Writing: The Rigidity of Terror

Horror movies and rollercoasters have their place, but I think they give people the wrong idea about what fear is, and how a truly terrified character is going to think and act. After all, movies and rollercoasters are generally safe.

(With very rare exceptions. Rollercoaster accidents end up in the news specifically because they’re fairly uncommon. When you think about how many people go hurtling around soaring curves of steel on a daily basis, you have to conclude rollercoaster maintenance has a darn good record of doing its job.)

Watching a horror movie, or getting on a frightening ride, may evoke fear, but that fear has limits. The movie only lasts a few hours. The ride is over in a few minutes. And in both cases it’s a controlled circumstance. You chose to be there. You can choose how much you react – and even if it’s an extreme reaction, you are generally in a safe place that doesn’t require you to think, and allows screaming, flailing about of hands, etc. You can get it all out of your system and be done with it.

…Well, most people can. Then again, those of us whose nervous system keeps right on jangling tend not to do horror movies or thrill rides in the first place. The fear is a choice, and we choose not to engage with it.

This is not the kind of fear most writers are seeking to portray in books. Your character is having an adventure. AKA “horrible things happening at a safe distance to someone else”. Only if it’s in a story, the horrible things are happening to your characters, and it is distinctly not safe.

This has consequences. I recommend books like Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller and On Killing by Dave Grossman to get at some of the physical and psychological effects of something going very wrong in your life, very suddenly. Here I’m going to stick to one cliché: the character who is “frozen in terror”.

This is a cliché because it’s a real and common phenomenon. “Fight or flight” may be the most frequently discussed fear responses, but “freeze or fawn” are just as real, and just as biologically set off by adrenaline. Plenty of animals freeze in the face of danger. If the predator’s near but hasn’t spotted you yet, this can be a life-saving response. Freeze. Don’t move. Don’t blink. Don’t breathe. Above all, don’t do anything creative and outlandish and guaranteed to stand out and draw attention.

This is a nervous-system response, far below the level of conscious thought. Which means that in the middle of a terrifying situation your brain will tend to lock up. It will freeze. At best, you will be thinking in a very rigid fashion: this is what I know how to do, I am alive because I did these things in the past, this is what I will do.

Which is why people who expect to go into crisis situations – firefighters, soldiers, cops, paramedics – train over and over and over again, until hopefully they can do what they’re supposed to do even in their sleep. Because fear makes you rigid. It steals rational thought. It steals creative thought. It locks you into, survivable pattern, repeat. Over and over. Living in fear – in any situation where you’re constantly close to the edge – makes people live their whole lives as rigid as the most hidebound religious fanatic. Terrified that one slip will be the end of everything.

And yet I’ve seen too many stories (and way too many movies) where characters are expected to think on the fly in the face of overwhelming danger… and mock those who can’t. It’s unrealistic. It’s inhuman. And it will break my suspension of disbelief faster than pink unicorns and spaceships that transform into dragons, because it denies characters their basic humanity.

Yes, we want to write about heroes. But heroes aren’t people who never feel fear. Heroes are those who are terrified, and overwhelmed, and keep moving anyway.

Give terror and fear their due. Make your characters work to think in a crisis. Make them work to move. Give them fear redoubled because they’re trying to fight, and they can’t, and this is the last chance-

And then they move, and they win.

Let your heroes be afraid. Your readers will treasure victory all the more.

24 thoughts on “Writing: The Rigidity of Terror

  1. “I’m leaving. Sorry about ditching you, but I can’t handle this anyway, so it’s better if you aren’t deleting on me in the first place.”

    “Is this about what happened in the fight?”

    “You have to ask? For reference, I wasn’t checking the escape route. I was fleeing in blind terror. I can’t even remember how I got there.”

    “Look, courage isn’t a lack of fear. Courage is feeling feel, and acting anyway.”

    “So what’s cowardice?”


    “You have a nice, pithy little saying about the nature of courage. Now define cowardice.”


    “How about I turn it around. Cowardice isn’t feeling fear, it failing to act despite it. The first fight I froze. Didn’t even try to help, or even get out of the way. The second fight I was prepared. I had every dirty trick and tool I could think of in my pockets. I accidentally dumped them all on the ground and used a smoke bomb in the wrong place. The third time I ran and got lost. You had to track me down in a sewer. I’ve demonstrated amazing cowardice under fire.”

    “Look, those are panic responses. You can’t really control that.”

