“You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
—Phyllis A. Whitney

Write About What Scares You

Note from Joe: Just a reminder. Today is the last day to sign up for the Story Cartel Course, the eight-week writing and publishing class I’m teaching. You can learn more and sign up here. Thanks!

We all experience fear from time to time. But what about those things that truly terrify us, those situations that may not even ever happen? Our fear may not always be rational, but this deep-rooted emotion is a powerful tension to insert into our writing.

Because fear is not something we enjoy feeling, it is also often uncomfortable to write about—which is what makes the end result fascinating.

Here are some things to keep in mind when writing about fear:

haunted house

Photo by Robb North

Scary Stories

Though there are many common fears that people share, why something scares us and how we react are personal to each of us.

If you choose to write about a fear coming true, something you haven’t experienced or may never face, you have the opportunity to let your imagination run wild. After all, isn’t that a large part of fear—your mind imagining the worst? (Hmm, sounds like a great practice, doesn’t it?)

The challenge is making others who don’t share your fear still feel what you feel.

In order to put your emotion into words and clearly communicate it, tap into your physical senses, your thoughts, and your actions. And now is the time to avoid clichés—they don’t pack the punch you need and won’t cause any reaction in the reader.

Write through the whole scary experience.

I actually did this exercise in a class once and my professor pointed out that I had skipped over the exact moment when my fear came true—and I hadn’t even realized it. Don’t leave out the worst part. It may feel like when you’re watching a horror movie and you know something is coming and all you want to do is shut your eyes. Don’t do it—write through it and make it clear.

The best part of writing about something that scares you is seeing what happens.

As writers, we are challenged to create an interesting conclusion to each of our stories. How does the story of your fear end? How do you react in the situation? Does everything fall apart, or in a surprising twist, do you conquer that fear?

How do you convey fear in your writing?

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes about something you’re afraid of that you haven’t actually experienced. See where the story leads you!

When you’re finished, please share your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please respond to some of the other comments too.

About Melissa Tydell

Melissa Tydell is a freelance writer, content consultant, and blogger who enjoys sharing her love of the written word with others. You can connect with Melissa through her website, blog, or Twitter.

  • The full moon cast shadows on the wet autumn leaves. I drew
    upon my cigarette as I listened to the crunching of leaves under the footfalls
    of a heavy being. They came closer to me, my breath held tight as I listened
    for them to retreat in fear when I stomped my foot on the wooden porch. Yet,
    still, they came closer. I drew deeper on my cigarette, partly due to fear, but
    mostly to finish what I had started before you got closer to me.

    Drawing my cigarette down to the filter I realized you were
    only a few feet from me, I could smell days of sweat and engine grease wafting
    through the damp fall air. I flicked my lit cigarette stub at you and ran for
    the door, but you would have none of that. Catching me by a handful of long
    brunette hair you yanked me back toward you.

    I tried to scream, but the scream caught in my throat for
    fear we would wake the children and they would fear the world as much as I do.
    I kicked at you, my breathing and heart rate escalating until I thought that my
    heart would explode. Still, you held tight to my hair. Your body odor
    infiltrating my nasal passages, the foul smell making me want to puke.

    Bringing my knee up I connected with you below the belt,
    this only served to infuriate you further. Pulling me closer you grabbed me by
    the throat, my feet lifting from the porch and my tears mixing with the falling
    rain. When I opened my mouth to gasp for air you smashed your mouth upon mine
    and gave me the kiss of death, the scent of your bad breath forcing me to puke.
    With one final push upon my throat you ended my life, but I’ll haunt you for
    the rest of yours.

    • Yikes! This IS scary.

    • The anxious waiting in the beginning serves to intensify the sense of fear. Good physical description of crunching wet leaves, full moon, his smell. Good practice!

  • Missaralee

    *Trigger warning, please exercise self-care.*

    “Mom?” You turned off the taps and the hiss of the scalding water was silenced. The faucet gurgled and loudly spat out the remains of your morning shower. You strained to hear her reply above the noise of the shitty old fan. Cold air rushed across your wet skin as you pushed aside the clammy shower curtain. Peering out at the fogged over mirror you started as you caught the reflection your silhouette in its bevelled edges.

