Are You Writing with a Fear Filter?

by Guest Blogger | 34 comments

This guest post was written by Brian Rella. Brian is a writer and avid horror fan who recently launched his first book, Monsters & Demons, a book of twisted fairy tales that you can purchase on Amazon. You can also follow Brian on his blog and on Twitter (@Brian_Rella).

When asked why he wrote horror stories, Stephen King once said that he wrote about the things that scared him the most.

Are You Writing with a Fear Filter?

He went on to say, writing horror stories was therapeutic in a way; a method to overcome his own insecurities and phobias.

Isn't that cool? Not only does King entertain us with terrifying tales, he also uses his writing as a way to explore and maybe rid himself of his most deep-rooted fears.

Why You Should Confront What Scares You Most

It's no secret writing is a craft that takes practice to captivate and engage readers. When we write, it’s challenging to get the scenes we imagine onto to the page exactly as we envision them.

But, writing is also difficult on another, more emotional level. Confronting the things that scare us the most is at least as challenging as the craft itself, if not more so.

I felt that latter struggle first hand, when I was writing the short stories for my book Monsters & Demons. In the book I wanted to make every story count. I told my editor each story needed to be a “10”.

When my beta readers and editor told me some of my stories were “pretty good”, I said, “Pretty good? Why just pretty good?” I asked my editor, “Be brutally honest. What’s wrong with my stories?” I wanted to know exactly why my stories were just “pretty good” and not “10’s”.

Most of Us Have a Fear Filter

It turns out I was filtering my writing through my own fears.

Unfortunately, this removed all the suspense and horror from the stories. My plots were predictable, re-used tropes that readers had seen over and over again.

I asked myself some hard questions and dug deep to figure out why my stories were falling short, and here’s what I realized.

The subject matter of what I write, horror and dark fantasy, involves some very disturbing topics. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and macabre can be frightening, sure, but they are not nearly as terrifying as psychological terror at its best.

In my short story, “Harvey” for example, I wrote about a four-year-old boy having nightmares about a menacing clown in his closet (his parents thought they were nightmares anyway).

I have a four-year-old and subconsciously, every time an opportunity arose for my story to take an extraordinarily dark turn, putting my child character in an evil, life-threatening situation, I pulled back and softened the action because of the character's parallel to my own son.

At the time I was writing the story, my son was going through his own battle with nightmares. It sounds obvious, but it was difficult for me to identify the parallel in my mind and then separate my emotions from it.

However, my fear for my own son, and more specifically, the filter I was putting on my fear, was watering down my writing.

How to Go From “Pretty Good” to Truly Frightening

In another story, “Arraziel”, a young girl, Jessie, is stuck in an abusive relationship with her soon-to-be step-father, and the implication is that he is going to sexually abuse her.

That repulsed me as it would any normal person.

Once again, the feedback I was getting on the story was mediocre, and I realized I was toning the story down because of my own disgust with the subject matter. My story was suffering because of it.

It took a long email exchange with my editor for me to deconstruct all of this, but once I acknowledged what I was doing and made a conscious choice to write the stories without my fear filter, my stories went from “pretty good” to creepy and suspenseful—exactly what I was aiming for.

You CAN Break Free and Write Without Fear

How do we break free from our fears and write uninfluenced by our own biases and phobias?

The same way we write everything else: we practice and share. We sit down, put our fingers on the keys, turn the mental filter off, write, and then ship. Send your internal editor to his or her room and face your fears on the page.

Don’t be afraid to write something you, your mother, or your wife might find disturbing. Don’t be afraid of people judging you.

Just let the words flow, raw and pure.

Writing This Way Is Harder Than It Sounds

This is harder than it sounds. When I was polishing the final draft of my stories for Monsters & Demons, I asked myself all these judgmental questions and had doubts about what I wrote.

In the end, I changed a few things, but left most of my really disturbing scenes as they were.

My hope is, my readers won’t be reading “pretty good” stories, they will be reading terrifyingly awesome stories!

