Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Every Writer Should be a Scaredy Cat

I must have been the world’s biggest “scaredy cat” as a child. I mean I was afraid of my own shadow. Fear kept me from enjoying some of life’s pleasures. I didn’t learn to swim until I was twelve years old. Terrified, I clung to the edge of the pool while my younger cousins dove into the deep end . We went camping all the time, yet I was terrified of spiders and snakes. It was the stuff bad dreams are made of. Now I see it as material for developing plot and conflict.

You have a plot. Two bullies push Sally and threaten to hurt her. They grab her kitten, and laughing, they run off with it. Sally fears for the kittens safety. In spite of her fear for herself, she follows them hoping to rescue it. Sally sees the boys take the kitten into a dark cave and then leave, empty handed. Sally stands outside the cave until the boys are out of sight. Well you say “That isn’t much of a story, where is the conflict?”

What if Sally is afraid of the dark? She loves the little kitten, but it is pitch black in there. Perhaps she is tortured with making a decision. Now you have conflict. Should she go in, or go find help? Fearing the boys will come back she chokes down her fear and goes inside. She feels her way along the wall and listens for the kittens mews. Something sticky touches her face and neck. Spider webs! Sally is terrified of spiders. Frantically she tries to brush the imagined spider away. She shivers as she does so. She turns to run out but hears the kitten mew and stops. What should she do? There may be more webs, more spiders before she reaches the kitten. What else may be lurking in the dark? She can’t turn back now. She moves on until she reaches the grateful purring ball of furr. She has faced her fears and soon she and her pet will be safe and sound. Hugging the kitten she heads for the mouth of the cave. Standing in the opening is the dark shape of something she fears more than spiders. The bullies are blocking her way. What will she do now?

Childhood fears are useful to the creation of plot and conflict. What were the things that frightened you as a child. Draw on the fears that plagued your children, at different ages. Our fears change from age to age. When we are very young we fear separation from parents, or we fear the dark. One of our earliest fears is the fear of falling. We may develop a fear of strangers (not an altogether bad fear). Some fears are common, others less common. It might be the fear of being called on in class. Perhaps you have a personal fear resulting from a traumatic event in your life. I had a fear of public transportation that stemmed from getting lost in San Francisco on a visit there as a child, because I didn’t know how to find my way home.

You may want to use fear to explain the behavior of a character in a story , or you may want to write an entire story around someones fear. Probably no one is without some kind of fear in their life. We can all identify with the feeling of being afraid, even when we know our fear is irrational. Fear is a rush that we both love and hate. That is why horror movies are so popular. That is why children love scary stories and Halloween.

The locale in your story may determine the fear that will provide the necessary conflict you need. Fear of water might be good in a story about boating or camping on a lake. Fear of heights might provide conflict in a story that involves climbing trees or visiting the Grand Canyon. Fear of flying might provide conflict in a story that involves a vacation trip to Hawaii, or a trip to New York to participate in a competition.

There are fears that are closer to home too. How about the young ballerina with stage fright at her dance recital. Maybe you are writing about a young baseball player with a fear of being yelled at by his teammates. You might write about the fear most of us felt on the first day of school, or when being asked to get up in front of the class for the first time.

Fear of illness or death might prompt a story about being supportive to someone who is ill or dying. Perhaps a great deal of strength is necessary for the protagonist to overcome their own fear and think about what is good for others. Overcoming their fear builds character and changes them.

If you write for older children consider the fear of not being popular. Teens having to make decisions about behavior they know to be wrong, that may affect whether or not they are accepted by their peers. Perhaps you could write about a teenager with a fear of driving, but required to take a driver education class in school. You might find a story in the fear of being totally independent. Going away to college or getting a job, and moving out on your own can be fearful adventures.

So if, like me, you spent your life as a “scaredy cat”, be grateful. Put those fears to good use. Get busy and write about them!

(c) Sharon A. Soffe 2001


Bobbi C. said...

Hi Sharon,

I think it was Stephen King who said to "write about what you're afraid of".....great tips in your blog about that. Thanks for the reminder!

Bobbi C.

Shari Lyle-Soffe said...


Maybe I'm writing in the wrong genre. Thank you for the kind remarks.