    “Mom?” You repeated louder. “I didn’t know you were coming over today, just let me grab my towel.”

    You groped on the wall for your fluffy towel and wrapped it around yourself in one deft movement. Stepping out of the shower, you were surprised at the cold air rushing under the door and chilling your toes. “Ugh, she left the backdoor open, again” you muttered. Reaching for the doorknob you had the same thought you always do when you’re alone in the house: what if someone else is out there?

    You turned off the fan and waited. You listened hard for the squealing of unpracticed steps the old hardwood floor and for the groaning of heavy feet on the back stairs. There really could be someone out there, you told yourself not for the first time. And not for the first time you relived every cat footed search you’d made for intruders, with laughably unimpressive weapon in hand. The time you carried your shoes around like clubs or the time chopsticks seemed like a good choice for impromptu stabbings.

    Remembering the false alarms did nothing to quiet the rhythmic panic of your heart, or the cotton mouthed nerves, or the heightened animal perception of sounds, smells and feelings. There was a door open somewhere, you were sure of it. You hadn’t heard your mother’s truck pull into its usual spot under the bathroom window. Someone else was out there. You scanned the room for a weapon. Not a baseball bat or crowbar was to be found. As you hoisted the plunger you thought wistfully of the furnace room where your sledgehammer, pick axe and wrecking bar were stored. You tightened the knot in your towel before gingerly turning the knob and easing the door open.

    You paused for an eternity, listening for any new sounds, waiting for a reaction to your opening the door. You cupped one hand around your left ear, hoping to improve your hearing range to pick up movements or breathing on the main floor. “It’s probably nothing” you coached yourself. “The sooner you get out there and search the house, the sooner you can go back to drying your hair.”

    But they always say not to confront intruders. A grim thought. Maybe you should be leaping out the second storey window to the driveway and running to the neighbours house? These thoughts did nothing to spur you out into the hall. You just stood there, frozen to the laminate tiles, a puddle growing under your feet. “Get ugly” you urged yourself, “put your game face on, catch them unawares.”

    You pulled the door full open and looked left and right down the hall. The bedrooms at either end were dark. The blackout curtains were doing their job much too well on a brilliant, sunny morning. You had to decide which room you would search first.

    You knew you were trapped whichever way you went. The front window would have been harder to crank open in a hurry, but to get to the back bedroom you would have had to cross the doorway in sight of the rest of the main floor. You considered making a dash for the backdoor. What would you tell the neighbours when you showed up on their doorstep in your towel? You decided to risk the few steps toward the dining room door. If you looked out you would see immediately whether the backdoor was actually open. Maybe you would see your mom in the kitchen putting on the kettle.

    Floor boards creaking maniacally underfoot, you moved painfully slowly to the door and peeked around the frame. The cold air hit you strong in the face. You shuddered as droplets of cold water cascaded from your hair down your shoulders and across your chest. The basement door was open. The winter air was rushing up through the wide open backdoor and down into the basement.

    Your cell phone was in the front bedroom. All you could think of was getting to it, locking yourself in and calling for help. But you stood there, stone still in the doorway, trying to make sense of the open doors. You thought, if you called out for your mom she would be there. You would feel silly, but you would be safe again. You couldn’t form words.
    GO! In a shot of adrenaline, you made yourself back silently down the hallway and into your room. You closed the door, locked the wimpy privacy knob and turned to find your cell. You had forgotten the loose boards next to the night table and a loud shriek erupted as you grabbed your phone.

    Feet on the stairs.
    Boots on the hardwood.
    The indignant squeal of boards in the hall.
    A rough hand rattling the knob.

    You flew over to the bed to the window, ripping at the blackout curtains blocking the latch. Cranking madly at the casement with one hand you pulled at the screen with the other. Oh god, oh god, oh god. The crank slipped in its fitting. The opening was only mere inches wide when shoulder hit hollow core door with a crunch. The opening was almost shoulder width when shoulder crashed into door and it banged angrily against the drywall.

