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a:Hopes and Fears and Fiction

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Mass-1024x698-525x358.jpgWhat are your hopes and dreams?  What are you most afraid of?

Search online for common fears and phobias, and you will quickly find that whatever terrifies you also terrifies others.  Do you, for instance, suffer (as so many do) from Koumpounophobia, Alektorophobia, Sidonglobophobia, or Hippotomonstrosequippedaliophobia?  Those are the paralyzing fears of buttons, chickens, cotton balls and long words.

No?  Phew.  Glad to hear that.  However, I would not be surprised if you have a phobia—or a phobia’s lesser cousin, a fear—related to the animal world: spiders, snakes, dogs, birds, cats, butterflies, ducks, frogs, sharks, fish, horses, mice, wasps, or ants.  (Butterflies?  Yep, that’s a thing.  Lepidopterophobia.)

People scare us too.  We may be afraid of crowds, clowns, intimacy, men, women, doctors, little people, tall people or people in general.  We may be made anxious by objects, sounds and abstract things: needles, holes, blood, germs, numbers, calculations, science, technology, balloons, dolls, bridges, the number thirteen, Friday the 13th, Halloween, feet, fire, mirrors, light, loud noises, thunder and lightning, rain, hair, bananas or Zombies.  (The last three are Chaetophobia, Bananaphobia and Kinemortophobia,  funny ones unless you actually have those phobias.)

Experiences are also fearful.  We may be afraid of heights, depths, falling, small spaces, darkness, driving, flying, love, commitment, intimacy, abandonment, being alone, being forgotten, being buried alive, being hunted, haunted, stalked, failing, success, change, the unknown, crime, pain, pregnancy, sleep, choking, suffocation, getting old, school, work, roller coasters or getting rid of stuff (Disposophobia).  We can even be afraid of God, ourselves, the future or fear itself (Phobophobia).

Is it any surprise, then, that thunder and lightening are symbols commonly deployed on screen to signal us to feel apprehensive?  Is it any wonder that sad scenes are set in the rain?  Is it any wonder that a protagonist’s low moment of defeat and despair is sometimes called the “mirror moment”?

You can probably identify the common fear which underlies many timeless stories, novels and tales: JawsIt.  The Stand.  Rosemary’s Baby.  The Man in the Iron Mask.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Most Dangerous Game”, I Am Legend, Sleeping Beauty, The Stranger, or our own Kathryn Craft’s The Art of Falling.  And hold on…buttons?  Think Coraline.

Fear is the underlying basis of whole genres: mysteries, thrillers, horror and plenty of science fiction and fantasy.  On the flip side, we read other types of fiction to feel hope.  Fear is what we want to avoid.  Hope tells us what we want to have.

The Flip Side

What many people want is surprisingly humble: education, work, marriage, children, to teach, to grow, health, happiness, peace.  We may, of course, want experiences like travel, fame and wealth.  We may want to be in a movie, write a book, win a competition, own a yacht or donate large sums to a worthy cause.

Still, many dreams are not so grand but are rather specific and rooted in the desire for adventure and joy: learn a language, play guitar, ride an elephant, ride a roller coaster, travel first class, hang glide, see a volcano, bungee jump, skydive, go to outer space, dine at a four-star restaurant, sip a rare wine, bowl a perfect 300.

People also desire experiences of comfort and security: living by a beach, buying an island, having a home which people want to visit, vacation with family, a girls’ weekend, snuggling by a fire.  In addition, people want to find their purpose, pursue a dream and pay it forward.  People want to quit their jobs, stop being afraid, know they are good and worthy of love, and feel that they are making a difference.

It is any wonder, then, that novels about fame, bring rich, adventure, whacky friends and ocean-front houses are called “beach reads”?  Are we surprised that so much fiction in general concerns love, healing, family, unlocking the mysteries of the past and affirming values like forgiveness, courage and love?

What would you say is the foundation of hope and dreams in these timeless novels: Around the World in Eighty Days, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Rich Man Poor Man, The God of Small Things, Daisy Jones and the Six, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lake House, An Extraordinary Union, A Man Called Ove, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Fault in Our Stars, The Great Gatsby? 

Timeless fiction in some way concerns our great human fears and eternal desires.  Those may change with time and in their details—Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, Jane Eyre to Bridget Jones—but not in their underlying emotional foundations.  Timeless fiction endures because it concerns who we are and how we must become.  Fear and hope.  Terror and desire.  Put it how you like, buy if you are writing a story, any kind of story at all, then you are touching on something common to all of us across the globe, across cultures, beyond time.

But what, exactly, is that universal which you are touching on?  Let’s find out, and in the process discover how to enhance the timeless effect of your novel.

Practical Fear and Hope

Would you say that your novel is mostly about: preventing something bad, facing something terrifying, getting away, escape, rescue, persecution, calamity, looming disaster, a killer, a malign world, unseen enemies, injustice, disease, or moral peril?  Which one, primarily?  What is the biggest way in which your protagonist could possibly be subjected to that fear?  What would make it extreme?

Would you say that your novel is mostly about: yearning for the unattainable, searching for what cannot be found or doesn’t exist, recovering what has been lost, a journey, a dream, a need for human bonding and connection, love, forgiveness of self, understanding of others, fixing what is broken or venturing into the unknown?  Which one, primarily?  What is the greatest length to which your hero or heroine could have go to get what he or she desires?  Make it extreme.

If your novel is scary or suspenseful, add: A creepy-crawly, a sick-inside baddie, an implement of pain, a lurid temptation, a cliff or dizzying height, a trap, a loved one captured, time expired, a horrible cost, a legendary place of fear, a weapon that doesn’t work, injury, left to die, a terrible choice, a worst fear come true.  Make it excruciating.

If your novel is yearning, warm or funny, add: a promise, a token, a safe place, a lost garden, a faraway land, a shared memory, a sweet sacrifice, a come hither, a heart-piercing hurt, a kind mentor, a magical food, gems or jewelry, a race to get there, a desperate gamble, a dare or wager, daring do, a prize, a kiss, a puzzle or riddle, sand, scenery, waves, a storm, an old book, a new baby, a broken heart, a precious symbol, forgiveness, changed ways, a sexy dress, a wild ride, white sheets, a sunrise.  Make everything mean something.

If nothing else as you write every day, ask: What scares me?  What do I wish could happen?  Whatever frightens, bring it about.  Whatever tugs at your heart make it more distant, harder to get, impossible to have.  Gut fear is something we don’t forget.  Deep yearning is something we will feel forever.  Make those strong in your story and you won’t have to sell them to your readers, your readers will feel that this story is already theirs.

What is the great fear or hope underlying your WIP?  How might you escalate that?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


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