    “That’s true. So maybe that’s not cowardice. Maybe it’s the choices you make, when you have the presence of mind to make choices. When you’re sitting in the planning room, thinking “I can’t do this” and all your friends say “You can do this, we need you.” So you think “they believe in me, they need me, maybe I can do this” and you let them depend on you… despite the fact you’ve proven you can’t. Cowardice is giving in to peer pressure and being tricked by adventure stories.”

    “I… I didn’t realize you felt that way. I never meant to make you feel pressured.”

    “I know. Just let me be courageous once in my life. I’m leaving.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Having just finished writing a scene when a character has a full-blown PTSD panic attack, I appreciate this. (Also, fantastic books. I have them both on my shelf thanks to your recommendations. Thanks.)

    I will say, re: making fun of panicky characters: it -can- work, so long as 1) it’s limited, 2) it’s in character for the character doing it, and 3) it’s clear that it’s the character and not the narrative. In a fic I’m working on, at several points during the first few chapters a character who’s lived pretty rough mocks another character who… hasn’t. Really it’s Cranky’s own version of a fear response, because he’s got a bully streak and anxiety for him tends to show up as lashing out. He gets called on it by a more mature character and eventually gets the lesson hammered in, but it takes some time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. :glees: So handy for an author, too!

    The related cliche of “this can’t be happening” is also real– and that really is what is usually screaming in your head when you’re terrified.

    Even if you did prepare, and are doing what you’re supposed to. Nearly had a cattle truck (the ones that look like really big pickups, not tractor/trailer trucks) flip on me because the bulls in the back decided to rough-house.
    On a ~35* angle.
    Going up a ridge– several vehicle lengths straight up or down on either side of the road. Same solution as any other loss of control– remove as much power as you can, don’t add skidding, and point the vehicle where you want to go. (“Turn into a skid.”)

    So brain is going “CANNOT BE CANNOT BE CANNOT BE,” mouth is saying the Hail Mary, and body is doing That Thing You Do When The Vehicle Is Out Of Control.

    From real life, you can draw on a lot of different stuff for “this is what to do.” To various levels of use in situation, but REALLY handy to build up a character’s background– many of the folks who charged active shooters have mentioned that they played combat video games, or they’d done the “mentally drill for what to do” practice. On the other hand, there have been repeated cases of police officers being shot in the course of duty and the body found holding a handful of brass– because that’s how they practiced on the range. They were stopping in the middle of a fire-fight to police their brass. (That training was changed to cleaning up the mess AFTER the practice was done.)

    Or go on the funny level, especially if someone is stressed– when I was *very* pregnant, I was cleaning house and (with my hand) swept a very large, shiny, black spider out from under a desk.
    No idea if it actually WAS a black widow because my reaction was “Smash flat while screeching” and there wasn’t enough left to tell if it had even ACTUALLY been shiny…..

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I would have to find the article about the accident to prove this but there’s another kind of fear response to mention. I used to be a semi truck driver, the reason why I stopped is not this (carbon monoxide poisoning sucks), but I was coming down from the Eisenhower tunnel on I 70 on a 7 percent grade weighing 80,000 lbs, going 25 mph (don’t go any faster than that unless you want to lose control) when a drunk teenager slammed into the back of me going 80 mph. A crash of effectively 50 mph meant she went right through my dot bar and got stuck under the trailer, because of training and thinking about how to deal with accidents I got off the road in record time (seriously people congratulated me on it) which let the girl live despite how she should have died. But the moment I got stopped I fell apart and couldn’t stop shaking for days. So that’s another option that’s not really in books.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Not quite as bad, it was a near miss while practice driving with my G1license instead of an actual accident because my reflexes took over and slammed on the brakes without any conscious thinking. Other driver pulled a stupid stunt across three lanes of traffic that should have ended with their car and mine crumpled like tin cans. The adrenaline lasted long enough to get us home. Then I tried to stand up and my legs were like cooked noodles, and my hands were shaking and my heart pounding. Strangest feeling, all the things you’d think would happen during the incident held off, then hit once it was all over.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. My dad and I seem to share the ‘do what you have to do, then panic’ response, at least while driving.

    We live in the Midwest, so icy, snowy, slick as anything roads happen on a regular basis. Dad was driving down the highway, hit a slick spot, and slid *sideways* under a semi. Completely trashed his truck, not a scratch on him. Obviously, the other driver stopped, they sorted things, and dad said that was when he started shaking like a leaf. We made a lot of jokes about his guardian angel being built like Rambo after that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Another thing that’s very useful for character building– the “DISASTER! DEAL WITH IT!… OK, now I am safe, I can melt down…” effect.

