Why Every Novel Needs a Sprinkling of Fear

You’d be forgiven for thinking that only horror books should contain an element of fear, but I’m here to challenge that thought by claiming that all books – regardless of genre – need a sprinkling of it.

Why You Need Fear in Your Novel

Fear is a driver. It drives plot, pace, tension, and emotion—which, when you combine those elements, creates the climax of your story. Status quo would suggest that desire is the predominant motivation pushing a hero towards the climax of a story, and sure, it might be. But fear is a secondary motive.

Why?

In most stories the hero wants something: to save the day, to save a loved one, to stop the villain. But having those goals also means the hero has something to lose…the world, their loved one, innocent lives.

Having something to lose – something of value – creates fear. The fear of losing something important will naturally drive your hero onwards.

5 Tricks for Creating Fear

1. Insinuation and Implication

When the Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, I was twelve – not old enough to watch it. But I’d seen the trailers and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Afterall, you didn’t see any monsters in the clips. What you did see was a lot of running, heavy breathing, and twig snapping. 

So I asked my dad (who had seen it), what exactly he’d seen to make it so universally scary. He said, “Well, you don’t see anything.” That made me realize that a reader or viewer’s imagination is FAR superior to any words or clever film trickery. 

One could argue that fear doesn’t exist; it’s an emotion caused by a perceived threat of the danger of pain or harm. In other words, it’s just an idea in someone’s head.

And that’s something we writers can take advantage of. We can insinuate that bad things will happen and that’s enough to send a reader’s mind racing.

2. Use Psychological Fear

The types of fear that are popular tend to cycle. For example, since the early 2010s we’ve seen the rise in popularity of psychological thrillers like Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Girl on The Train (Paula Hawkins). But in the late 70s through to the mid 90s, physiological fear was huge, especially in gory films like the Halloween series, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

How to Create Psychological Fear

At the heart of psychological fear is the emotional state your characters (and therefore your readers) are in. Therefore…

  • Make sure your hero has a fear that the hero, reader, and villain are aware of. The villain can then capitalize on it and make the hero face that fear in order to defeat them. 
  • Remove all possibility of hope for your hero. Make it seem like he or she will lose. That drives up the tension and heightens the fear factor by making your reader assume that losing is inevitable.
  • Make sure your hero is vulnerable. Vulnerability can be a form of foreshadowing; if your hero is in a dangerous situation and all alone, the reader automatically knows something is about to go down. Note: you can also make your hero emotionally vulnerable, which is particularly effective for inner flaws or genres like romance.

3. Use Physiological Fear

This one does what it says on the tin: violence, gore, torture, or anything gruesome. It’s not for everyone nor every genre, but the prospect of injury or maiming will inevitably create a sense of fear for both your hero and your reader.

4. Capitalise on Your Hero’s Emotion by Using the Senses

Fear is an emotion, which is why it’s essential to utilize the senses in your descriptions. Hopefully you’ve read Becca and Angela’s Emotion Thesaurus, which will tell you that fear is a physical reaction heightened by your senses. When you’re afraid, your face turns white, you blink rapidly, your muscles tighten, and beads of sweat run down your back. Your villain should provoke that sort of reaction in your protagonist. If he does, your reader will feel it too. 

Likewise, showing the reader (rather than telling her to be afraid) will also increase the sense of fear she feels:

“Don’t tell me the killer is standing in front of you holding a knife covered in blood. Show me the table where the knife used to sit, and a trail of blood droplets on the floor that finishes at your feet. Let me hear the creak of floorboards or the click of a lock that no one’s had a key to for a decade.” Sacha Black, 13 Steps to Evil – How to Craft a Superbad Villain

5. Withhold Information

Knowing what a monster looks like creates one type of fear, but NOT knowing what’s coming creates something different. Let the reader (and the hero) know something awful is coming, but withhold just enough information so they don’t know what, why, or when. When authors do this it reminds me of the movie technique of making music crescendo into a fever pitch and then dropping to silence. It puts me on edge every time.

No matter your genre, fear is vital. Whether you want to increase tension and pace or create depth for your hero’s motivations, it’s one tool that should be in every writer’s toolbox. These five tips will get you started, but try exploring multiple genres, as well as film, TV, and theatre, where you’ll find plenty of subtle tricks and techniques for crafting fear.

Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now.
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19 Responses to Why Every Novel Needs a Sprinkling of Fear

  1. Adele Marie Park says:

    A wonderful post, Sacha, everyone feels fear in everyday situations.

  2. Love this! Some of the best scary movies and books are the ones where you don’t actually see the threat.

  3. Simone Leigh says:

    As always Sacha, a great post. And I’ll be incorporating its ideas into my latest 😀. Thank you.

  4. Anne Idakwo says:

    Great article. I think using fear in writing resonates with the emphatic side of your readers, and therefore creating a more engaging story.

  5. Tim Seabrook says:

    A great article on how to build fear within a story for both the characters and the readers.

  6. I LOVE fear. I think this is a safe way for readers to experience something and in turn maybe it will help them better deal with difficult events in their own lives.

    I love psychological fears because they stick with a person. And the fear of what isn’t seen is so excellent. We can’t help but fill in the blanks, as does the character, and there are no limits as to what shape it takes or how terrifying the threat is. Great post!

    • Sacha says:

      Thanks Angela, I completely agree on both counts. I especially love psychological fear too, it gives me more tingles than the physical stuff.

  7. Julie Hiner says:

    Great article!!!! I’m deep into 13 Steps right now and loving it. Thanks for sharing with us here!

    • Sacha Black says:

      awwww that both makes me smile and fills me with horror! It’s always nerve wracking knowing someone is reading your book. However, I am thrilled to hear you’re enjoying it and likewise with the article 😀

  8. Sacha,
    This is definitely a keeper post. Thanks so much for sharing!

  9. Fear is such a big motivator, so it’s definitely important to include. I particularly love your suggestions for withholding information. This is why JAWS worked, imo. They originally wanted to show the shark, but they had so many mechanical issues that they ended up not using it, and that’s what made the movie so scary—not knowing where it was or when it would attack. All you knew was that it was really big and it was down there SOMEWHERE. Thanks so much, Sacha!

  10. Sacha Black says:

    Thanks so much for having me on. I think fear is one of those really underused tools in our toolboxes so I’m going to take my own advice and go sprinkle some on my manuscript :p

    Thanks for having me again 😀

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