Fear and Crisis; What Does It Feel Like?

Fear and Crisis;

What Does It Feel Like?

Michael E. Norman.

©2001, Michael E. Norman  

As writers, we try to make the reader feel the emotions in the words we write. However, how can a reader feel the chaos of battle or the adrenaline of crisis if we ourselves have never felt it? As a firefighter, I know just how chaotic a crisis situation can be, and as a soldier I have a good understanding of the dangers of combat.

We have all read, especially in fantasy and science fiction, detailed scenes of warfare and combat. How do we give the reader a feel for the chaos inherent to combat and crisis?

First, we have to remember just what happens in these situations. Let's take a battle for instance. Even the best-laid battle plans go to hell when the fighting actually starts. Murphy's Law goes haywire and the battle never happens just as it was planned.

Men break and run, chaos rules, and unforeseen events just take over. The trick is to give the reader that feeling of chaos, but at the same time, give the scene structure so he can follow it.

In a crisis situation, such as fighting fires, the same holds true. No two emergency situations are ever the same, even if the basics are the same. What will the fire do? Is the victim stable enough this time to pull from the car? Is anyone in the burning house, or is it clear? These are just a few questions we ask ourselves during a crisis.

In combat, we ask questions like: Is the person beside me protecting my blindspot? Is the enemy breaking through the flank? Are there snipers out there waiting for a clear shot?

Now we have to figure out just what happens to the main character in these situations. They will experience the adrenaline rush, dry mouth, quick breathing, and the constant worry that the next thing they do could cause death or injury to someone else.

It is difficult to put these feelings on paper when you have not faced the possible death of the victim, or yourself in real life. So how do we write these scenes convincingly?

I'll tell you how it works for me. Remember, even the most experienced veteran feels fear in combat. The difference between a veteran and someone who is going through his first battle or crisis is how he deals with it.

As I write the scene, I try to think of a time when I was truly scared.  Think about standing up to a bully when you were younger, or asking a girl or guy out that you liked. What about standing in front of a group of people for the first time and giving a speech or a class? Immerse yourself in that feeling.

Was there  a metallic taste in your mouth? Your pulse pounding? Your hands shaking from the adrenaline and your breathing quickening? A million things running through your mind that could go wrong? That twisting feeling in your gut, and the sudden urge to relieve yourself?

If you think about these things, and experience them as you're writing the scene, the reader will feel them with you. As writers, we write what we feel. Even our fiction has elements of truth about ourselves, and we give pieces of ourselves to the reader every time we write. Let them taste fear in their mouth and feel their pulses quicken. They will not feel it as strongly as you do, but the sensation will be there, and the reader will experience some of the emotions you have.

Now, I know that thinking of something that frightens you is not always comfortable, but I have found that it helps me to deal with my fears. After writing the scene, I look at what I wrote and think: "Well if he can get through it, so can I." After all, aren't our main characters just a part of ourselves? You may deal with it a little differently, but in essence, you may sit back and say; "My problem does not seem so bad anymore."

The trick is to show the reader what you are feeling, and so many times, we muddle through a scene and try to think of what it is like. However, we can be much more convincing to the reader if we actually feel what we write.

So sit down and think of your greatest fear and then write about it. Then sit back and be satisfied that not only did you write a great scene, but that when it comes down to it, fear is nothing more than a feeling that can be controlled and conquered. Happy writing.