Fear of flat

When my first and excellent editor, Alix Reid, would edit my manuscripts, she used to sprinkle the word flat here and there – at random, it seemed to me. Flat was the edit I most hated to see. What’s wrong with this? I always thought and never asked. I just tried to make the flat words plumper, rounder, better. Whatever I’d written usually did get better, just because if you pay close attention to anything, you can improve it.

Now that Alix has left New York publishing, I think I finally know what she meant. A sentence like I’m scared. might warrant a flat. I’m scared is a summary statement, not specific, not very interesting. The reader might reasonably want to know how this particular character is scared–

which I find hard to express in an un-flat, original way. The other day I needed to describe a character exhibiting fear. He isn’t my POV character, so I had no access to his thoughts. I hunted for new ways to show fright by googling images of “frightened person.” My sad discovery was that we all look a lot alike when we’re scared. These are the symptoms I saw: mouth open in a scream or partially open with the lips curving down, curled hands near the neck or mouth, a lot of whites of the eyes, raised eyebrows. Then I googled “fear response,” not in images, but on the web, and read about fear. We all look much alike when we’re afraid, because the same processes are going on in the brains of all of us. The article didn’t mention the brains of trained assassins or the insane, just normal people’s. When terror strikes, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the sensory cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus get into the act. Blood rushes away from our skin (so we pale) to the muscles that can fight or carry us away. Our hearts speed up, likewise our blood pressure. This inner brouhaha causes the images I saw.

Weirdly, as I learned about fear, my heart started racing.

In just about every book I’ve written my main character’s heart has pounded once or twice. I never want to write the cliche, but I do like to terrify my characters. After scaring them a few times and writing more interesting reactions, my ingenuity runs out, and, their hearts pound. In the case of the character I mentioned before, however, since he’s not the POV character, I can’t even pound his heart, because I can’t tell from the outside what his heart is doing. I don’t have to be inside him for him to speak or scream. If he did, maybe something un-flat would come out, but he’s a stoic, silent sort. Very difficult.

It’s easier with a POV character because we do have his thoughts to work with, although in a panicky moment he doesn’t have much time to think. A lengthy rumination would slow the action and drain away the tension. But a short, surprising thought is great, if you or I or he can come up with one.

In my books about the fairies of Never Land, I have extra options. The fairies are surrounded by a halo of light – their glows – and they have wings. This is wonderful – wings flutter or freeze; a fairy drops suddenly; the glows change color or dim or flicker or go out or flare up. If only people had glows and wings or even reacted idiosyncratically: one person’s hair turning purple, another’s ears spinning, somebody else’s chin lengthening – temporary responses or permanent evidence. But these fascinating changes are beyond us. So what else is there?

One of my early jobs after college took me into unsafe neighborhoods in New York City, long before cell phones were invented. It was a job I loved, and I felt scared only when the streets were deserted. What I did then was to talk aloud to myself like a lunatic. I don’t remember my words, nothing useful, no teleporting spells. I haven’t put this fear technique of mine in a book. The right moment hasn’t come, but my compulsive speech is worth remembering.

You might find it useful to recall your own scary experiences and what you said and thought and did and felt. You could ask other people about their frightening memories and write the answers down. You can build up a stockpile of these and never go flat when your character is afraid. I think I’m going to do that. Have fun!

  1. Honestly, this is absolutely fascinating. It's hard not to be in this situation when you want to describe a common emotion but do it in a unique way. Looking it up is common sense, but also I wouldn't've thought about doing that. Thanks for the great thoughts, it really gave me something to think about.

  2. Yes, great idea…googling pictures and physiology. I never thought of that. I do stockpile phrases describing emotions, but I use them faster than I find them. This is defintely a writer's challenge.


  3. Perhaps he has excessive ear hair or fur which stands straight up like a cat's when he is afraid. Or he begins to sweat profusely.
    Some people, ummmm, fart when they're scared. Is he a very polite ogre?

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