Running and Writing and Fear

There had been no moon that night, and at 5:30 a.m. on a cold November morning, the sun hadn’t yet graced the horizon with its first rays. Some people might find such darkness unsettling, but running in the early morning before leaving for work was preparation time for me – a good way to get my gray cells ready to meet the challenges of the day.

After a quick cup of coffee and slice of toast, I stepped out of the front door into the black void, looking forward to three-miles through residential neighborhoods that I had run hundreds of times before. So often, in fact, that I was comfortable running in almost complete darkness, aided only by the small circles of light the streetlamps dropped onto the asphalt, punctuating my path, each one providing just enough light to get to the next.

The silence was profound. There were no cars and no whirring air conditioners. Even the birds were asleep. The only sounds were the regular thump-thump of my Sauconys on the pavement and my frosty breaths accompanying the beats.

I heard the dog before I saw him. An explosion of furious barking off to my left split the air and startled me to a dead halt. I could hear his paws slapping the dry leaves as he charged over the lawn, and I knew he was running right at me.

Since I had never encountered any dogs on my morning runs, my first thought was that a mongrel must have wandered into the neighborhood overnight and taken refuge under one of the bushes next to the large house set back from the street.  Maybe I had disturbed his rest and he was going to punish me.

It’s funny, the way your brain reacts under extremely stressful conditions. It’s not like the usual problem-solving process. You know, gosh, there’s a savage dog getting ready to attack me. Maybe I should just sit down here on the curb and write out all my options on how I can defend myself. Then I can prioritize them and choose the best one for me.

No. My brain basically transformed into a mode previously unknown. I didn’t think “fight or flight.” I don’t remember feeling the things you read about when someone is in a dangerous situation, like the hair on the back of my neck going up or my heartbeat racing. I was frozen to the spot, and my singular thought was how to defeat the monster.

The only weapon I was carrying was a handkerchief.

I don’t know much about dogs, so I don’t know what kind he was. But when he came into view, his appearance fully reflected his fury. The street lights glinted off a solid black coat, and he was big. Real big.

When he got to within five or ten feet of me, he abruptly stopped, and we stood there staring at each other. Well, actually I was staring at him. He was barking, snarling, and looking like a human-destroying machine. But he wasn’t moving toward me anymore, so maybe I had a chance after all, and my brain switched back to problem-solving.

None of the options looked particularly good. a) I couldn’t move forward because he was in my way, b) I was afraid to start backing up. He might think I was some kind of prey trying to flee and that would prompt him to attack, or c) The only viable option was to stand still and hope someone would happen by before the beast decided to take matters into his own paws. Not a great alternative, but I wasn’t concerned about a happy experience – just one I would survive.

Then I heard a sound I had never previously associated with comfort. It was the grind of a garage door opener from the house to my left. Since the garage door was perpendicular to the street, I couldn’t see in, but the light shone through the opening as the door lifted. I saw a man step out and look in my direction.

I was trying to find my voice to ask for his help when he called out, “Stop that racket, Killer. Come here.” (He didn’t actually call the dog “Killer.” I just made that up. I don’t remember what the real name was.)

Killer stopped his furious clamor, turned, and obediently trotted back to his master. The man gave me one of those little waves people do when they’re apologetically brushing you off. “Sorry about that,” he called out.

I swallowed the only response I could think of, knowing I would regret the use of those words for the rest of my life, and continued my journey, grateful that I hadn’t been torn to pieces and strewn all over Kirby Road. And there was good news: my heart and lungs got more than a three-mile workout that morning.

EPILOGUE: I found a sturdy little stick that I ran with after that. I also bought a whistle and attached it to the lanyard I wore, ready to fight the monsters with high-pitched sound waves if one of them ever came near me again. I ran those streets many more times and never encountered another dog. (There were a few strange humans, but nothing dangerous.)

After I retired, I didn’t have the need to get up at 5:00 a.m. anymore, so I gave up early morning jogs. And I no longer run on city streets. I prefer the treadmill, the track, or a large, open park near our home.