    “Honey, I’m home.” The masculine voice sent fresh waves of terror through you. Hot tears spilled down to mix with your wet hair. Your muscles went lax as you tried to pull yourself up through the casement. Gritty hands grabbed your knee and pulled you back from the window. You smacked your chin on the sill as you fell, biting your tongue. With blood and tears and cold water flooding your face he threw you onto the floor. You couldn’t scream.

    The cruel look on his face took the fight from your limbs. You looked away from him, and saw your pick axe leaning against the wall next to the splintered door. He followed your look and grinned broadly. Pinning your arms under his knees, he reached back and grabbed up your tool.
    “Found this beauty in the basement” he told you. He raised it above his head two handed and brought it down hard. You found your voice as the wood next to your head splintered. As you screamed and screamed, he had to give up on yanking the tool back out of the floor and instead covered your mouth with his greasy hands. The gasoline and beef jerky smell made you gag as you stared at him wild eyed. A soot streaked bandana held his oily hair back from his face, but long, ratty tendrils escaped and dragged the bare skin at your neck.
    “We won’t have any fun if you go on screaming like that” he said to you tracing one hand down to the knot on your towel. New tears stung the corners of your eyes. You knew what came next.

    • Maybe, just maybe, the balance to be struck in writing “the scariest part, which comes next”, might be to describe the horror, the humiliation, the pain and rage and helplessness it would visit on the victim’s mind and body, without being physically explicit. Not that that would necessarily make it any easier. Just a thought. I see a good deal of courage in what you’ve already written.

      • Missaralee

        Thank you John. I’m still working on this; it seems important somehow to finish it, to show the root of the horror and dehumanization of the fear.

  • His skull made a sucking noise as I lifted his little body from the concrete. 5 months ago he learned to walk. Yesterday he learned to open the door to the apartment. Today he discovered the stairs.

    • That just tore my heart out.

      • I know. It’s not short by design but rather because I couldn’t think about it anymore.

    • Yuck! I love it! LOL

    • Carol Kalmes

      Every parents nightmare! Great description.

    • Patrick Marchand

      Yikes

    • You got so much into those four sentences. The skull making the sucking noise is the most horrifying to me.

    • catmorrell

      Shoot, my heart is pounding. This is incredible writing.

    • WOW! So short and yet so much said!! Awesome!

  • “Little Perry danced.” The words of the gloating old-school police detective, as quoted by Capote in his saga of Smith and Hickock, their horrendous crimes, apprehension, conviction, and execution at the end of ropes furnished by the state of Kansas — those words rang hollowly, over and over in his mind as he lay bound, gagged, and staring at the coiled length of rope with the distinctively-fashioned noose at its end, feeling every bump in this old road in the bed of the diesel-powered dualie truck thrusting its rattling growl into the blackest night he had ever seen, bearing them further from the city and into the quiet, baleful rural countryside he had so loved as a child. He re-lived the bright, too-bright headlights coming up behind, then around him, the dualie veering to block the road, Brodie on him in a flash breaking the window with a baseball bat and hauling him out, his yells and screams going either unheard or ignored in the city this town had become. Now he rode to the end, all of it happening in such an old-fashioned way, appropriate, he thought insanely, to the throw-back most of his life had been.

    “Little Perry danced,” in the imagined soft, dry tones of the hardened law-enforcement professional. He mournfully asked himself why he had forced himself, thirty years earlier, to finish reading that particular book.

    ————————————

    The place was some woods he didn’t recognize; he no longer had the slightest idea where he was. His old schoolmate fireman-carried him, struggling futilely (in an odd sort of intimacy he could smell the whiskey on Brodie’s breath and feel his warmth) to some type of small wooden platform — he thought of the crude wooden tables used to clean river-fish when he was a boy — and made him stand on it, the noose bumping him in the back of the head. Brodie climbed up and slipped it around his neck. It felt as if there were no slack at all. Brodie tugged the gag from his mouth, stepped down backwards, drew a flashlight and a large pistol from different pockets of his coveralls. “And now I’ll hear you beg for your sorry ree-tard life, I’ll hear your apology to the GOOD people of this town, and I’ll hear ya ask Jesus to save your slimy QUEER little ree-tard soul before you go to meet Him.”

