One of the most clichéd emotions in fiction that I've come across is fear. We're all familiar with the sweating palms, the darting eyes and the stomach sensations which compromise a fearful moment in a story. Those are all tangible effects of fear but they've become so predictable that I feel jolted out of the book whenever I read one - or, more frequently several - of the above.
As a writer I'm well aware that I resort to these clichés in early drafts. All too easy to get something on the paper and worry about it later. Then, as I reread and scrutinise, I invariably want to bypass over these moments. After all, it's too difficult to describe personal fear in a fresh manner... isn't it?
Possibly. But that doesn't mean we writers should stop trying.
The physical effects of fear probably are run of the mill in all of us. I start to shiver insanely, no matter the weather, the moment that something frightens me. I get the same reaction whether it's a spider crossing the room or something much more terrible. However, it's the mental accompaniment that differs.
How long that first sleep lasted, she never knew. She could only remember, in the after-time, that she woke instantly.
Every faculty and perception in her passed the boundary line between insensibility and consciousness, so to speak, at a leap. Without knowing why, she sat up suddenly in the bed, listening for she knew not what. Her head was in a whirl; her heart beat furiously, without any assignable cause. But one trivial event had happened during the interval while she had been asleep. The night-light had gone out; and the room, as a matter of course was in total darkness.
The above is an extract from one of my favourite novellas, The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. Now, although Collins goes on to describe the terror as being akin to 'the clasp of an icy hand' the prelude to the fear is the most interesting bit. Collins builds the tension by withholding the revelation of fear itself. There is the vague suspicion that something is about to happen but until our protagonist, Agnes, discovers she is not alone a few paragraphs later we don't know what the non-assignable cause is.
If a character is truly afraid of something there must be a reason for it. The best way to demonstrate this sometimes can be to link briefly to a past event. Virginia Woolf, that master of stream-of-consciousness, was so entwined with the minds of her characters that an actual physical reaction, such as Collins' icy hand idea, would feel out of place in one her novels. Instead, Clarissa Dalloway spins her past into a web and manages to create a sense of fear around it.
Somehow it was her disaster - her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress. She had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable. She had wanted success, Lady Bexborough and the rest of it. And once she had walked on the terrace at Bourton.
Clarissa's fears echo vividly here, even if there is no physical description of them. Fear is mainly a mental component. It has physical side-effects, yes, but it's no lie to suggest that fear is all in the mind.
To that end, then, something we as writers need to accomplish is a way of portraying fear without seeming to portray fear and still get our point across.