I think about Killer now and then. I hope he’s well and living inside a fenced yard.

So TKZers: How do you describe fear in your stories? Do your characters faint, run, or stand and fight? What advice would you give authors about how to depict a character’s reaction to danger?

This entry was posted in Writing by Kay DiBianca. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kay DiBianca

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who retired to a life of mystery. She’s the award-winning author of three cozy mysteries, The Watch on the Fencepost, Dead Man’s Watch, and Time After Tyme. Connect with Kay on her website at https://kaydibianca.com.

34 thoughts on “Running and Writing and Fear

  1. Thanks for sharing that extremely interesting story, Kay, told so very well.

    My characters fight. That’s impractical if you are up against a dog.

    I love dogs. All of them. That said, the asshat owner of the one that you encountered needs a lesson in courtesy and responsibility.

    If practicable, I would recommend carrying a can of wasp/hornet spray that streams (not the fogging kind) out to a distance of twenty-five feet. Doggies (and people) don’t like it. Use it and run in the opposite direction. Scooby-Doo will be too busy dealing with the fact that its running lights are temporarily inoperative to bother you.

    Have a great week and many more runs, Kay!

    • Good morning, Joe!

      Good idea about the wasp spray. If I were still running on the streets, I would definitely take your suggestion and have a can of it with me.

      I also love dogs. I realized after the fact that Killer was just being a good guard dog, doing what he was supposed to do. Nothing wrong with that.

      You have a great week, too!

  2. Kay, my heart leapt into my mouth reading this, even though obviously you survived or you wouldn’t be writing this post. 😉 Great job building the suspense.

    In my books most of the time characters choose fight b/c I’ve written it so they have no option of flight.

    Capturing the feeling of fear is hard to do w/o lapsing into cliches like dry mouth, sweaty palms, trembling, heart either stops or hammers in the chest.

    Sometimes fear causes disbelief–this can’t be happening. Or numb paralysis–which you described so well. Or rage–I’m going to kill that [insert appropriate expletive]. Or despair–an atheist character who prays. Or wild random thoughts–I’ll never see my loved ones again.

    The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi offers more options.

    • Good morning, Debbie.

      You offer great descriptions of different reactions people have when placed in what appears to be inevitable disaster. Describing a character’s reaction can help a reader understand them better.

      Glad you brought up the Emotion Thesaurus. It has a wealth of ideas on describing emotion.

      Have a great week!

  3. Ditto on the Emotion Thesaurus. To me, physiological reactions are real, and readers should understand them, so I don’t think of them as cliches–it’s finding words to express them that are the challenge.

    • Good morning, Terry!

      Yes, fear is such a strong emotion that it gives the writer an opportunity to grab the reader by the throat and shake him / her (metaphorically, of course.) A good way to develop the bond between reader and character.

      Another vote for the Emotion Thesaurus.

  4. Foolish owners cause dogs to get a bad rap, but I won’t go there…

    It’s worth it to watch Cesar Milan dog training videos. I don’t know about your specific situation, but his techniques worked for me when a small group of coyotes (3) were approaching me and my dog during an early morning walk at a local desert mountain park. We were walking along the main road that runs through the park when the first coyote dropped in behind us. Then another started approaching from the right, coming through the desert plants. And there was a third farther away.

    I’m not scared of coyotes but I did start to wonder what they were up to because they usually kept to themselves. Were they looking to pick a fight with my dog? Were they thinking my dog was their next meal?

    I wasn’t waiting to find out. I turned, raised a firm hand & pointed a finger at the closest coyote and did that “Tssst” noise that Cesar Milan makes when correcting a dog. They listened and decided they had other things to do and they stopped following us. Thankfully the situation ended on a positive note for all of us.

    I’m not sure how I would describe writing fear since it varies by character. I don’t tend to write characters who faint, although there may be a minor character who would have cause to react that way, for effect in the scene.

