Creating Fear

“Are you scared yet?” “No.” “You should be.”

Fear is very individual so here are some key words and ideas on this page that you can use to prey on characters and audience alike. One common denominator is the unknown, so if you can hint at horrible, evil things, one’s own imagination fills in the blanks to ramp it up.

For more terrifying fun, check out our Horror genre page here or ideas for SUSPENSE here (both links open in new tabs).


  • the unknown, mystery,
  • what’s around the corner, in the box, under the bed, down the hole, in the attic,
  • isolation, loneliness, abandonment, exclusion, excommunication, banishment,
  • confinement, claustrophobia, narrow spaces, closing walls, low rock ceilings in caves,
  • darkness, waning light, the last flicker of a candle,
  • storms, lightning, hail, earthquakes, tornadoes, the imploding sun, giant asteroids on collision courses, volcanic eruptions, magma seepage,
  • swarms, locusts, killer bees, flying donkeys (that’s actually funny, not scary), flying monkeys (now that’s scary),
  • heights, bridges, girders, glass floors, narrow ledges, ferris wheels, rope bridges, rickety ladders, cliffs,
  • speed, crashing, flying, hurtling, charging, revving, accelerating, roller coasters,
  • situations that are precarious, on a knife edge, suspenseful, anxiety-ridden, tense,
  • strain, hanging on by fingernails, toes on a crumbling ledge, stretched arms,
  • burning alive, getting cooked,
  • tension, conflict, confrontation,
  • freezing to death,
  • drowning,
  • impending doom, the last touch of fingertips, watching a friend struggle behind a sealed door (through that tiny unbreakable window), last breath,
  • running out of air, thinning atmosphere, drowning, little pockets of air trapped against a ceiling, gasping,
  • thirst, dying in a wasteland, doldrums,
  • torture, pain, menacing pain, the thought of pain, fingernails being pulled out,
  • no way out, trapped,
  • rituals, signs, symbols, religious imagery, rites, patterns, writings, scrolls, magic, black magic, dark magic, evil magic, evil words, evil eye, curse, hex, dolls with pins,
  • monsters, aberrations, creatures, beasts, fouls spawn,
  • demons, wrath of gods, devils, the supernatural, the divine,
  • deformation, abnormality, strangeness, queerness, weirdness, difference, divergence,
  • choices, paths, dilemmas, right and wrong, evil and good, moral choice, ethical predicaments (kill one person to save many),
  • promises that you can’t keep, broken honour, shirking duty, not protecting the one you love, failing your brothers-in-arms,
  • sacrifice, giving up all you hold dear, losing a loved one by your own hand,
  • being upside down, disoriented, suspended,
  • our fault, mistakes, guilt, remorse, I’ve done something wrong,
  • that which we cannot control, anger, rage, wrath,
  • the fickle hand of fate, whimsy, muses,
  • time, lack of time, the relentless movement of time,
  • death, finality, the end, the void, mortality,
  • space, vastness, infinity,
  • paradoxes, the unexplainable, ignorance, not knowing,
  • seven deadly sins: sloth, wrath (anger), greed (avarice), envy (covetousness, jealousy), gluttony, pride,
  • disease, degeneration, illness, sickness, infection, gangrene,
  • losing a limb,
  • asphyxiation, choking, suffocation, fish out of water, strangulation,
  • paralysis, immobility, constraint,

Notes and Ideas

  • combine some elements above to create disturbing sensory situations: waking upside down in a straight jacket; in a cage (or locked car) slowly being submerged in water,
  • mental and emotional pain is tremendously scary, so don’t forget to give your narrative some dastardly moral challenges: choosing which of two loved ones you will save; staying and dying with the others or leaving and saving yourself; intervening in a bad situation (which you know would be the right thing to do) or just walking away; cutting off a limb or dying; closing the door to the lab to save humanity when doing so would sacrifice colleagues, family, or friends trapped inside;
  • if you’re unsure what to do to ramp up the fear in your narrative, just trust in the things that most terrify or disturb you… then put them in your story!
  • impending doom is scarier in many ways than a sudden, clearly active catastrophe: tremors hinting at an earthquake; eerie sounds or glowing eyes in the bushes at the edge of a camp fire; buried to the neck on a beach as the tide slowly creeps in;
  • don’t allow characters to have enough batteries for flashlights, fuel for lanterns, or sufficient torches; this way they have to ration their light or eventually… go it in darkness. Make light a strong narrative element, almost a character unto itself and you’ll ramp up the fear. Go to LIGHT AND DARK for ideas or check out the LIGHTS menu.
  • toy with the SENSES, the five common ones and then the unstudied tingly ones that science avoids but we all feel are out there… because scientists are scared!
  • Make your characters EXHAUSTED as your narrative draws on… the imagination goes wild when we’re weak and stretched thin. Driving us even to delusion and insanity (see SANITY). We think negatively, we doubt, we make bad decisions, we become enraged and primal, we become animals… great stuff for story!