Hi, everyone! This is a post about how to show fear in writing through the things that the character actually does.
The great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald had a sign over his writing desk that read:
Action is character.
And I think about this all the time.
In the past, I’ve made a list of ways to how to describe fear in writing (along with lists to describe other emotions), and lots of people have found them useful! But action makes the emotion even more vivid…and it’s only through action that a story can move forward.
When a character is anxious or scared, you usually want the readers to be on the edges of their seats, too, and that’s when “show don’t tell” becomes especially important. For example:
Telling: Ella felt terrified of the serial killer on the loose as she went to bed.
Showing: Before Ella went to bed, she double-checked that the doors were locked. Her heart pounded harder as she peered out her back window into the darkness.
There are a lot of things a character might be afraid of, ranging from minor—such as an unpleasant confrontation, or the revelation of an embarrassing secret—to dire. Different actions are appropriate for different fears, of course! And the action a character takes in the face of a danger or threat tells the reader a lot about that character. Does the character freeze? Flee? Prepare to fight? Attack? Pretend the whole thing isn’t even happening?
Here’s my list of “show don’t tell” examples for fear-based actions. Some of these are very small, and some are life-changing. I’m not making any distinction here between rational and irrational fears or actions. Pin it to Pinterest if you think you might want it for future reference!