Have you ever thought about Edgar Allan Poe's influence on our feelings for month of October? In last October's newsletter, we focused on Poe's poem, "The Raven." Our topic for this October's newsletter and the theme for this writing tip is "one's greatest fear," and how exploiting it can add tension and suspense to your writing, no matter the genre. A lesser known poem, "Ulalume," takes Poe's readers directly to a cemetery-on Halloween. No wonder fear and Poe go hand in hand.
I'm writing a mystery about a private detective who suffers from PTS disorder and has fallen on hard times. Because he refuses to deal with his troubled emotions, he loses his wife, his job, and his swanky apartment in mid-town Manhattan. He struggles to hold on to his self respect and pull himself out of the gutter. His greatest fear is failure. This is also the theme of the story. I utilize his fear as often as I can, increasing the tension by having him make one bad decision after another, and making his failure seem imminent.
Here are some other examples:
Nevada Barr's mystery, Burn, is the story about a woman searching for her two young daughters who are missing. Her greatest fear is not finding them.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving's title character's greatest fear is that his best friend will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.
In the short story, "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe's main character is about to suffer a horrific death: being sliced in two by a razor-sharp pendulum. Poe masterfully ramps up the fear and tension by describing what the character anticipates and experiences through all five senses.
A good practice is to look for characters' greatest fears in every book you read. When you write, ask yourself at the start of each chapter, "What's the worst that can happen?"
My greatest childhood fear on Halloween was someone dropping heavy fruit into my bag, causing it to rip and spill all the candy. Talk about trick or treat!