Fear, the Ultimate Motivation

(Photo by author)

I love it when a reader tells me one of my books gave them a good scare. Oddly enough, despite having written many dark suspense and gothic novels and stories, I’ve rarely actually set out to frighten readers. The scares in my stories are incidental to their unfolding.

Though, now that I think about it, there was one time I tried my hand at a truly creepy passage, but my editor shot it down. In my first novel, Isabella Moon, I thought it would be very cool for the villain to roll the decapitated head of my heroine’s erstwhile love interest into the kitchen to scare the hell out of her. The image seemed dramatic and seriously creepy to me, but my editor said it went too far. And I knew he was right. So I took it out. (Also, take note. DON’T kill off the love interest unless you’re writing a tragic love story, or you reveal that the love interest was a bad, bad person, and probably deserved to die. It’s almost, but not quite, as bad as killing a fictional dog or cat or rabbit or bird or mouse or even a particularly memorable flea. Kill all the humans you like, but leave the critters alone unless your story’s about the life of a very lovable dog that dies peacefully in its sleep.)

You don’t have to be writing a horror or suspense story to make good use of fear. Fear is a remarkable motivator in both life and fiction. I’m convinced that I write crime stories because I’m the most paranoid person I know.

When we write about things that frighten us, chances are there will be lots of readers who share our fears. We can exploit (terrible word, but I mean it in the nicest way) those fears and redeem ourselves through characters that may suffer for a while, but journey to overcome their fears or terrifying situations.

As humans we all have fears. They don’t have to be big, bloody fears, or deeply felt emotional fears to propel or inspire a story. They can be as small as a spider or as microscopic as damaged chromosomes. Resonance is the important thing.

Here’s a list of fears that immediately spark stories of all sorts for me:

Fear of death.

Fear of being submerged in water.

Fear of my embarrassing secrets being revealed in public.

Fear of losing a child.

Fear of being blackmailed.

Fear of being taken advantage of.

Fear of success.

Fear of being a failure.

Fear of a bug crawling in one’s ear or nose.

Fear of being watched in a lighted house from the darkness outside.

Fear of being pulled over by a fake cop on a lonesome road.

Fear of being mistaken for a criminal.

Fear of home invasion.

Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of snakes in the house.

Fear of roaming packs of dogs.

Fear of being watched through a computer’s camera.

Fear of being kidnapped.

Fear of a child being hurt or being killed by one’s carelessness.

Fear of being judged and found wanting.

Fear of being too happy, because it can’t last.

Fear of one’s eye(s) being gouged out.

Fear of the supernatural.

Fear of random violence.

Fear of cancer.

Fear of loving too much.

Fear of poverty.

Fear of seeing open, bleeding wounds.

Fear of corpses.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of betrayal.

Fear of snarky groups of teenage girls.

Fear of being vulnerable.

Fear of losing a lover.

Fear of losing a friendship.

As you can see from the list, many of these fears are close to being universal for humans. Readers always want to discover things in stories that they can identify with. It’s all about the resonance, and not so much about the shock value.

I’d love for you to add to this list!




This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

23 thoughts on “Fear, the Ultimate Motivation

      • Great additions, TL. How sad for your sister. Talk about trauma! My MIL once accidentally killed a kitten that had climbed into the dryer. She never talked about it.

  1. What a great list. This is the best anti-writer’s block tool I’ve ever seen. There are thousands of unborn story spirits swarming around each entry just waiting to be snatched out of the air.
    Seriously, this is a good reminder of what can make story work. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarence sitting in front of Hannibal’s cell. Was that fear of him or was it really fear of facing her own fears? That was scary.

    • So glad you see some usefulness in it, Brian. I think fear is elemental conflict–and you can’t have a story without conflict.

      Silence of the Lambs is a brilliant example. Layer upon layer of different fears. One that particularly stands out for me is Clarice’s vulnerability in the face of someone who doesn’t hesitate to use her fears against her. The ultimate risk of intimacy in any situation.

  2. I have a strange fear of swarming insects. Ants especially.

    More seriously, I have an awful dread of nuclear war. And this was before North Korea started going nuts. Have had it since a kid. Makes it hard to watch some movies like On The Beach or read books like The Road. But I still do it.

  3. Fear of being raped tops the list for me. Or worse, gang raped. So, of course, the MC in one series is a rape survivor. It’s a tricky subject to write about, though. I never showed the actual act, rather I set the story a few years after the attack and used the emotional, physical, and psychological scars to torment the hero.

    I also don’t like heights. Even looking over the loft railing makes me queasy. This post really resonated with me. I never set out to scare anyone, either, but like you, I grin every time someone tells me I gave them nightmares. In different company that might make us look like horrible people. Writers understand, though.

    • Almost forget my fear of white horses. At four years old I was bitten by a white horse in the kindergarten parking lot. This woman asked if I wanted to pet her horse. My mother asked if he was friendly, and she said yes, all the while neglecting to mention that he’d bitten six other children. I still wear the scar on my arm, and to this day I stay as far away from white horses as possible.

  4. The feeling that rises up in you when the sleeping dog suddenly sits up, growling at the uncurtained window across from you…

    Yes, it’s happened. And I live in a wooded area…

  5. If you want to write fear scenes, study Stephen King. (Memory meme for correct spelling—“Stephen King puts the PHear in us.”) He really understands not only what we fear, but how to layer the right words that push all the internal buttons to make the reader’s fear worse.

    Oh, and a human head won’t roll unless you cut off the nose and ears. Just saying.

  6. Great list! Here’s a few from me:

    Fear of turning on the porch light while I’m standing at the window and seeing a suddenly illuminated face staring at me from the other side of the pane.

    Fear of rinsing my hair in the shower then opening my eyes to see someone there. (Heehee, you can imagine all the practical jokes my husband gets to play on me for that one!)

    Fear of WHAT in the world is kicking the back of my chair?! Seriously, I’m sure it’s just a muscle spasm, but sometimes it feels like a kick.

    Fear of long, bony fingers the color of rot snatching at my ankles when I crawl into bed.

  7. I killed a cat in my most recently completed, unpubbed novel. A very accomplished editor at a well-known large independent told me s/he wanted to see the ms but I had to let the cat live. S/he said s/he would read around those parts because I promised I’d un-kill the cat. The cat is now alive, but I’m afraid the ms is dead. Extreme long shot that the script is still in play with them. I’m expecting the rejection letter soon. A friend of mine who is an editor for a local magazine promised to interview me because I do have a novel coming out in June. I told him this story. I think he intends to label the magazine piece DON’T KILL THE CAT. Sigh.

  8. I have to second the fear of heights and closed-in spaces, especially high-rise elevators. Although I’ve had pets including dogs, I’m afraid of unleashed large dogs.

Comments are closed.