Senses and Sensibility

It's no secret that everyone has a physical response to fear. For the mystery/suspense/thriller author, peppering in several senses heightens the reader's experience. By writing what the body experiences in moments of terror, we can show what's going on in our character's head and avoid telling our audience the emotion.

Nearly all our senses react to strong stimuli like someone threatening us with a weapon. If the protagonist has sweaty hands, a dry mouth, a rapid heartbeat or chills up and down his spine, the reader recognizes these feelings from his own moments of fear.

This works fine in a point of view character, but what if the POV character isn't the one we want to portray as afraid? Then we add the visible cues of fear. We might see the frightened person tremble or widen their eyes. We could hear them gasp or scream or maybe their voice rises to a higher pitch. If we are holding one of their hands, we'd feel it trembling. Some say they smell fear, although I think that's figurative.

Using these techniques and building them to a fevered pitch can create wonderful tension and panic for your reader. And in our line of work, that's what it's all about. When a reader or reviewer says they were terrified during part of my story, I know I've done my job.

Comments

Marcelle Dubé said…
Good post, Wynter. You're right about using senses, both felt and observed, to heighten the sense of fear. As for the scent of fear, I always think of it as a rank, sweaty smell--like the stink of stress only worse.
Toni Anderson said…
Rancid sweat sort of smell :)
I love using the senses. Most writers are biased toward being either audio or visual (or touch etc) so I find I have to add the extra layers in edits. I'm very visual. See everything as if filming the damn thing. (Should have gone to Hollywood :))
Wynter Daniels said…
Thanks, Marcelle. Okay - that's good - that sweaty smell, intensified. Good call.

Toni -I'll be waiting for Hollywood to option your books;-)
Rita said…
Gerat post!
Authors must understand body language. Putting it to words on paper in a fresh manner came be mind numbing. Darting eyes, the change in voice pitch, the beads of sweat on the upper lip, the jiggling leg, the tapping foot. We are always learning new ways to say the same old thing.
Kathy Ivan said…
Great post. I thinks its extremely important to layer in all the senses when trying for that heightened sense of fear. Where is the person? What's around them? What's the impetus of the fear? Asking questions about why they are afraid will help determine which heightened senses to accentuate.
Wynter Daniels said…
Very true, Rita. It's a challenge to keep it fresh and ramp it up as the fear grows.

Thanks, Kathy, great point about which senses to accentuate.
Clare London said…
What a great post! I love the idea of spurring such a vivid reaction in a reader LOL. You're right, it's the way an author expresses the senses that's so important, helps the reader to "be there". And to be afraid :).

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