    I think in writing fear, the same advice applies as with other topics in writing–don’t over-do it. Overplaying fear in a scene can be just as ineffective as not playing it up enough–probably worse. When it’s overplayed, you’re shouting at the book “I get it ! I get it! Move on!” 😎

    • Good morning, BK.

      Wow. That was quite an experience you had with the coyotes. I’d be very concerned if I saw any kind of animal drop in behind me, and then others join in.

      I get what you’re saying about over-writing. Leave the reader gasping for air, not yawning in boredom. Good point.

      Have a great week!

  5. Kay, you essentially re-wrote the opening of Dean Koontz’s Midnight, only the thing chasing the jogger there is not a dog, but some sort of subhuman creature…and our runner, well, this being Koontz, will never run again.

    Your ending is a much happier one.

    When I teach scene writing, I say the essential emotion is fear, when you consider it on a continuum, from simple worry to outright terror and everything in between. The viewpoint character should have an element of that throughout, because she’s in a “death stakes” confrontation. Otherwise, the reader isn’t going to be worrying enough. You don’t always have to describe the fear, but it should be evident in the character’s actions and dialogue.

    • Good morning, Jim!

      Sorry to hear about Koontz’s jogger. i have a special place in my heart for people who lace up and spend time elevating their heart rate. I don’t think I could ever kill off a runner in one of my books.

      “The essential emotion is fear.” I was thinking about your advice on “death stakes” when I was writing this. If I remember correctly, you’ve said the character has to face death in some form — whether it’s a professional disaster, a personal loss, physical death, etc. Figuring out how to write that in a way the reader feels it is a nice challenge.

  6. Great topic and discussion, Kay, and a wonderfully told story.

    In my younger, less arthritic, days, I used to run. I always distinguished between those dogs who stopped at their property line vs. those who invaded “my space” on the street or country road. I was too foolish to carry a whistle, stick, or animal repellant. I once jogged out a country road, and on the way back to town, two Dobermans ran out on the road between me and home. There was nowhere to go. The owner was not in sight. Fight or flight for me was to begin yelling and “lecturing” the dogs, waving my arms, as I hoped the owner would hear me. The dogs stopped barking and snarling and “obediently” moved onto their property. Needless to say, when I was past them, the next mile was one of my best times ever.

    How do I describe fear in my stories: I use fight or flight and the emotional thesaurus, trying to not use up all the descriptions, and saving some for the next scene with fear.

    I hope all your future runs are safe, and the coming week is a good one!

    • That’s the approach I would take with errant dogs barking and snapping at me when I was out on a walk or run, Steve. Say “No!” and “Go home,” or other terms that their owner might use. Or, if the dog seemed a bit less snarly, talk to them like I would my own pet. That sometimes worked.

      Agree very much about the Emotion Thesaurus. I own both editions for my kindle, but just ordered the 2nd edition in paperback because after years of electronically referencing it, I really want the ease of flipping through a print copy 🙂

    • Good morning, Steve.

      Seeing not one, but two, Dobermans would definitely worry me. You did the right thing to yell at them. BK mentioned there are techniques to handle dogs that I had no idea about.

      In retrospect, I understand that Killer was just protecting his territory. I think my fear was made worse because it was dark and the dog ran toward me. It’s amazing how you can be plodding along thinking about some mundane problem at work and suddenly all your senses are on high alert.

  7. Kay, my heart was in my throat, reading this story of you running city streets in the dark. Stick to the treadmill please. Or jogging in daylight. I don’t want to have to worry about you. 😉

    Like others mentioned, I love the Emotion Thesaurus. We don’t jump straight to fear. It’s a slow build starting with the sense that something is off, something is wrong, then concern, worry, dread, etc. etc. etc.

    • Good morning, Sue!

      You bring up a good point. Set the scene so the reader has that sense that something’s going to happen and it won’t be good. But the reader won’t be able to stop reading.