Do you think you write with a fear filter? Let us know in the comments section.


Are you writing with a fear filter?

Pick a subject that scares you and take fifteen minutes and write about it. Do not edit. Do not filter. Just let the words flow even when inclined to hit the backspace or delete button to correct spelling errors.

And by the way, there are many topics to choose from that are not typical horror tropes. For example, The Fault In Our Stars is a non-horror genre story where the author, John Green, wrote about a very difficult topic—children with cancer.

When your time is up, please share your work in the comments. And if you share, be sure to leave honest feedback on your fellow writers' pieces… brutally honest feedback!

Happy writing!

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  1. Christine

    Yes, I definitely write — and read — with a fear filter and I always will. I’ve always had an active imagination, especially while I’m sleeping, so I have to be really careful what I fill my mind with. If I don’t watch it, I have nightmares. My mind can put together some fantastic scenarios just like a movie — and the scarier they are the more I remember them after I’m awake.

    One of my worst recurring nightmares is probably also one of my worst fears: I dream I’m in a crowd of people going downward into a long passageway, via stairs or a sloping tunnel (such as I’ve walked through in various subway stations.) But the tunnel curves or gets really dim ahead so none of us can see what’s waiting for us.

    People just keep plodding mindlessly on and disappearing into the dimness (or around the curve) But I stop, wondering about our final destination. Will we topple off the edge or the earth or fall into the flames of hell or…? What fate awaits around that bend and do I really want to find out? What if I find out it’s horrible, but I’ve gone too far to turn back? I panic. NO! I don’t want this! I have to go back before it’s too late.

    So I turn around and try to run the other way, pushing my way against this stream of humanity, making almost no headway. Now I’m feeling, and fighting against, a kind of gravitational pull downwards. I’m frantically struggling, panicked, but I can’t seem to make much headway against this backwards pull. sometimes I start to shout and jerk.

    And right about then I wake up. Thanks be! Does anyone else have dreams like that?

    So I never read thrillers, horror, or supernatural tales. I have enough scary stuff going on in my dreams already; I don’t need any more in my writing or reading.

    • nancy

      Don’t ever go in the Pyramid at Giza unless you really want to live out your nightmare.

    • Pedro Hernandez

      Hey Nancy, would you mind describing to me your experience at the Pyramid in Giza?

    • nancy

      It is as her post describes. You enter at ground level, bend forward to protect your head from the ceiling (I am only 5’2″) and head downhill in increasing humidity. Your path is narrow and you rub shoulders with people next to you. Halfway down, the heat increases, it’s hard to breath, and you think you will never reach the chamber below. But it’s too crowded to turn around. You must stay with the torrent of people heading in your direction and focus totally on controlling the sudden onset of claustrophobia you never knew you had.

    • Reagan Colbert

      If it’s recurring there’s got to be a reason. Maybe God’s trying to tell you something.

    • Christine

      Well, if He is I hope I’ll hear & understand it.

    • Brian Rella

      Sounds terrifying, Christine. I hope you find a way through it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Christine

      I’ve never thought much about it before, except that it’s a crazy dream. but the thought crosses my mind today that this dream is maybe my subconscious response to the passing of time, to aging.

      I’ve often joked to friends that it seems we’re on a conveyor belt of time. There are always new people getting on at the beginning end, crowding the rest of us, pushing us along, and we older ones (60+) are being carried to the drop-off point, slowly and surely. Often painfully, too. Sometimes I find myself wanting to scream, to struggle against this flow, to go back to younger, better days. So maybe this recurring dream simply represents that feeling?

    • Reagan Colbert

      Maybe it does. Maybe you have some fear of that ‘drop-off point’. Maybe the Lord is trying to bring you to him long before you get there.

    • Lauren Hester

      I used to have a recurring dream, especially when I was a kid, that I ran away from home only to be trapped in this weird old house with strange and scary creatures that chased me, like a warped Alice in Wonderland. At the end, I’m always trapped in a room, hiding under a bed before I realize that my dad has come to rescue me.

