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!