Fear and How to Use It

samuel-butler-etbscreenwriting“Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.” Samuel Butler (English novelist, essayist and critic, 1835-1902). Truer words were never spoken. A character’s fear is the greatest burden he or she carries. It is the constant “static” the character cannot escape. It defines the secret shame that character never wants to face or acknowledge. It is the unspoken reason the character truly believes he or she is (or could be) a failure, a disappointment or a disgrace to others (and therefore could be or become unloved or un-lovable).

Force your character to risk everything in facing his or her fear. Unless your character faces the fear or secret shame, your character will never be free. Your character will constantly be forced to cling the mask and seek its “protection.” A character that hides a secret shame will never be able to live a truly authentic life. As long as that fear and shame is lurking in the background the character will always be its slave.

one-hour-screenwriter-etbscreenwritingLove and fear are inextricably bound together. All your character’s worries and anxieties about love will cluster right at the root of his or her fear. Your character’s worries and concerns about love don’t just color his or her romantic relationships. They bled into every single relationship and interaction the character has with another human being in the story. These fears are especially intense in dealing with the antagonist. The smart antagonist deliberately plays on this fear to try to weaken or tempt your character to be his/her own worst enemy. In a story and in life any decision based on fear is the wrong decision.

Your character’s fear is your most important emotional tool as a writer. Anytime you get in trouble in a scene, a sequence or an act— go right to your character’s fear. How does this constant underlying static of anxiety or worry operate in the dramatic or comedic action of the story? Bring the character’s fear to the surface in every scene, every sequence and every act. Take every opportunity to make the character’s physical and emotional situation and entanglements play off the fear and magnify it.

Make fear wreak havoc with the character internally. Find a way to demonstrate this conflict externally through the character’s actions. Make the worst thing that could possibly happen to the character take place on successively deeper and more risky personal levels. Then show us what the character does in response. Remember: It is through action that a person’s true character is revealed.

Fear isn’t just a prime motivator of protagonists. When antagonists do evil deeds they are most often motivated by fear. Giving the audience an glimpse of the antagonist’s fear humanizes him or her and makes this character a more complex and fully realized individual.

The above is an excerpt from The One Hour Screenwriter eBook.

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