Updated May 2023
Writers can suffer from recurring nightmares: you know, the one where the literary agent at the conference laughs at you in front of your friends, or the one where you’re naked at open mic night (or is that just us?). Fear gets down deep in the human consciousness, and if you as a writer aren’t exploiting fear to the utmost in your short stories or novel, then you’re missing a golden opportunity.
Even if you’re not writing in the horror or thriller genre, a healthy dose of fear is essential in your story. Fear creates rounded characters and lots of page-turning tension. Read on as we show you how to scare up a little extra fear in your story.
Writing Technique: Make Your Readers More Afraid
1. Ask yourself: What are your main character’s deepest fears? Dig deep and discover what your characters hate most, what they least want to see happen in their lives, what they can’t bear to lose. Then—go for the jugular and make them face that fear. How will they get by if the worst happens?
2. Key in to emotional fear. Some characters’ greatest fear will be losing a loved one, or discovering a spouse is cheating, or blurting a friend’s secret by accident. Find out what your character is afraid of, emotionally. Then—you knew this was coming—see what happens when that character is given a taste (or a heap) of what he/she fears most.
3. Ratchet up external fears. Along with your character’s emotional fears, consider introducing external elements that cause fear. This could range from serial killers to falling off a bike. Put your character in physical danger in order to keep your readers on the edges of their seats. Sometimes, a brush with death (or an injury) can lead a character to deep epiphanies.
4. Think like a child. You know what kids are afraid of, right? Monsters under the bed. Aliens. Dinosaurs… Fear of the outrageous or not-quite-believable is normal. And if you’re writing in a genre that can bend the rules of reality, be as creative as you like as you manipulate otherworldly beings for your own enjoyment! (Just be sure you check under your desk and in your closet when you’re done.)
5. Mess with our brains. Drop your character into a world that seems to be one thing but is actually something else. You’ll keep your character guessing (as well as your readers), and as you gradually let on that reality is not “real,” the fear level will begin to climb. Will your character get out of the fake world or be trapped there forever?
Fear isn’t just an emotion; it’s an effective tool that can propel your writing to the next level. Be sure that your characters’ sense of fear is balanced with the thing that causes the fear to begin with—audiences tend to hate when you overdo it or lay it on too thick. But most of all, have fun!