    He had always hoped he could show courage in the face of such a death — the possibility had occurred to him before; but it was no use. His legs shook and quivered with the aggravated spasticity of his terror. He could hear his own breath jigging and jagging, in and out. He was acutely aware of his sphincter with a kind of sensuality turned wrong-side out.

    And then he found his voice, and in the moment’s desperation and acceptance opened his mouth and uttered the most hateful words he had ever used to another human being. Brodie yelled with the rage of a gored bull and kicked the table over and

    the ROPE takes his NECK whatamIgonnaDO Mamma I JERK and can’t find the FLOOR my FEET GO and PANICPANICPANIC and there’s no HELP Daddy why

    • Missaralee

      I missed the section past the cut the first time I read this. The helplessness here is so strong. He seems calm, resigned almost until the rope is around his neck and he’s face to face with his tormentor. His thoughts at the end are haunting.

  • Patrick Marchand

    The cold white walls where all Sergo could see when he lifted his head from his reading and after a deep sigh, he closed his holobook and got up, slowly stretching his limbs at the same time. Activating his grav-boots he then proceeded to the kitchen and made himself the same old simili-ham sandwich with simili-mayonaise and the two last pieces of real bread, wich he then labouriously managed to swallow.

    « Computer, he asked, how far are we from our destination? »

    « Only a 100 light years to go, sir. » The stark female voice said.

    « Sure, only a hundred, thats easy for you to say.. »
    He rolled his eyes and thought about his mission, as the last surviving human, it was his duty to bring life bearing ship safely to a suitable exoplanet, for 30 years now he had been roaming the halls of his ship, performing the necessary repairs, checking the coordinates and entertaining that cold calculating computer, duties wich had been increasingly hopeless ever since the experimental hyperdrive had broken down. Why, oh why, had he been the one stuck with this duty, in retrospect, he would of preferred to have burned to a crisp like the rest of Earth when that big meteorite hit it, even death would of been better than this non life. Too bored to stay up, too bored too sleep, Selgo spent the remainder of the day just sitting on the ground, starring at the flicker of the ships lights on the cold white walls.

  • I wrote about a scary car accident our family was in 7 years ago when I fell asleep at the wheel on the highway.

  • amrit

    hi
    everyone , this is amrit…i have not met anything scary but i
    experienced this accident on a highway and as of now its the most
    scariest thing ever….and the alignment of the text is not proper…i
    donot know how to fix it….it is difficult to edit line by line

    It was the night of
    Saturday. At around 11 pm, we two friends were walking to our home from the
    movie theatre. The streets were illuminated by the street lights, helping no
    one or rather some occasional high-speeding cars. Shutters had been put on all
    shops. The otherwise peaceful atmosphere was disturbed, not by the often busy
    and chattering humans, but by a few barking stray dogs. We were walking down
    the foot path, muttering about the movie,
    reviewing the flaws and the awesomeness of the it at the same time, disturbing
    the peace of the silent road and gaining the attention of the not-so-busy dogs.
    The flaws of the movie were mostly the point of discussion. But the reality was
    none of us was interested in that discussion. It was only initiated to keep us
    occupied, since it was a two miles way home from the theatre. After talking
    continuously for about most of the time and then realizing that we are close to
    home, our conversation came to a standstill. Walking two miles with a quick
    pace had got our nasal system choking. We were attempting to inhale all the
    fresh air around us, making a huffing noise and weakening our lungs at the same
    time. The road ahead was going more darker as that part did not have enough
    lights to make everything look bright. That was it what I remember before that
    terrible accident.

    A sudden shrill
    voice reached our ears breaking the soothing silence of the night. A fraction
    of seconds later, a white car dashed the barricade from the opposite road,
    jumped over it, giving us a frightening enough scene to remember for the rest
    of our life, and came to a sudden halt. The front portion of the car were
    severely damaged. Smoke was rising from it. It seemed that one of the tires had
    been punctured. All this happened in just about a matter of seconds. We stood
    there, speechless not knowing what to do, trying to recover from the shock we
    just witnessed. Pacifying our fast beating hearts we slowly went near to car.
    It was an Audi. The blood on the front
    glass of the car was obvious. We stood there, in the middle of the road,
    stiffened like a rock. It did not took
    us long to see a head lying on the steering wheel.

