Thursday, October 9, 2014

Talking about Fear: Thirteen Visceral Signals

How is a crime-solving detective like a successful gambler?  They both look for tells, those small physiological responses a human exhibits when he experiences emotion. Avid readers look for these signs, too and as authors it’s our job to make sure they find them. We’re told to show not tell.
Sometimes that’s hard to do, but I’ll help you out.
Since this is October, the month of frights, let’s start with a quick study in fear responses.
Instead of saying a character like Marcia is afraid something might have happened to Haley writers are supposed to give evidence. Here’s how Harlan Coben shows the growing lump Marcia’s fear created in her throat.

“And that was when Marcia started to feel a small rock form in her chest. There were no clothes in the hamper.
The rock in her chest grew when Marcia checked Haley’s toothbrush, then the sink and shower.
All bone-dry.
The rock grew when she called out to Ted, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. It grew when they drove to captain’s practice and found out that Haley had never showed. It grew when she called Haley’s friends while Ted sent out an e-mail blast—and no one knew where Haley was. It grew when they called the local police, who, despite Marcia’s and Ted’s protestations, believed that Haley was a runaway, a kid blowing off some steam. It grew when forty-eight hours later, the FBI was brought in. It grew when there was still no sign of Haley after a week.
It was as if the earth had swallowed her whole. A month passed. Nothing. Then two. Still no word. And then finally, during the third month, word came—and the rock that had grown in Marcia’s chest, the one that wouldn't let her breathe and kept her up nights, stopped growing.”

From Caught, by Harlan Coben

That old lump-in-the-throat feeling is just one of the visceral symptoms of fright. Here are thirteen more.
  1. Heart racing, skipping or beating loudly.
  2. Labored breathing
  3. Eyes widening
  4. Body trembling
  5. Upset stomach
  6. Sweating
  7. Numbness in toes or fingers
  8. Face blushing
  9. Tingling in hands, scalp or feet
  10. Swaying as if dizzy
  11. Tightness in the chest
  12. Cramps-the urge to use the bathroom
  13. Twitches or jerky movements
I’m sure I've left out lots of fear responses that can be shown. Help me out if you’d like and add to my list in the comments. Thanks.



  1. Excellent example from Coben. For number eight...I would think one would be more likely to pale rather than blush. Thanks for visiting my autumn post!

    1. Heather,
      Yep, paling is also a fear response and you know I love checking out your pictures.

  2. Fear hits me in the gut. It's an instinct that won't be ignored. Once I fell the floor with a racing heart after being scared that one of my sons was hurt. Turned out I was scared but also had a hyperactive thyroid.

    1. Colleen,
      Wow, you've describing a fear response really well. Thanks.

  3. Blushing is a sign of fear? I had no idea.

    1. Alice,
      That's what I've been told. :) I think it's the blood rushing, whole face reddening thing, but a person could pale instead. It depends.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I like the way the rock is used as a metaphor in the example. Very good teaching tool today!

    1. Thanks CountryDew,
      Harlan Coben is really good at showing visceral responses.I always look for his books.

  5. Screaming! Hahaha! This was a great list, and the book by Harlan Coben sounds great.

  6. Forgetfulone,
    Thanks for visiting and adding to our post's fear factor.