      I don’t run in the dark anymore. And I stay off the city streets. No use tempting fate, as my mother used to say.

  8. Good morning, Kay! You had me in the grip of your writing with this post. You did a fantastic job of putting us right there with you. I’m so glad there wasn’t a more serious outcome.

    Another vote for the Emotion Thesaurus. I find conveying the fear a character experiences to be a real challenge. However, you showed the way here–make the reader feel what your character is feeling.

    Speaking of fear, I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative distance in cozy mystery versus, say, thrillers. I’m finishing a delightful cozy right now, Silent Bud Deadly, which had well rendered and scary confrontation climax. Like many cozies, it had more narrative distance, with our hero’s feelings told to the reader more often. However, when it came to the confrontation, while there were a few adverbial modifiers such as “frighteningly”, the scene was shown more viscerally, and we felt the fear ourselves because of what Poppy faced. I’d love to if you have any thoughts on how fear is shown / told in cozies

    Great post. Thank you. Have a wonderful day!

    • Good morning, Dale, and thanks for the kind words.

      Good thoughts about cozies. I haven’t read anything by H.Y. Hanna, but I’d like to read one of her books to get the sense of how she handles the climactic scene.

      For me, a cozy is more of an intellectual exercise. There’s a puzzle to be solved and an entertaining group of characters to try to solve it. But then the climax always (at least in my novels) has one of the main characters threatened with death. The light-hearted nature of the book turns dark at that point. Although the reader knows the MC will almost certainly survive, that’s not a guarantee, and I think the reader should feel the fear just like they would in any other book.

      That’s the way I look at it, but cozies range over such a wide area, there must be many different techniques. For example, you and I both admire “The Daughter of Time” which is a serious look at a historical crime. But cozies can also be light-hearted with animals or ghosts helping solve the puzzle. So it’s hard to define one technique that addresses all of them.

      You have a great week too.

    • Cozies tend to have less narrative distance than standard mysteries, just-the-facts procedurals, or thrillers. They are up-close and personal from the amateur sleuth’s viewpoint, but they focus on the lighter emotions because that’s what the readers want.

  9. Am I the only one who got tumbled out of the account by: “Since the garage door was perpendicular to the street, I couldn’t see in…”?

    • Hi JGuenther.

      Thanks for pointing out the perpendicular problem. I was so set on trying to describe the way the garage was situated with respect to the street, that I ignored the fact that readers may not understand what I was saying. And it wasn’t critical to the piece anyway.

      Good feedback. Thank you.

  10. Great piece, Kay, though there are two elements that make no sense to me:
    1. Getting up at 5 a.m.
    2. Jogging

    But I’m glad there was a happy ending for both you and Killer.

    As for expressing fear on the page, there’s clearly no one way to do it, just as there’s no common response. In my own life, my most terrifying moment for physical harm were associated with the fire and rescue service. I found that my response was to become hyper-focused on either fixing the problem or getting out. The shakes and vomiting came after the fact.

    The most sublime fear, though–the one that defies description for me–is the sleeve of fear associated with waiting to hear from the doctor with the test results.

    • Good morning, John.

      Haha! After I retired, 5 a.m. no longer made sense to me either.

      I have rarely come upon a situation where I thought I might experience serious bodily harm or death, but I understand your expression “hyper-focussed.” Everything condenses to one point. It has made me wonder how people (like you in the fire and rescue service) can face danger as part of the job. Do people ever drop their guard because they’ve become accustomed to it?

      The fear of the unknown – always the worst.

  11. Hi Kay…great story. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that if you turn sideways to the dog, you’ll be safer. Completely untested by yours truly, though.

    A nod to JSB: He once told me to read a scene from Koontz’s book Whispers, pages 25-44.

    ~20 pages of fear building like a massive approaching thunderstorm as a woman searched her dark home for an intruder she knew was there.