      Thanks for sharing this, Christine. I actually hadn’t thought about my dream in years until you shared yours. Weird the things that live deep in the recesses of our brains…

    • Christine

      What really amazes me is just how the mind can put together a whole story in your dreams. I suspect some horror authors get their scenes, and maybe even plots, from dream sequences.

  2. nancy

    Aha! Thank you. My writing can crack someone’s skull open like a walnut, but I cannot write about sex with kids in the house. Here’s how I jammed the fear filter and rewrote a simple (boring) conversation in my book:

    She dropped her cooking spoon on the granite countertop and rushed to the kitchen door. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged. “Guess what?”

    “Hmm.” He wrapped his arms around her, slid his hands down her back, and cupped her butt. “You love me?”

    “Guess again.”

    He pulled her abdomen into his. “You want to make love to me?”

    “What is wrong with you? The kids are in the TV room.” She reached
    behind her and removed his hands. “Now be serious. Guess again.”

    “I got nothing.”

    “Well I got a promotion!” She raised her arms in victory.

    “Great!” He hugged her again, warmly and purely. “I’m so proud of you.”
    Then his hands slowly crept south. “How should we celebrate?”

    She pressed her head into this chin and reminded him, “Kiiids!” But when she pushed back on his biceps, her face grew curious. “Hey, what’s happening under your sleeves here?”

    “I told you. DEA lets me use their gym during lunch break.” Okay, that wasn’t true, but it was close. “Their trainer is crazy. Taunts me all the time. At first I told myself that if he made one more crack, I’d quit. But I refused to give him the satisfaction. I toughed
    it out until I earned his respect. Not that his respect is all that important to me, but yours is.”

    “Big muscles aren’t something I think about too much, but this—” she squeezed both arms, “this is hard to ignore. Good for you.”

    Good for me? That wasn’t quite the response he had anticipated. For some women muscles were a huge turn-on. When the thought of one particular woman swept into his mind, he quickly brushed the image away. “So anyhow, tell me about your job.”

    • Reagan Colbert

      Not boring. Real life. Real things and real people are more interesting than made-up villains and monsters

    • Brian Rella

      Agree with Reagan. Nice job, Nancy! Thanks for sharing.

    • nancy

      Thanks, you two. Now that I reread this–the morning after–I realize that you can’t tell it’s a thriller. Maybe I overdid it. How much titillation does a thriller need!

  3. Sandy

    This is exactly the “permission” I needed to forge ahead with my current WIP. My story is extremely sinister, and deals with taboos. I wasn’t sure I could (or wanted to), go to such a dark place. What I am certain of is, I do want to stretch myself, and be able to a write disturbing and uncomfortable story. I want to write without fear of judgement, or my internal critique, or creating work which dies on the page. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    • Brian Rella

      Wonderful Sandy! So glad the post was helpful.

  4. Reagan Colbert

    It took me awhile to grasp this one, because I hate horror books. (Not directly offending Mr. King; he’s a good friend of my personal hero, Jerry B. Jenkins) But despite that, I think writing to help conquer your fears is great. My WIP is actually centered around my irrational fear of the unknown. I made the protagonist exactly like me, and it has helped.
    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” That’s all there should ever be.
    I’m putting that into my novel, too.

    • Brian Rella

      I love the idea of creating a character based on one’s self to conquer fear. Great idea, Reagan.

    • Reagan Colbert

      Thanks, Brian. It makes it easier to develop a real character, because they have faults and fears.
      God bless!

