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Using Fear to Make Readers Shiver, Scream, and Vomit

horror[Image via Flickr courtesy of Moyan Breen]

Fear is used in writing to add emotional value and elicit physical responses. It makes the reader uncomfortable in the right way, immersing them and imprinting the experience deeper into memory. Not all forms of fear are equal. Stephen King once broke down fear into three different types: The Gross-Out, The Horror, and The Terror. They are distinct, powerful, and vary greatly in the responses they elicit.

The Gross-Out

The Gross-Out might be the easiest to understand and achieve. It’s the disgusting. Despite the great variety in people’s preferences, one simple thing achieves this. Show the taboo, those things which are not supposed to be seen.  Identify them and show them. It could be a public toilet overflowing with feces and urine, a corpse with organs torn out and exposed, or a bizarre fetish. Don’t pull punches. The important part is to get in close.

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How-To: The Three-Act Structure


In screenwriting courses, most students are taught to use what is called the three-act structure. It is a method of organizing scenes and sequences into a tried-and-tested format that effectively captured the attention of the viewer and keeps them interested until the end. Essentially it assigns certain responsibilities to the beginning, middle, and end of a screenplay.

Although this format saw its origins in Hollywood, it is also being used as a tool for storytelling in general. I’ve attended seminars where published authors have recommended the use of this technique for writing novels. And most successful stories follow the basic tenets of the structure regardless of whether or not it’s a film, whether or not the author realized it. This is because the three-act structure is largely instinctual. It works, and people know it.

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Trust Your Characters


Some authors believe their characters exist in another world, living their lives independently of what the author is doing and writing their characters as doing anything out of character breaks the link they have with that other world. While that is highly unlikely, it makes for a colorful mental image of the worlds we create in our minds and the lives characters continue to live when we aren’t actively thinking about them. In our sleep and other idle moments of chaotic contemplation we keep developing and growing our characters, and when we force them to do something they wouldn’t do we run into writers block or start writing meaningless side content that ultimately needs to be cut out.

“In real life people do occasionally act out of character or do things we wouldn’t normally expect them to do. In fiction, there should be a good reason for a character to do something outside of the ordinary.”
― Craig Hart, The Writer’s Tune-up Manual: 35 Exercises That Will Scrape the Rust Off Your Writing

If we trust them, these characters can be a wonderful aid, helping think up plot developments you’d never dreamed on your own, plot elements that will feel organic to the reader. The most direct technique to accessing the power of your characters is free writing, not planning things out ahead of time and just letting your character(s) do what they do, go where they would go. This can be very liberating to many authors as they don’t need to think of everything before they write it, exploring their literary landscape through their character. But it can also be quite terrifying for many, writing into the unknown. I suggest you try it, and trust your characters.

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A Little S&M – A Figurative Language Quiz

Not ready yet? Go back to the hub page.
Want to step back to the previous entry in the series? Go to What Metaphors Aren’t


In today’s exercise, you will practice what you’ve learned about the finer points of figurative language by taking a simple (and occasionally sexy) quiz. By the end, you should feel comfortable differentiating metaphors from other types of figurative language, including simile, hyperbole, literal descriptions, and euphemisms.

The S and M (+E,H, and L) Quiz

In this section you will receive a single description followed by several different sets of details on what this description may be referring to. In each case, you will identify what the description would be in that situation (with the options being metaphor, simile, euphemism, hyperbole, and literal description).

She tied me up.

1. If this is referring to a situation where the she has made you sufficiently busy that you were unable to leave, this would be a:

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Simile, Euphemism, and Hyperbole: What Metaphors Aren’t

Not ready yet? Go back to basics.
Want to step back to the previous entry in the series? Go to The Literally Game.


The metaphor is a valuable tool for all kinds of writers in all genres. However, before we go on to discuss the possible uses of metaphor, we should take a moment to clear up a few potential misconceptions. Here are some things a metaphor isn’t.

A Metaphor Is Like a Simile.

XKCD Metaphors and Similes
Image courtesy of XKCD

This one’s fairly simple. A metaphor does not use “like” or “as” to make a comparison. If those words are used, the description is a simile. Except for that slight difference, metaphors and similes are identical. So, for example, if her hair is like spun gold, that’s a simile. If her hair was spun gold, that’s a metaphor.

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Get to the Point!: A Sentence Workshop

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik

As an editor, the bulk of major problems I encounter are at the sentence level. Yes, sometimes the entire submission is off (doesn’t follow instructions, lacks direction, etc.), and sometimes the word choice or punctuation makes me sad inside, but most often it’s those infernal sentences.

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