Put Your Fears in Fiction


Put Your Fears in Fiction

EVERYONE'S AFRAID OF SOMETHING. Whether it's creepy-crawlies or bumps in the night, slithering snakes or great heights, there's something out there that has your number. Take a moment to think about that thing that makes your heart pound and your palms sweaty, your stomach lurch and your breath stop in your lungs. What's the thing that just can't be reasoned away, the thing that makes you want to run? As uncomfortable as it is to think about, your fears might be the source of your greatest writing, if you can learn to harness their primal power.

We write to make our readers feel things. We want our readers to feel grief and joy and pain and worry. And what better ready-made source of that emotion is your own experience? When you're crafting your next character, think about putting him or her in genuine danger -- and think about giving him/her a danger that you genuinely feel something about. Cover him in spiders or make her walk home alone in the dark, and your writing will take on an extra tension and urgency. Your sentences will get less wordy and more vivid; you'll know where to pause and where to hurry. It's like getting an injection of writing adrenaline to tell the story of your fears.

That's all well and good for creating tension and suspense in your story, but when it really comes down to it, the things we really fear, the deep-down-dark things that make us worry, are usual abstract things. Are we really thinking about boa constrictors all the time? Nah, probably not. But are we worried about not living up to our parents' expectations? Are we afraid of being excluded at school? Do we fear losing someone's love? These are the truly powerful fears that drive great stories, and they're all emotional rather than physical fears. I often have to push my students into remembering this. Thinking it's an inherent source of tension, they'll sometimes throw a bad guy with a gun into a story, or they'll otherwise threaten the character's life. But as readers, without justification, we'll just see that as meaningless violence. What really gets our attention is whether that character might break up with her boyfriend, or whether that character might endanger her friendship with her oldest and truest BFF. That's the stuff of nightmares, far more than these crude physical threats.

So how will you keep us up at night while we're reading your story? And more importantly, how will you make us fear for your character's emotional wellbeing?