Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Be Very Afraid

In honor of Halloween, I wanted to talk about fear in mystery writing.
If you’ve ever had hiccups, you know how hard it is to scare yourself. But if you’re an author of a suspenseful story, you need to figure out how to do exactly that. If you're going to put yourself in your protagonist’s shoes you have to experience their fear—psychologically as well as physically.
Fear is a primal experience, and often our bodies respond before our heads know what's going on. Chills, goosebumps, heightened awareness, rapid heart rate, fluttering in the stomach. Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like love. Mwa ha ha ha.
Essential to creating a scary situation is making it as real as possible. If neither you nor your reader believe what you're telling them, then you certainly can't expect to do much hair-raising, can you? Slow it down. Allow for detail. Create beats. Give your protagonist a false sense of security, even. Then let the spooky stuff fly.
Maybe your real live fears have nothing to do with psycho killers, but think about ways to translate that feeling you get—uncertainty, anxiety, lack of control—into the scenario your protagonist faces. What's the worst that could happen? What do they stand to lose? What would be worse than what they actually expect? Now keep them in the dark for as long as you can. Milk it. Go on. Freak yourself out.
(If you need some help getting in the mood, there are plenty of writerly fears to draw on: fear of the blank page, fear of rejection, fear of not being able to get your character out of a sticky situation, and worst of all, the fear of the edit letter.)

Elisa Ludwig's debut young adult novel PRETTY CROOKED (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins), will be released in March 2012. It's the story of Willa Fox, a teen girl who goes Robin Hood on her rich classmates —the first of a trilogy. Even though she had to extensively research pickpocketing techniques to write it, she remains a law-abiding citizen. Elisa lives in Philadelphia with her husband Jesse and cat Beau a.k.a. Bread. When she's not writing for teens, she's cooking and/or writing about food for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. Elisa is a proud member of The Apocalypsies.


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