  5. Christina

    See, this is hard because when I think of my fears I think of mediocre things like fear of what’s next, fear of the future. I’ve never felt like fear of monsters or gore has ever really been necessary in my life, I’ve never needed to fear it. I once wrote a story about a girl who saw someone about to jump off a roof and as she ran up amd tried to save this girl she fell off herself, and as she fell it dawned on her that the girl had actualy been her… that’s the closest I’ve ever come to a psychological thriller and even then I did think it was cliched and awkward. But I’m gonna write something about fear, or fearful things, I’m just gonna go for it:

    Standing with your feet hanging over the edge like clothes hung out to dry. Stones fall and crumble below you, the fall looks almost soft, slow and calming. The peace of falling and quitting, of forgetting preserverance and stubborness, the freedom to move on. Falling to escape, falling to forget, falling to end it all. You’d think it would look like an abyss. But behind is what looks barren and pointless. The “opportunities”, oh please. The life you could live, urrghh. These jugged stone, like teeth to most, seem like stepping stones right now, like a ladder to a great height… or steps to a hole to sleep in. Oh, how good a hole to sleep in sounds. The fog that collects below like a blanket is welcoming, the tree tops peeking through are pillows to lay me down for the greatest nap.
    So I look down now. I look down. And I step off. And I glide.

    Soooo, this is gross, but… for ages I’ve been trying to write about depression and suicide, so i guees what I’m trying to do here is justify suicide, which I don’t genuinly believe in, but if my nareator is suicidal then…. this may be waht it looks like…

    • Reagan Colbert

      If you have trouble with writing about this, maybe you aren’t meant to. Don’t compromise your beliefs, Christina.

    • Lauren Hester

      Fear of the future certainly isn’t mediocre, Christina. It’s a fear we all share, because none of us know what’s to come. That’s why writing about it can be so fascinating, and so terrifying. It’s certainly a place to start if you want to write about fear in your work.

      Also, you can write about suicide without compromising your beliefs. You may just need to explore your desire to write about it…where is it coming from? Are you trying to understand why people do it? Or why someone would rather choose suicide when they could seek help? I think you can certainly explore these topics, and it doesn’t make you gross or weird or anything else. You are a human that is curious about a facet of the human condition, and that is ok.

    • Brian Rella

      Very descriptive piece, Christina. I had vertigo reading the first couple of sentences.

      I find sometimes these stories come out of us and we don’t know where they come from or why. It’s a choice we make as writers, whether to explore those places or not. For me, exploring the darkness in my writing was valuable and necessary, despite the creepy, disturbing feelings those stories evoked. You have to decide the right choice for you.

      Thanks for sharing.

  6. Lauren Hester

    I used to think I was a freak for doing this, and never would have mentioned it to anyone EVER, but I sometimes find myself thinking about horrible things that could possibly happen to me, and what I would do if it were true. I’ve since read that this is actually a normal brain function–your brain runs through the worst case scenario and then makes you figure out how you would cope with it.

    Still, I hate that I creep myself out with this. I am driving in my car, and someone runs a red light right in front of me and thank goodness he didn’t hit me, but what if he did? Would the car glance off the front of my vehicle and set me into a spin? Would he T-bone me and set off the airbag? Would I hit a pedestrian inadvertently? Would I know in that split second to cover my head and expect the airbag to explode in my face?

    But most often I terrorize myself with thoughts of a monster under the bed, or an intruder in my house at night. I sleepily open my eyes and see a fleeting shadow, but it wasn’t my partner, and my heart leaps into my throat. Does he have a gun? What does he look like? What does he want? Can I use my bedside lamp as a weapon? And what if its not a person at all but a wraith with a flittering flowing cloak that kind of glows, and is just floating around my house looking for me after its taken the lifeblood of my partner, and probably our dogs too. And then I see it, but I can’t tell if I’m asleep or I’m awake, and it’s floating closer and inexorably closer, and I can see it’s got deep empty eye sockets and a seething maw of a mouth that is always open, strings of other souls caught between its jagged teeth.

    And what if I get up and decide to confront this monster and it vanishes, and I stand by my bed for a moment wondering if I should turn on a light or just go back to sleep and then I feel the touch of light, dry fingers closing around my ankle and then a jerk as it pulls me and I land on my back and scream but there’s no sound, and I luckily catch the edge of the bed and hold on for dear life and then suddenly a light turns on and the world seems a little less surreal, and my partner looks down and me and he asks why I’m screaming and half under the bed at 3am.

