7 Tips to Adding Fear Into Fiction

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Even if you don’t write horror, you may want to include some fear in your stories.  From fear, we can create hope and relief.  We can also drive people into despair and sadness.  It’s a fascinating jumping point for so many stories.  Yet, one does come off a little depraved if they enjoy the manipulation too much.  Still, we’ve come this far (5.5 sentences) and might as well move on to the advice.

  1. Fear doesn’t always come from gore.  That’s actually disgust.  The fear can come at the beginning because you are surprised by the gore, but it isn’t the main focus.  This may seem like it’s more for movies and shows.  It isn’t because authors add graphic descriptions of violence in their books at times.  Blood being described as it flies from a body and limbs getting hurled into the air like hats at a high school graduation.  Just know that the fear kind of comes and goes in this scenario, so you can’t depend on gore for that emotion.
  2. You can cause a reader to become numb to fear.  If stimulated and kept tense for a long period of time, a person may simply turn off that part of their mind.  It isn’t intentional, but the human body does what it can to reduce stress.  This means, keeping the tension going for too long can result in there being no payoff.  This is the reason why many authors suggest that you create tension in waves.  Add calm and relaxing scenes between the tense ones in order to keep the reader emotionally invested.
  3. Never flat out tell a reader that he or she has to be scared.  They don’t like that.
  4. Have a reason for the fear being in your story.  If you’re writing a romance then repeatedly terrifying your reader won’t help with the plot.  You can have some tense scenes where a touch of fear is involved, but you have to maintain the proper tone for fear to make sense.  It is one of the most powerful emotions that humans have and it has a major impact on tone in a story.  Throwing it in for amusement when it doesn’t match can ruin everything.
  5. Dialogue can be just as important as exposition when it comes to inducing fear.  Think about being told a story in a way that puts you on the edge of your seat.  A character is capable of doing this.  It can be tricky because you may have to depend on adjectives or risk an info dump.  You can’t have them do this with a few quick sentences, but you can’t go on for pages upon pages.  That’s just a story within a story, which can throw readers off.  Beta readers can really come in handy here.
  6. If you can scare yourself then you’re onto something.  Then again, being the author means you’re emotionally invested in the first place.  Don’t take your own sense of fear as proof that you’re doing things perfectly  It’s more that you’re in the right ballpark that you plan on dropping the readers off in.  Unlike them, you know where the story is going, so the fear has an added level of anticipation that can enhance it.  You may miss that you aren’t creating enough tension for a person lacking in your pre-existing knowledge.  As before, beta readers can help here.
  7. Just because Stephen King did it doesn’t mean you should or can do it too.  Fear depends a lot on there being something that a person hasn’t seen.  If you go for an evil clown then you may only scare those with the specific phobia.  Others will roll their eyes and all tension will disappear.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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29 Responses to 7 Tips to Adding Fear Into Fiction

  1. L. Marie says:

    Really helpful tips! Fear is so unpleasant. I wonder if that’s why some authors shy away from it? But a reader can’t help noticing its absence when, given the situation, it should be there. I have read books and watched movies where the characters didn’t show fear. Granted, fear can be challenging to depict, especially if an author wants to avoid the usual knees-knocking approach. But there are so many things that people are afraid of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some authors could avoid it due to the unpleasantness. Either they don’t want to feel it or instill it in others. To be fair, it’s hard to pull off. Once you start saying that a character is afraid, it’s broken. You need to demonstrate it through words and body language, which is a major challenge.

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  2. Very interesting and very helpful. Thank you! Honestly i never had such deep thoughts about this. Michael

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  3. I love this post, and #3 is so important.

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  4. Great post, Charles. I remember reading some books where I was hesitant to turn off the lights. Your tips are great. I’m sharing over on my blog.

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  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Legends of Windemere blog with 7 Tips to Adding Fear Into Fiction

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  6. Pingback: 7 Tips to Adding Fear Into Fiction | Dragons Rule OK. V.M.Sang (author)

  7. V.M.Sang says:

    Thanks for such a helpful post, Charles. Reblogged on Dragons Rule OK and commented, ‘Here are some helpful tips from Charles Yallowitz on adding fear to you writing.’

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  8. Pingback: 7 Tips to Adding Fear Into Fiction — Legends of Windemere – s a gibson

  9. I think your #2 is especially good. Readers can get overloaded or just start to find your tactics repetitive.

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  10. Beautifully written, Charles! I have a soft spot for the horror genre and you hit all the niches that many writers I find overlook. I find it especially tactile to mention that the human body numbs out fear. As a disabled veteran, I agree. It’s how us PTSD vets cope, unfortunately and fortunately!

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  11. Pingback: 7 Tips to Adding Fear Into Fiction – Author Steve Boseley – Half a Loaf of Fiction

  12. “If you can scare yourself then you’re onto something.” I love that line. 🙂

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