Conveying fear on the page

I spent a lot of time last weekend thinking about fear. It started with the 9/11 memorials. Being the morbid creature that I am, I watched the replay of the real-time events of that traumatic day–not once, but twice. I was amazed at how composed the newscasters remained as the world seemed to be collapsing all around us.

Fear was very much on my mind on Saturday night when my sister and I happened to visit a Russian attack submarine, the Scorpion, which is docked next to the Queen Mary in the port of Long Beach. It was amazing to see this relic of the Cold War transformed into a tourist attraction. It has been preserved exactly as it was for the Russian sailors (except, I assume, for the on-board nukes). You can see the torpedo tubes and attack periscope, the cramped quarters, piping, and weaponry, everything that made it yesteryear’s “terror of the deep.”  The sub spawned a lively discussion about which era was scarier–the Cold War, or today’s climate of fear surrounding terrorism. I argued that the Cold War was scarier, mainly because we were facing the possibility of the extinction of the human species with the pushing of a few buttons from vehicles like the Scorpion.

Fear can be found everywhere. Recently I heard about a crime wave in Mobile, Alabama, where I have lots of kin. Robbers follow people home from an ATM, rob them and shoot them in the head. I think those particular criminals have been caught, but nevertheless, some people in my family have gotten very proactive in handling their fear. One of my aunts, a very feminine, genteel southern lady, now has a license to carry. She totes her gun in a designer purse (it has a cunning little pocket designed just for that purpose). Auntie takes lessons at the local shooting range, and woe to the punk who breaks into her house and threatens her or her nine cats.

As writers, it doesn’t matter what type of fear we are trying to convey–we have to “bring it home” to the reader by making it seem real and visceral. In my current WIP I’m struggling to convey a fear that human society as a whole is going to be changed unless our hero–or the villain, depending on how you see him–succeeds in his mission.

In your current WIP, what type of fear are you writing about? World disaster? Danger to a loved one? Female in jeopardy? What types of techniques do you use to make it real for the reader?


7 thoughts on “Conveying fear on the page

  1. “In my current WIP I’m struggling to convey a fear that human society as a whole is going to be changed unless our hero–or the villain, depending on how you see him–succeeds in his mission.”

    It is always a problem to try to get the reader to fear “the big thing.” People will never fear human society changing, but if that change causes something like alienation from one’s children then people will fear the result. Every story is a personal story.

  2. Good post, Kathryn. I think fear is not only for the macro, but the micro. I will be teaching this to about 200 writers this week, how to put fear into every scene. It’s one of the keys of page turning fiction, remembering that fear can be small or large, of the known or the unknown, can go from simple worry to outright fright.

    None of that will matter, though, without full investment in the character on the part of the reader. But once we bond reader and character, the fear factor will make them lifelong friends.

  3. Timely post, Kathryn, in light of 9-11. I remember the fear that permeated from the Cold War. But as apocalyptic as it was, I think the fear of what’s going on today is much more unnerving. The Cold War was rather simple by today’s standards. Back then the enemy was well defined. They wore military uniforms with red stars and ranks on their shoulders, and came from countries with governments and laws. Today’s enemy is faceless. There is no army, no government, no laws. I always chuckle when I read about how much we’re still spending on high tech stealth fighter jets and other multi-billion-dollar weaponry. To fight who? In which direction should we aim our missiles? I never thought I would miss the bad-old-days when we were facing off with the Russians.

    All my novels deal with fear; fear on a global scale and on an interior mental landscape. There’s always the big threat pushing the smaller one: the protagonist’s doubts in her ability to stop the threat in time; the fear of failure. In my current WIP, the only atomic weapon to be developed by the Nazis was secretly hidden away at the end of WWII. Never counted, never cataloged, never documented in today’s arsenal. But after 65 years, it is accidentally found and falls into the hands of a terrorist. This terrorist is not from the Middle East but from Middle America. Just like in real life, the man to fear is the one that can do the same damage that it took a whole army to do in the Cold War.

    I watched a great movie this weekend; the 1997 thriller THE PEACEMAKER staring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. A US Army colonel and a civilian woman supervising him must track down stolen Russian nuclear weapons before they’re used by terrorists. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. In the movie, Clooney says that he’s frightened of a man that wants to by 5 nuclear weapons on the black market. Kidman says that’s not what scares her. She’s terrified of the man who only wants to buy one. Today, our enemy, the one we should fear most, might be one faceless man in the crowd on a mission of hate.

  4. I agree, Timothy, that’s it’s difficult to convey the fear of the “big thing.” I’m focusing on the guy who is trying to complete his mission. As he tries to carry out his plan, murder and mayhem ensues. But if he doesn’t succeed, in his mind, there’s a great risk to humanity. Is this man simply deluded? That’s the question in the mind of the homicide detective, the man’s psychiatrist, and hopefully the reader, as the plot unfolds. Jim, you’re right about the need to bring the fear down to the personal level of character. Over the weekend I was thinking about macro fear (9/11 and the Cold War), as well as one southern lady, armed to the teeth with her cats inside her southern home. All is fear. Joe, I argued for the Cold War, fear-wise, only because of the scale of damage that would ensue if we’d ever really gotten into it. Remember War Games, and the computer illustration of hundreds of missiles going east and west? It would not have been survivable.

  5. Struggling with a WIP where at one point a mother and her two young children are kidnapped, mistreated and locked away by a ruthless nasty. Here is an attempt to convey the mother’s fear.

    Realization struck her body like a plunge into icy water. She struggled to catch her breath.
    Psycho was not trying to hide herself. She spoke freely. About everything. No effort to hide or disguise her appearance. Bragging about her credentials in pharmacology and research.
    All of it forming a trail. A wide trail that the police could follow when the info was shared.
    Rachelle felt light-headed, her vision blurred and she felt nauseous as blackness loomed. She slumped to the floor. Her face, hands and feet were tingling. She was covered in a cold sweat. She couldn’t get enough air. Little Kevin was at her side; his eyes wide and lips trembling. She moaned as a sense of impending doom took hold.
    It wasn’t a question of when the info was shared but if.
    They weren’t being held for release and the opportunity to talk with the police.
    This wasn’t just a prison. This was death row.
    She’s going to kill my babies. She’ll kill us all.

    Tried a number of techniques…perhaps clumsily but attempting to make the reader feel the fear. Efforts include attempt to show response and personal impact physically, mirrored impact on another. suggestions, improvement techniques or trigger for other discussion? thanks

  6. Hi tjc, thanks for sharing! Those paragraphs convey fear very well–nothing scarier than having one’s children at risk. I would only suggest a few tweaks here and there.

  7. I agree that needs to be felt on multiple levels in a book just as emotions are multi-level in real life. We always have the world wide humongous macro fear of things like terrorism, nuclear war, pandemic that lurk back in our subconscious mind and never really surface until something major happens that directly effects our micro life here and now. Added to that under current of fear is the day to day stuff that causes us to live with caution around open flames and sharp edges. Add to that the fear of the relationship stress between characters, the fear physical injury during the chase/fight scene, the threat of imminent death (the public or the character), and the fear of the unknown and we now have a thriller. Quite frightening eh?

    Speaking of fear of the unkown I am staring at this salmon burrito I brought for lunch and suddenly pondering…. was this last nights salmon? Or the leftovers from two weeks ago? It’s like intestinal roullette.

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