    A person came out
    from the back seat. He was not that much injured, but nevertheless shocked by
    the mishap that had occurred not so long ago. He saw us and turned his head to
    look at the person in the driver’s seat. Quickly he opened the damaged door of the
    car and tried to remove the face from the steering. Meanwhile, a group of
    workers had gathered around the scene of accident, who quickly helped him to
    remove the person from the car. There was also another man in the back seat of
    the car, who seemed to be quite right, but one would have said he was also in
    quiet a bit of pain. But all the attention was on the man in the front seat.
    Luckily, he was breathing, but his head had been hit and blood was oozing out.
    Some workers stopped an auto and I believed they took to some hospital,
    accompanied the less injured man. The left out man was just sitting on the car
    and was making some calls. Moments later, we broke from the few people that
    have gathered and made our way home.

    Turning back, we
    took a last glimpse of the fateful place and suddenly, everything became
    crystal clear. It appeared as if time had turned its direction, taking our
    minds a few minutes back. The car was coming at a fast pace. At one point where
    the street lights were faint and dull, workers were digging the streets for a
    reason I did not know of. Having seen them suddenly the driver lost control and
    turned the steering wheel and ran over the barricade without much thinking.
    Hence, the accident. Having seen it through our mind, we both came back to our
    present state. For the last time we glanced at the white Audi. It was one of the incidents which shook my very heart and
    I wish I would have never been a part of it.

  • Salad (alias, Carol)

    A POSSUM ON MY ROOF?

    I was alone. I wake up to strange sounds on my bedroom roof. I glance at the clock, 2:15 AM. Could it be a possum? Funny, it sounds more like someone walking on the roof. My security lights flash on, and after a short time turn off, then on again. Sitting up, I creep from the bed and stand listening in the middle of the room.

    My heart thumps.

    I hear the roof tiles clinking as someone tries to lift them off. My heart races faster, I tremble. Can they get in? Grabbing my cell phone, I dial emergency, my voice almost hysterical but soft I ask for the police. Emergency asks a few questions and tries to calm me down while I wait for the police to arrive.

    A short time later, the walking sounds stop and the noise from the tiles falls silent. Emergency keeps talking to me. Then there is a banging, loud and hard on
    the front door and shouts of ‘Police.’
    Salad (alias, Carol)

    ‘Oh God thank you.’ I tear down to the front door. A policewoman stand there dressed like Arnie Schwarzenegger. Two squad cars pull up and Police run around the back and the sides of the house and they also search inside for any intruders. They don’t find anyone so they leave. They say it must have been a possum, but I know the sounds of possums on my roof…

  • Steve Stretton

    One fear that haunts me at the moment is that one day I will end up homeless, penniless, blind and isolated.

    John woke with a start. What was it? Slowly he sat up, listening intently he tried to make out the sounds. He could feel the sun burning down on him but could see nothing. “Oh God, it’s happened, I’m blind. Now what do I do?” He spoke to no-one in particular. A voice nearby spoke, “What’s the matter old man, can’t you see anything?”

    “Nothing, how do I get home. I can’t see to take the train. I had a great night out, but missed the last train and had to settle for this bench to get some sleep. What on earth do I do now?”

    “Take it easy, we’ll call an ambulance.”

    “How can I take it easy, I suddenly can’t see, I live alone with no immediate family. How do I cope with this? I’m too old to learn braille or get a guide dog. I was advised this could happen if the bullet fragment shifted I but didn’t want to believe them.”

    The ambulance soon arrived. He was helped onto the stretcher and placed in the back of the vehicle. “Now what?” he called out. “My greatest fear has happened, how do I manage now?” There was no answer as the they sped off.

  • CYE

    I suppose I’m afraid of dying alone.

    Her house was empty, cold and quiet. The only sounds came from the squeaks
    of barren wood floor panels and Robins in the yard- an insensitive reminder that even they can find love. Frigid air drafted through the cracks in the floor, grabbing her ankles; her only semblance of touch. And the house, much like her heart, was worn down, abandoned and yearning for man’s care.