    What do I do then?

    • Brian Rella

      What a fantastic imagination, Lauren. You must be a writer 🙂

    • Christine

      My thought exactly! Writers are the perpetual question boxes. You need a well functioning ON/OFF switch, though, so these thoughts don’t plague you at 3am. 🙂 I memorize and quote poems to relax.

    • Lauren Hester

      That’s a great suggestion Christine. I write horror, and once I turn that faucet on it’s hard to shut it off again. Imagination is wonderful, but writers need sleep too!

    • Lauren Hester

      Thanks Brian! I sure like to think so. 🙂

    • Megan Frahn

      I do this too! Great writing and glad I’m not the only one.

  7. Glynis Jolly

    Definitely a great idea, Brian. Strangely, I incorporated this into my first even novel after writing five chapters. However, I didn’t think of doing is for future work. Thanks for the idea.

  8. Megan Frahn

    This actually happened to me and over the years I still can’t
    figure out if it was my imagination, a very vivid dream or something else. I’ve
    written it as a rhyme just for something different.

    My parents had sent me to bed without any dinner,
    For I had been a bit of a sinner.
    What was worse and added to my gloom?
    No food or drink was allowed in my room.
    So I tried my hardest to sleep I really did,
    But it wasn’t as easy as you’d think for a kid.

    I lay in bed tossing and turning.
    As the hours went on I felt a yearning.
    Even though it was late and the parents where
    My stomach had a date as it told me roaring.
    I tipped toed down the hall being wareful not to
    wake Mummy,
    I was careful to keep the deal with my tummy.

    It was dark in the kitchen it sure had a gloom,
    But I didn’t care I wanted to consume.
    I looked at the clock 12.30 it read,
    I really didn’t want to be caught out of bed.
    Needing a plan and needing one fast,
    I grinned to myself as I thought at last.

    Ill pour myself a glass of water I ought.
    If they were to wake I’ll say this is what I sought.
    Moving to the sink, silent as a mouse.
    Almost as sleek as Mums new blouse.
    Reaching for the tap as I grab a red cup of the
    I all of a sudden really had to think.

    In the window in front of thee,
    There was a figure watching me.
    Maybe it was Dad coming home late,
    It could be my first experience with fate.
    I listened hard and my blood ran cold,
    I heard the snoring of the man who loved to scold.

    My eight year old knees began to shake,
    As I was now truly awake.
    The figure lifted a hand and pointed to the front
    And all of a sudden my heart started to soar.
    He must have seen my hope,
    For only he shook head in a nope.

    The door was unlocked, for that I was sure.
    Or maybe that was his lure.
    The moment I moved he did as well,
    I truly believed this was hell.
    We reached the door at the same time,
    But he opened it, his first crime.

    My screams where caught in my throat,
    The same moment I noticed he was wearing a trench
    He didn’t move to enter only watched my face,
    This was the time I felt myself brace.
    His voice was cold when he spoke,
    I almost felt as if I would choke.

    “Lock the doors at night”
    He told me as I jumped with fright.
    Pulling the door slowly shut,
    What kind of man was this nut?
    When it closed he stood there waiting,
    I quickly locked the door knowing he was baiting.

    I held my red cup now feeling the thirst,
    In this moment I wanted to burst.
    I didn’t though I took a deep breath,
    For all I knew this could have been my death.
    I moved away from the door,
    For I wanted no more.

    I awoke in bed with a nasty ache in my neck,
    “Just a dream” I told myself with a check.
    Rolling on my side I glimpse something red,
    Coming from the corner of my bed.
    I sat up slowly afraid of what follows,
    “The red cup” I said with a swallow.



  1. I Am Guest Blogging at The Write Practice This Week | Brian Rella - […] Here’s the link to my post at The Write Practice entitled:  “Are You Writing with a Fear Filter?” […]

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