How To Scare Your Readers Using Deep Point Of View

I love to get geeky about deep point of view and I’m so excited to be a guest writing coach here. *mittened fist bump* What is Deep Point Of View? It’s a writing technique, a strategy, that removes the perceived distance between readers and characters so readers feel like they’re IN THE STORY, in real time. Deep POV straps a Go-Pro to your main character and takes the reader on an intimate, visceral, emotional journey. You can use deep POV for your entire novel or for key scenes where you’re looking for an emotional gut-punch. 

Take fear, for instance. It’s such a common emotion that it’s sometimes hard to make it real for readers. When I’m critiquing, I find that writers don’t go “deep enough” into fear to really create that emotional punch they’re looking for in key scenes. Have you ever had an editor or crit partner say “go deeper?” Here are some of my best tips on how to dig deeper into fear to really make it work for you. 

You Understand More About Fear Than You Think

Fear is not only horror, terror, or panic. It has many faces. Worry is a form of fear. Perfectionism is a form of fear. Doubt, being shy or timid, having cold feet, agitation, suspicion, concern, phobias, lying/boasting, jealousy, loneliness, anxiety, PTSD – these can all be fueled by varying degrees of fear. (On a sidenote, fear and excitement use the same neural pathways – they FEEL the same.)

You know how fear feels. You’ve been afraid, you’ve reacted poorly when afraid. Everyone has. Get curious about how that felt! 

Get Curious With Your Emotive Memory 

Take a few minutes and think back to a moment when you were afraid. Fear is uncomfortable because it’s supposed to be, so this will have to be an intentional choice on your part. 

Reflect on why you were afraid (what was at stake, what did you risk losing?) and how it felt to be afraid. Where did the fear sit? Did it clench your gut? Constrict your throat? Make it hard to breathe? Were you able to think your way out or did you just react? Were you jumpy? Did you startle easily or remain calm? Relive that experience and get curious about it. Most of the time, the reason for our fear is very individual, can be irrational, is rarely linear, and can be volatile or unstable. How can you make your character’s fear uniquely theirs? 

Fear Involves The Body And The Mind

Overly simplified, fear is an alarm system that warns of danger, and that alarm is connected to other important systems in your brain – thinking and reasoning, emotions, physiology, etc. Fear will shut down systems not deemed necessary to survival (like feeling pain for instance) and amp others up (breathing, heart rate) to allow for a quick response. Learn more about the body language of fear here. Have you considered how you might employ this reality in your fiction? How this could create problems or amplify tension in a particular scene? 

Fear has many uses, but don’t get fixated on being strictly realistic. Real life doesn’t happen in tidy three-act structures. Technically someone in a life-and-death showdown probably isn’t thinking very much at all, but you need the scene to feel like time has slowed for readers, so you use more internal dialogue than would happen in real life. That’s a stylistic choice. 

Fear Must Be Specific And Unique To Each Character

Take bees, for example. We know how helpful they are, but many people fear them for a variety of reasons. Maybe Sally is afraid of them because when she got stung, she cried and her friends laughed at and excluded her. Cindy, on the other hand, is afraid of bees because her mother told her a sting will hurt and her face might swell up and she might have to go to the hospital (and Grandpa died in the hospital). Jamie is afraid of bees because the sound they make is too loud, and loud things aren’t safe. Rich is afraid of bees because the first time he was stung he couldn’t breathe and the next sting might kill him. 

First – notice how each fear is specific and unique to the individual AND shows us a good deal about their character. Sally’s fear is fueling shame, maybe. Cindy’s fear is fueling anxiety. Jamie’s fear is irrational but still has huge stakes for him. Rich’s fear fuels his survival instinct. 

While Rich is the only one with a tangible reason to be afraid of bees, the other children’s fears feel as real and as incapacitating as Rich’s. The stakes aren’t the same though, right? The thinking fueling their fear (the WHY) will be very different and so will the consequences of feeling that fear, which is what deep pov drills down into. Your job is capture that experience of fear for your character in the way that feels real to them, that shows the stakes they’ve attached to that fear.

If you want fear to really grab readers, the fear needs to be specific, needs to have high stakes, and readers have to understand WHY the character is afraid.

Prime The Fear Pump

“Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in.” Stephen King, The Shining

Once fear is already present, even innocuous events can bring it about. How many people shiver when they see a clown or red balloon? For them, that association with Stephen King’s It primes the fear pump with specific imagery.

The abusive husband/father comes home from work and slams doors, kicks toys out of his way, curses at the dog. The family sits down to dinner and the father cracks open a beer and chugs it. He demands another beer and cracks that one open, too.

His family is now primed for a fear response. They see the red flags that will set him off, and experience tells them they’ll be the first targets of his rage. They’ll be hyper-vigilant to a threat, and any small thing will push them into a fear response. They’ll adopt whatever behavior they’ve learned de-escalates the situation, even at great physical or emotional cost.

The father leans over to cut his four-year-old son’s meat, the knife scraping the plate with a wicked screech, and the father curses at the sound. The child winces and begins to cry but stays in his seat, shoulders hunched. Mom stares at her plate and resists the urge to comfort the boy. The father bursts out of his seat and tosses the chair aside. He hasn’t DONE anything to make the boy cry. What are they all afraid of? All kinds of things could be explored in a scene like this from various points of view.

Fear feels like a complex emotion, but it’s not. What makes fear work in fiction is when we take the time to make it personal and give it high stakes. When we prime the character to feel fear through deep point of view, the reader will be on the edge of their seat as well!

Join my free 5 Day Deep Point Of View Challenge on Facebook starting on October 14th. 5 days of lessons and personalized feedback to help you implement deep point of view in your stories!

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Resident Writing Coach

If Lisa had a super-power it would be breaking down complicated concepts into digestible practical steps. Lisa loves helping writers “go deeper” and create emotional connections with readers using deep point of view! Hang out with Lisa on Facebook at Confident Writers where she talks deep point of view.
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This entry was posted in Characters, Emotion, Fear, Point of View, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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Sandy Perlic
Sandy Perlic
1 year ago

Great explanation. Lisa! Thank you.

Lisa Hall-Wilson
1 year ago
Reply to  Sandy Perlic

Awesome. Glad it was helpful.

Traci Kenworth
1 year ago

Great topic! I like how she showed the different reactions to the bee sting!

Lisa Hall-Wilson
1 year ago
Reply to  Traci Kenworth

It just makes it more interesting to read, right. Forces you as a reader to lean into the story more. (I think)

Ingmar Albizu
1 year ago

Great article. Thanks for teaching me how to look at fear from different perspectives. Excellent examples.
I never thought (as obvious as it seems in retrospective) that different characters have different stakes, hence they internalize fear differently.
This will certainly strengthen my writing.

Lisa Hall-Wilson
1 year ago
Reply to  Ingmar Albizu

Yes, the more personal you can make the fear and the stakes attached to it, the more readers lean into the story.

1 year ago

Great to have you here Lisa, posting a double shot of my favorite topics: POV & Fear! Thanks so much for the great food for thought. 🙂

Lisa Hall-Wilson
1 year ago

Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to fly my geek flag about deep point of view.