagonist has moved half the world away from all their support systems to be with their partner
- They’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle — one enabled by their partner’s money — and they don’t want to go back to being poor
- Their partner would be more hurt than mad, which would consume your protagonist with unbearable guilt
This nuance becomes doubly important in situations that aren’t obviously scary. A nonsensical fear response — one where a character’s physical reactions betray intense fear but we don’t know why — usually isn’t as compelling as you’d like. Dig into that deep point of view and let us know what your protagonist is thinking.
Make the fear response authentic to your character
Speaking of deep point of view, it reveals another weakness in those vague, cliched descriptions of fear: they aren’t universal. Your character’s backstory will inform how they respond to fear and how it affects their relationships. Think about whether they would:
- Fight, flee, or freeze
- Lash out
- Push people away
- Draw people closer
Each character will react to identical circumstances differently. Use this as an opportunity for character development.
Balance your show and tell
The “show, don’t tell” mandate can sabotage writers in emotionally intense scenes. Excessive telling, or the wrong kind of telling, weakens our writing. However, too little telling can just as easily put a wall between your protagonist and your readers.
Seeing a character in a state of terror won’t hook readers if they have no idea why your character feels that way. Even if they know why the character feels afraid, your scene will lack emotional punch without the nuance described above. High-stakes moments in your book will succeed or fail based on readers’ emotional connection with the main character. You build that connection when you reveal what’s going through your character’s head.
On the flip side, don’t tell too much in the heat of the moment. When our fight-or-flight response activates, our rational brains shut down. A character in the grip of overwhelming emotion will have very little capacity for organized thought. Show us what they’re thinking and feeling, but in quieter moments when we — and they — have the mental bandwidth to process it.