    At the time, I was writing the scene of a mom in a park convinced her 3 year old daughter had been snatched. The scene ended after 17 pages of Mom frantically running from one end of the park to the other, while envisioning scenes of her own sister’s kidnapping and murder at age 4. Koontz’s example helped me with building that scene.

    By the time I finished with Mom and Nora, the 3 year old, I was scared myself. I really wanted to check in with my own kids and make sure everyone was safe.

    • Good morning, Deb!

      Turning sideways. I never heard that but just googled it. You’re right, although I might not think of it if a dog was charging at me.

      I would definitely not be the woman searching her home knowing there’s an intruder there. I would be out the door or window.

      I can see why writing a scene like a child being snatched would scare the author. That would be about the worst thing imaginable. But I’m still looking forward to your book!

    • Deb, I’m with you about “Whispers,” Koontz’s first big breakout novel. I found it terrifying and absolutely riveting, and thus a very fast read. I remain in awe of that book.

  12. Walking and running are surprisingly dangerous. I’ve nearly been decapitated by a flying hubcap, and I’ve been chased by a lunatic in a car at Duke Hospital. The lunatic just wanted to squish me, not grab the college student. I just dodged him and went on my way. Ah, the days before cellphones.

    You did the right thing with the dog. Never, ever run. Even friendly dogs have a prey drive. Heck, even a golden retriever may mistake you for a tennis ball, and you’ll really be in trouble.

    I kept pepper spray in my pocket. It will work on any mammal, and it fits in the pocket unlike wasp spray.

    I either inherited my dad’s lack of fear when something goes bad, or I developed the coping mechanism from living with my sadistic older brother who fed off fear. I go stone cold and deal with it. Worrying about things beforehand and freaking out afterward are my norm. The lack of fear response is a realistic one even if your character isn’t the action hero in your thriller. But there will be an adrenaline crash afterwards.

    • Hi Marilynn,

      I probably should have carried pepper spray when I was out running on the street. I was lucky that I never experienced any real problems.

      You and John both make a great point about the way different people respond in the moment and the reaction later. Good to remember for those characters who can react quickly, but you still want to show their post-traumatic fear.

  13. Lucky encounter for you, Kay. When I worked in animal control years ago, we were taught that the people who get bitten by dogs are often repeat victims. Their body language screams, “Bite me!”

    When I was a kid, our garage (with our car inside) caught fire. My mother stood frozen in fear. My dad scooped up the car keys, ran to the attached carport, and with flames licking up his shoulders, hopped in our old truck and drove it away. All the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was sure he’d die. I always remember their very different reactions (and mine) when I’m writing scenes where characters face danger.

  14. Hi K.S.,

    You’re right. I was fortunate and I’m grateful for it. That’s a fascinating fact about people being repeat victims. I wonder what it is that dogs sense in someone they bite.

    What a terrible ordeal for a child to experience. I hope everyone came out okay. I can see how that gives you the kind of personal background that can inform your writing.

  15. As someone who was attacked by a dog as a 4 year old, this really hit me. I’m glad you were okay, but I am appalled that all that guy said was “Sorry” like it was no big deal. I’m glad you’re okay, and the whistle is a great idea.

    And thank you and everyone for the kind words about the Emotion Thesaurus. it makes me smile so hard to know this book is still helping you guys. That’s just so awesome!

    • Angela,

      I’m so glad you stopped by! The Emotion Thesaurus was a common thread through many of the comments, so you and Becca should be proud.

      I’m so sorry to hear you were actually attacked by a dog when you were a small child. That has to have been very traumatic.

      Good to see you here at TKZ! Have a great week.

  16. This is a great example of how to show emotion in writing without going over the top (which is easy to do with a big feeling like fear or terror). Like Angela, I’m glad to see The Emotion Thesaurus helping so many authors write their character’s feelings. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for those kind words, Becca. Coming from you, they mean a lot.

      Conveying emotion that the reader will feel is essential in our writing, and the Emotion Thesaurus is a great place to go to hone that ability. Thanks to you and Angela for providing this wonderful tool for the writing community.

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