Writing Fear

Know the differences between 7 levels of fear


You don’t have to be a horror writer to be concerned with fictional characters feeling fear. Characters in all genres have moments where they are frightened, terrified, or panicking, and each stage of intensity has its fairly distinct signs:


When there is no obvious threat, someone can be afraid something bad will happen because the situation reminds them in some superficial ways of a previous situation where they encountered danger. For example, if you have arachnophobia, and you once saw a spider in someone else’s laundry room, you may be extra cautious near washing machines. Or you may eschew Ethiopian restaurants simply because you had a really bad date at one once. A paranoid person will be tense and intently scanning for vindication of their bias.


One step past being paranoid, one can become spooked. Something may eventually confirm for a paranoid person that they are heading toward something scary. For example, you may fear going into deserted houses, and you may get spooked when a piece of plaster suddenly breaks loose from the ceiling and lands inches in front of you with a loud crash. You are unlikely to remind yourself that old, abandoned buildings may have water damage that starts to weaken the plaster, and your footfalls were enough vibration to detach it. You are more likely to freak out at the coincidence. A spooked person has already been on edge, and any variety of sudden occurrences could get them shaking or screaming as if they had encountered real danger when they have not.


This next level of fear comes after a credible threat. Instead of ungrounded paranoia, you have been personally or generally threatened, and you are afraid that someone or something is going to carry through on that threat and hurt you. For example, you might feel fear walking, or even driving, near a place where you know you might meet someone with a vendetta against you. The fear can also be based on your membership in a class of people who have been threatened because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or some other identification. A person afraid is more likely to feel active stress: Increased cardiovascular response, sweating, shaking, tunnel vision, lack of appetite, muscle tension.


Here we get into verifiable danger, but we are just cautious in response, because the danger is not great. There may be some stress response that mimics being afraid, but it is somewhat subdued. For example, you may not fear for your life. You may just fear getting wet (it starts to rain and you have no umbrella). You may just fear embarrassment (you must present research you didn’t do). An apprehensive person may show the initial signs of fear, but she or he may already be on the path to dealing with the fear (calming oneself, distracting oneself, etc.).


When the danger is more physically harmful, we can get a more pronounced reaction in our bodies. The stress responses can now escalate to fight or flight, getting ready to escape or defend. For example, if you are asked to jump across a gap others have achieved, you may feel fright that you will be the exceptional one to fail and fall into the gap to serious injury or death. A person in a fright will back away or stay frozen in place while deciding what to do. Tears and spasms are not unusual at this level of fear.


The conditions for feeling terror most often involve a known threat being carried out. You were afraid your enemy would show up, and there she is, brandishing an axe. You felt that guy was kind of creepy, and now he’s locked you in the room with him. You are surrounded by a gang who all seem to be holding deadly weapons. Water is filling a room you can’t escape, and you are floating mere inches from the ceiling. This is the level that most horror stories and movies want to get you to: You can’t think logically. You are totally reactive.


The transition from terror to all-out panic can be quick or it can take up to a few minutes, depending on how quickly the danger evolves. In a panic, critical thought is out the window, and the idea of defending or compromising is gone. The objective of panic is to escape. Even if there is no place safer to escape to, there is likely for the panicking person to at least start moving, trying to find a way out. Physical coordination may falter (why you often see people stumble when panicking), ability to communicate may wither or disappear entirely, and access to knowledge may be cut off (why people make dumb mistakes when panicking). Think of a panicking character like a trapped animal, who might gnaw off a limb to save its life.

So when you’re writing characters facing fear, be clear about whether the threat is real, whether the situation is really dangerous or not, and what physical and emotional evidence you can give to show how afraid they are.


This is part three of a series of posts on writing about certain emotions. Check out “Writing Anger” and “Writing Love” from previous weeks, and check back next week to read about “Writing Confusion.”

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