This week: Showing FearEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter contains tips conveying tension and fear to the reader.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
~ H.P. Lovecraft
“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”
~ Andre Gide
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
~ T.S. Eliot
Reaching the Reader
A Newsletter reader wrote to suggest a topic for the newsletter:
Liz Butcher ~Away Until March~ wrote:
I was wondering if you could take a look at how to effectively convey tension and fear to the reader? I often worry that what I see in my head won't transfer effectively to the page.
All of us want our readers to be affected when reading our stories, but using the written word to instill emotion, especially fear, in the reader isn’t easy.
Below are some tips and examples for getting tension and fear across to the reader.
Tips to Instill Fear
Set Up the Danger
By foreshadowing the fact that something bad is “out there” you’ll increase tension and anticipation. A few of the ways you can do this are by:
~ Have the characters discover a dead or injured victim or discuss one that appears “offstage”
~ Show the murder of a secondary character
~ Use dialog to introduce the legend of a monster/killer or a haunted place
~ Use dialog or backstory (in inner thoughts) to introduce previous murders or disappearances
To enhance the feeling of imminent danger, it’s often good to make the setting creepy. A few of the ways you can do this are by:
~ Make the time night or sunset
~ Use weather to make the setting seem unpredictable, like a storm, strong wind, uncomfortable humidity, fog, or snow.
~ Use a setting that’s innately frightening, like a cemetery or an abandoned house
~ Use a normal setting, but add eerie touches, like in a restaurant: the red flowers on the table had withered, their tiny petals littering the tablecloth like drops of blood.
Describe the Killer/Monster
This can be the funnest and most creative part!
~ Use all the senses to describe how the person/creature sounds and/or smells. You can whet the reader’s appetite by describing only the smell or sounds at first, and wait until later to describe actual visuals.
~ Describe how the person/creature looks and moves
~ You don’t have to be gory with your description, as in this excerpt from Snowblind by Christopher Goldman:
His gaze had shifted. Isaac saw that Jake wasn’t looking at him anymore but staring past him, at the window, and the terror blooming on his face made Isaac spin toward the window just in time to see the blue-white figures rushing through the storm, long arms reaching forward, long fingers and hands and forearms sliding through the screen as if it weren’t there at all, sifting through in a spray of ice crystals and shadows.
Frozen fingers clutched at him, cut his skin, turned his bones to rigid ice, and then they pulled. Isaac hit the screen face-first, his arms coming after. His back scraped the underside of the open window and he flailed his arms, trying to grab hold. A hand grabbed his ankle and only then did he hear the screaming. His own voice, and his brother’s.
~ You can be as gory as you want, as in this excerpt from Cabal by Clive Barker:
There was no sound as the hooks, razor sharp, slit his skin, but blood began to flow instantly, down his neck and arms. The expression on his face didn’t change, it merely intensified: a mask in which comic muse and tragic were united. Then, fingers spread to either side of his face, he steadily drew the razor hooks down the line of his jaw. He had a surgeon’s precision. The wounds opened with symmetry, until the twin hooks met at his chin.
Only then did he drop one hand to his side, blood dripping from hook and wrist, the other moving across his face to seek the flap of skin his work had opened
“You want to see?” he said again.
Boone murmured: “Don’t.”
It went unheard. With a sharp, upward jerk Narcisse detached the mask of skin from the muscle beneath, uncovering his true face.
Show the Reaction of the Character
The most important part!
~ Use dialog or inner thoughts to “tell” the character’s surprise, nervousness, or fear, as in this excerpt from Dreamcatcher by Stephen King:
“We're not running,” Jonesy said grimly. “This is our place, and we're not running.” Which sounded noble but left out at least one aspect of the situation: he was mostly just afraid the thing that was now in the toilet might be able to run faster than they could. Or squiggle faster. Or something. Clips from a hundred horror films — Parasite, Alien, They Came from Within — ran through his mind at super-speed. Carla wouldn't go to the movies with him when one of those was playing, and she made him go downstairs and use the TV in his study when he brought them home on tape. But one of those movies — something he'd seen in one of them —just might save their lives.
~ Use physical reactions to “show” the characters fear, as in this excerpt from Relic by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child:
Movement registered in her peripheral vision. Limbs frozen, she glanced hesitatingly to the right. A shadow—black against black—was gliding stealthily toward her, moving with an inky sinuousness over the display cases and grinning artifacts.
With a speed born of horror, she shot down the passage. She felt, more than saw, the walls of the passage roll back and widen about her. Then she saw twin slits of vertical light ahead, outlining a large double doorway. Without slackening her pace, she threw herself against it. The doors flew back, and something on the far side clattered. Dim light rushed in—the subdued red light of a museum at night. Cool air moved across her cheek.
Weeping now, she slammed the doors closed and leaned against them, eyes shut, forehead pressed against the cold metal, sobbing, fighting to catch her breath.
For sending me a great topic suggestion that I used in a Newsletter, Liz Butcher ~Away Until March~ received a Merit Badge! I have other topics sent by readers I’ll be using in the future --- please feel free to send me one of your own. If I decide to use it, you'll get a Merit Badge.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Escalate Like Gamers" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Vampyr14 writes: I don't game, but the idea of constantly throwing obstacles in my characters' way is not a new one. I like your examples a lot!
Thanks! It was a lot of fun thinking up game ideas.
9 years whew! writes: I love the way your format your letters. It intrigues me to read. I don't really write horror or scary, but I can apply what you write to any story I am writing. Escalation is a part of the process of writing. Some call it by other names, but it's a pre-requisite to having a great story over a story.
Every genre can benefit from putting increasingly difficult conflicts in front of their characters—even romance! Thanks so much for your supportive comments. They mean a lot.
Loreli writes: I liked your reference to gaming. It is a concept I enjoy doing.
My favourite games are the Final Fantasy series from Squaresoft/Squarenix.
They hold two other kinds of villians. No end boss in those games has fewer than 2 different forms to defeat.
"Oh, you got my health down halfway? Let me change forms so I am immune to everything you have been doing"
And my other favourite that I have seen in computer/console games as well as paper and pencil games. We call them "load bearing bosses"
"You just defeated me, now the tower/city/temple you were fighting me in will immediately start to collapse. You managed to kill the ONLY THING that was holding the bricks together"
Haha! I love the idea of the load-bearing bosses. That’s sneaky! Thanks for replying to the newsletter.
Iritegud writes: Thank you for featuring my "Something's Under the House" . I received a very glowing, comprehensive review for it.
You’re welcome, Dan. Your writing is always a pleasure to read and promote.
BIG BAD WOLF submits "Dead Rising: Your Story" and writes: Try to save hostages being held by a crazed madman, all while trying to fend off zombies.
That sounds scary! Thanks for writing to the newsletter!
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