      I’ve been in confrontations with guys twice my size(from the cheap seats: Oh, like that’s hard!) who very much Did Not Wish Me Well, and I was fine.
      Got rear-ended by a genuinely decent kid and then ran a red light to avoid the very large vehicle that HE had been watching instead of me or the light, we did everything right, and by the time I got the van parked like 30 seconds later I was in full pregnant lady melt down mode. Which actually worked out good because when the cop got there, I had a FULL head of steam about the moving vehicle that had been using two lanes– middle lane, half the turn, and half of the right– and neither of us got so much as a mark on our license– but dear heavens Do Not Recommend.

      Very useful to show that [Character]’s sub-conscious recognizes something as safe, even if his main-brain is not sure.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. We were traveling to visit my cousins up north one winter when my dad hit a patch of ice and took a fifteen passenger van through 360° and half way up a tree. A hill and another car may or may not be involved in this story, it’s been literal decades since then. My mom called the cousins we were going to visit, and one of them shouted to his parents, “they’re in trouble, [Mom’s name]’s cussing and [Dad’s name]’s not!”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. In all seriousness, I recently came out of a long discussion along the lines of “Do you think you might think too much about your thinking? *long detail explanation in response* In conclusion, yes and no.”

        Timing was really great for unpacking everything, because of my personal filter experiences contributing to yesterday evening’s events primed me to understand one of the aspects of why I need to watch my own mental behavior.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Re: roller coaster maintenance, my cousin is an engineer and used to work for Disney doing maintenance on their roller coasters. (He’s since taken another job that doesn’t require as much travel so he can spend more time with his wife and kids). I may have some details wrong, but I think I remember that they had an instrument package that they would put in the roller coaster cars and send the cars down the ride, and the instruments would measure G-forces along the ride and make sure the forces were what they should be. (Enough to give people a thrill, not enough to run any risk of someone being injured by pressing too hard against the restraints, that sort of thing). And then the engineers would get in the cars and take a ride, because there are some things that human senses can pick up on that instruments wouldn’t. For example, any roughness in the ride that shouldn’t be there (which might indicate a section of track that’s in need of replacement) might show up as a twitch on the G-forces meter, but feeling it through the seat of your pants is much more visceral. And you’re much more likely to notice it when it’s happening to you rather than when it’s happening to an instrument package.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yes, restraints and acceleration loads are part of the certification process for amusement park rides. In my day job, I ended up brushing up against this while working on a RoboCoaster: https://youtu.be/6MkJ6df310U
      All sorts of safety interlocks, and various mechanical modifications to guarantee that, even in the event of a sudden power loss, the riders cannot be subjected to too much “jerk”.

      Fun fact: a lot of Disney and Universal “full immersion” rides are actually RCs, with motion synchronized to surrounding video screens. The programming for that gets *insane*….

      Liked by 1 person

  7. On your mention of “freeze or fawn” and the reasons behind it, I can’t help but be reminded of a certain scene from The Last Unicorn (if you’ve ever read or watched it, then you know exactly which scene I’m talking about):

    “Don’t look back. And don’t run. You must never run from anything immortal – it attracts their attention.”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. *nods* Poor Rukh.

        Still, whatever else, you genuinely gotta give Mommy Fortuna props, for going out how she did. She could have legitimately just snuck away in the chaos, and the Harpy probably would have never found her again – instead, she all but offered herself up as a sacrifice, just to make herself that much more unforgettable.


        Liked by 1 person

      1. It sort of works, although I think part of it is that someone who’s scared and not running tends to face the thing they’re scared of.

        For humans, it *DEFINTELY* works. split on if you want to be backing away or not.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. In the Jurassic Park novel, Alan Grant didn’t freeze because he knew the T-Rex wouldn’t see him if he didn’t move – he was just too terrified to move when the T-Rex was standing a few feet away from him, having see the animal all but destroy the Jeep with Lex and Tim in it and knock Ian Malcolm into the air.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m reminded that training in one thing can crossover and help in other ways. In 12th grade, I took up photography, I took the first ever photojournalism class offered by the school and then as a school newspaper photographer (the teacher liked my work so much she asked me to join the staff!).
    One critical thing I learned and ingrained in my reflexes was not to twitch my hands while taking photos. That has crossed over in surprisingly useful ways.
    A jerk in college deliberately set out to startle me while I was biking on the road, from where he was on the sidewalk. My shoulders may have flinched but my hands and arms stayed steady. Another, more recent time, I witnessed and was back a number of car lengths as an SUV spun out in the rain on I-45. I didn’t flinch and kept steady control of my driving. Sure, my hands were locked to the steering wheel but they didn’t flinch or jerk anything. I maintained control.
    I didn’t expect learning photography to give me that benefit but it has lasted for 20+ years.


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