How do your characters feel fear?

The famous scene from Psycho captures the fear in a woman's soul.
The famous scene from Psycho captures the fear in a woman’s soul.

TO MAKE A SCENE SUSPENSEFUL or scary, show the point-of-view character’s fear, and allow the reader to feel it.

Telling the reader that the character is afraid doesn’t work:

He felt frightened

She was scared

I grew very afraid

He experienced a really terrible emotion of utter fear, a feeling that was indescribably scary.

Instead, “show” the fear. The showing is more visceral than visual, describing the physical effects.

When a human is frightened, lots of things happen to the body:

The person may feel hot or cold, may shiver or sweat.

The heart beats faster, harder, louder. The person may hear or feel their own heart beat in unusual places: in their ears, in their throat.

The breathing changes. Usually it becomes faster and shallower, though for some people it may deepen and slow.

The palms may become damp, the mouth dry, the stomach tight, the throat clogged.

Fear can make a person yawn, though you need to be careful with this so you don’t accidentally suggest boredom.

The skin reacts. There may be goose-pimples (“goosebumps” in American). The little hairs may stand up in some places. Often, there’s an itch, most commonly on the head, though it can occur anywhere, and this itch may be very inconvenient when someone tries hard not to move.

The stomach may clench, or churn, or feel like it’s filled with ice.

Some people feel fear in strange places, e.g. the fillings of their teeth hurt.

During prolonged apprehension, pressure on the bladder build, resulting in an urge to use the loo (“bathroom” in American). In moments of panic, the bladder may open, and in a state of terror, the bowels may loosen.

Simply insert a sentence about a physical symptom, and the reader’s heart will accelerate with the hero’s, and shivers will crawl over their skin just like the heroine’s.

If possible, avoid clichéd phrases, such as “Shivers ran down her spine.”

Here are some phrases you can adapt for your own use:

Fear prickled her scalp.

Her breath stalled.

Fear clenched like a tight first around my chest.

Tendrils of terror curled into her stomach.

Cold sweat trickled down her sides.

His heart thudded louder and louder.

Fear clogged his throat.

My pulse pounded in my throat.

Cold sweat glued the shirt to his back.

Chills chased up my back.

Common sense warned me to stay in my hiding place, but I needed a toilet. Now.

The sight made the back of my neck tingle.

I could hear the blood rushing through my head.

My skull seemed to shrink.

A ball of fear formed in my stomach.

My stomach knotted.

My stomach swelled with fear.

A weight seemed to press on her chest, robbing her of breath.

A thousand ants seemed to crawl over my skin.

You can insert several ‘physical symptom’ sentences into a scary scene. You may want to vary the symptoms, e.g. when she first feels foreboding, her scalp tingled. When she realises there is danger, her stomach tightens and her palms grow wet. When the villain involves her in conversation, her throat is so dry she can’t get a word out. When she’s tied up and she hears the bomb ticking, her stomach contorts, cold sweat soaks her clothes, and her heart thuds as if it was trying to break out of her ribcage.

At the scariest moment, you can cluster two or three visceral effects closely together.

Careful: don’t get carried away. If overused, this technique can become tedious. Although you can use physical symptoms of fear several times in each scary scene, take care not to use them much elsewhere in your novel. If the hero’s heart starts pounding every time a door bangs and if sweat trickles down his spine every time he faces a challenge, he’ll come across as a wimp.

Choose symptoms appropriate to the situation, the character, the desired scariness-level, and the genre – and don’t overdo it. Opening bladders and loosening bowels are fine for the climax of an ultra-scary thriller – but in a Regency romance they’re out of place.

Do you remember an occasion when you were anxious, frightened, panicked, or terrified? Where in your body did you feel the fear? When you think of something scary – dentists, spiders, cliffs, or whatever frightens you – how does your body react to the thoughts? Use your own experience as research for your writing.

Author/editor Rayne Hall provides great advice in Writing Vivid Characters.


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