    In her younger days, the desolation was manageable; the hope for a better future propelled her onward and kept her dreams alive. Despite efforts to look within and recognize her self-worth, it never felt meaningful enough. She waited for the perfect man her entire life. Pushed great men away in hopes of someone who would fill her void. Her waiting turned into isolation, and over time she became a recluse. Seeing friends and family move on with their lives, bring children into the world—the smiles, the laughter, the love—was too hard to observe when none of it was her own. And here, now, there is nothing to show for it, but a house, not a home, with cold air from below, trying to pull her to her grave.

    • Good writing! I especially like “Her waiting turned into isolation” and “Seeing friends and family move on with their lives . . . was too hard to observe when none of it was her own”.

  • Kathleen Moran

    Hey guys! I’m kinda new to this community and probably a lot younger than you guys but lately I’ve become really drawn to writing and this place seems like a great opportunity to learn from other more talented and seasoned writers.

    I stood directly in front of the looming beast. It purred softly as its arched scales slowly slid over one another. People, unaware of the danger the faced, were riding on the back of this feral creature. Sure, right now it was calm but who knew when it would snap? Tons of hulking metal is not something to be trusted. I cringe every time an unsuspecting victim walks over the mouth of the beast, praying that it doesn’t try to take a nip at an unsuspecting passenger’s foot. If you’re wearing long pants or have an untied shoe that only makes you more tantalizing to the beast. Once it grabs onto a loose item of clothing, its only a matter of seconds before your whole leg is devoured by its metal jaws of death. And who knows where it’ll go from there? Maybe the beast will decide that it has a preference for human flesh, not WD-40. Once you’re already lying there on the ground helpless, gushing blood from what is left of your leg, it might take the opportunity to drag you headfirst into its jaws already stained red from the nibble it took of your leg and-
    I was interrupted from my morbid thoughts by a sharp ring from my cellphone.
    “Hello?” I answered.
    “I just wanted to make sure you’re still coming… you are still coming right?”
    “Of course, of course I’m still coming. You know I wouldn’t ditch you like that. I just, uh, hit some traffic coming up. I’ll be there in five minutes. I promise.”
    “Ok. I really need you here.”
    I hung up. I really needed to get the second floor. I surveyed my surroundings, searching for some way to the second floor without setting foot on that…. thing. Not a single flight of stairs were in sight.
    I took a deep breath. He so owed me big time for this. Seeing no other alternative, I tentatively placed my foot on that wretched thing and prayed to god the beast wasn’t hungry for lunch.

  • George McNeese

    I don’t have a story, but I will share a dream that correlates.
    I had a dream where I was awake, but not awake, during a surgical procedure. In my dream, the nurse drugged me with some kind of nerve de-sensitizer. I thought the nurse usually gives a sedative to help relax the patient before an operation. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t hear myself. I tried to lift arms; it felt like weights tied down to my wrists.I felt immobilized.
    Then, the nurse wheeled me out of my room to the operating room. I felt the burst of cold air from my toes to the crown of my head. It was constant trhoughtout the hallways. The doors flung open as the nurse pushed my bed into the opeating room. I shut my eyes from the glare of halogen bulbs overhead. Then, a real doctor rolled a coffee table beside me. I saw a line of tools laid sraight. They looked sharp; they gleamed. My throat started to become dry. I felt the hairs of my arms stand upright. I struggled to lift my head so I could hear the doctors’ conference, not that I could hear them anyway. A doctor draped in peach scrubs approached me. He said his name was Dr. Ballastine. He sounded muffled, but nodded yes. He gestured the procedure I was about to undertake. The gestures were slow and methodical; enough to where I could understand what he was saying without speaking. Again, I nodded. Then, he asked if I had questions. I still couldn’t speak, so I shook my head. Ballastine nodded and gave me some nitrous oxide to put me to sleep.

    • Wow, your dream makes a GOOD story! The sense of powerlessness is a large part of the terror as I see it.

      • George McNeese

        Thank you.

  • 2014

    A friend and I saw our teacher’s butt crack when he bent over to pick something up. We have a permanent scar on our minds now.

    • Jay

      What how dare you I am hurt….

      • K & J

        You should be you are disgusting and very fat.