Fear and Terror

Lisa Burton

Hello again, Gang. Craig with you once more on this Happy Haloween. This is one of my favorite holidays, as if you hadn’t guessed. I happened to draw this slot on the calendar and struggled with what to post.

We’ve had posts about horror, mystery, suspense and more over the years. I even trotted out my old joke on one of them. “How do you write suspense… I’ll tell you later.” Old jokes are still fun. Seriously.

I don’t really expect a lot of traffic today, but I’m going to lace up my boots and share something anyway. (The lovely Lisa Burton might draw a few readers.) This may be the big takeaway here: There is always another way to look at something. Writers should try to exercise this part of the imagination.

While we’ve read what I mentioned above, we haven’t really delved into the other side of this. I’m talking about fear, dread, and terror. You know how to write scary things, suspense, and whatever, but how does that reflect in your characters?

When presented with the terrifying, unsettling, or even a simple jump-scare, how are your characters going to react? Keep in mind that not all characters are the hero. Some are even red-shirts and will fall victim to the big bad. It makes your antagonist scary if something actually happens to an innocent red-shirt.

When we’re put in certain situations, some things naturally happen that can help you relay the feeling to your readers.


• Pacing.

• Lip biting.

• Self hugging.

• A feeling of abandonment, even if they do it to themselves.

• Projecting the worst case scenario.

• Sitting in the dark while their coffee grows cold. Might be a stepping stone into a “Dark Night of the Soul” moment.


• Freezing up.

• Gasping.

• Flight response, or at least a struggle with it.

• A feeling of tension around the ears. This is biological from when our predecessors might have had ears that swivel to pick up sounds.

• A feeling of swelling in the throat area.

• Hyperventilation.

• Sweat. Could be palms, pits, or elsewhere. Consider this followed by chills depending upon weather.

• Shuddering that has nothing to do with temperature.

• An automatic reflex to hold the palms forward. This says, I mean no harm, but also get back.

Terror: (This is fear on steroids)

• A tightening of the anus. You could pick up an olive with that sucker.

• Loss of control over the bladder and/or bowels.

• Fight or flight is no longer a struggle. It springs into action.

• A person might actually faint.

• Uncontrollable sound. Might be a moan, might be a scream. Probably not a rendition of “Baby Shark.”

• A sense of shutting out the entire planet. Only that in front of you matters right now. Could lead to stumbling or falling, because you have laser focus on the problem.

• A heart attack.

• A character might actually shove someone else toward the threat to make an escape. They might step behind someone.

I’m planning out a scene where I have to kill a cute elderly couple, then suck them completely dry. (As one does.) I’m going to choose my POV character, then relay some of these feelings as the Muse moves me when I start drafting it.

I saw the news about the NFL’s Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion. I found the brief lesson about the “fencing response” to be terrifying. Since there isn’t a free use photo available, you’ll have to Google it. (If you can spell his name right) His arms and fingers made these uncontrolled motions and postures. It isn’t really a hard-sell to include this in your terror response kit.

Keep in mind that you have to know your characters and sell their reactions. I’ve spent volumes with one of my heroines as a monster fighter. She probably won’t react the same way a regular person would. Your commando character might be better prepared in these kind of situations. Your sweet elderly couple are doomed.

I will also remind you that this isn’t a checklist. You don’t have to hit the beats I mentioned, they’re just suggestions. I don’t want to read about tightening anus syndrome every other chapter.

I’m writing this ahead of time, but I hope I’ll see you in the comments while enjoying a Reeces Pumpkin and a frosty pumpkin beer of some kind. Do you think some of this could help you get your point across to the readers?

C. S. Boyack

51 thoughts on “Fear and Terror

  1. What a fun list, C.S. Boyack! It’s the perfect reminder of show-don’t-tell, as in why say “he was shocked by it all” when you can simply have him wet his pants, not elaboration needed? Thanks for the ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Hi Craig, people’s reactions in moments of extreme stress vary. I became very calm and calculating when I was in a home invasion a few years ago. I had a gun at my head and my mom to worry about, but everything was very clear and I made sure I was tied up in a way I could get free. I did and I pressed the panic button and summonsed help. Our helper, on the other hand, went into a swoon and had to go to bed for the rest of the day. I went to the school and collected my sons as usual after the security company came and when I got home, I gave a statement to the police (who never caught them). So when I write about extreme stress, I replicate these memories of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Amusing and informative in equal parts, Craig. I hadn’t heard about the response in tension around the ears and I loved the Baby Shark comment! You make a good point about most people’s reactions to a terrifying situation isn’t going to be like that of someone like a Commando who’s had more experience of adrenalin-fuelled situations.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I studied Orson Scott Card’s comments on dread/terror/horror for many weeks last year. (Even wrote about it for SE.) You’re so right; you have to know your characters to write believable reactions to their situations, and the checklist method will not work. Great examples, Craig. (And if we’re voting, my favorite is dread.)

    Happy Halloween!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I always love seeing Lisa pop up. She is perfect for today’s theme. These are all great insights into a character’s response, Craig. But I had to laugh out loud at the olive. 🙂 Thank you for sharing. A new angle to look at a common theme. Kudos to you for the originality!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Stepping into the shoes of the character/s while imagining the scene helps me find the words needed. Your examples are helpful and right on, Craig. And they’re perfect for Halloween! 🦇🎃🦇

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’ve written a number of scenes (particularly in Eventide) that played off these types of emotions. I had several different characters who had to react to the Big Bad. They all encompassed dread, fear, and terror, but each differently. Like you said… you need to know your characters and sell their reactions. Personalities come out even in the most dire circumstances.
    Happy Halloween, Craig!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks, Craig. Your post is going into the “reactions” section of my writer’s digital database on fear. Excellent point “selling” each character’s reaction — great principle to adopt.

    Liked by 2 people

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