The Power of the Greatest Fear in crafting a novel!

The Power of the Greatest Fear

Want to build a powerful climax to your novel? Harness the Power of the Greatest Fear to bring your character to an external plot climax, as well as an internal crisis.

We talked last time about the power of the Dark Moment Story in building that layered character. The Dark Moment story is also used to create the capstone of your novel: The Black Moment Event. This moment is not only the climax of the story, but the point of change for your character and sets up the epic finale of your novel.


The Black Moment Event hinges on understanding your character’s Greatest Fear.

Every character has a deep and abiding fear, based on his Dark Moment Story that has molded him as a person and helped established motivation for all his decisions and choices. This fear, as the novel opens helps determine what your character wants (namely, not ever repeating this fear) and guides his personality.

The key to having a greatest fear is that you want to create something that could possibly happen again, maybe not with the same people, or even the same event, but to create the same painful, emotional scenario.

This is how an author goes beyond a stereotypical, cardboard character. You, as the author, get to build your own person with his own wounds. Your character’s reaction to their dark moment story might be different than another character’s reaction to a family fight.

More, every dark moment is going to surface different kinds of fears. You can pick any fear you want out of that Dark Moment Story. It just depends on what you want to do in your story, and what story you want to tell.

The interesting part is that much of the time, authors pick a fear we relate to, which means that we will have truth in our past that we can then apply to the story. So now we’re creating characters that we can tap into in an authentic way.

In My Foolish Heart, I created a heroine who was agoraphobic. It was based on a talk show host, who’s never been in love and was trapped in her home. The reason she was trapped in her home is because she had panic attacks as a result of seeing her parents die in a horrific car accident right outside their home.

I did not understand my character. I knew her Dark Moment Story and her Greatest Fear but I couldn’t relate to her . . . or so I thought. See, I’ve always been a “brave” person–even living overseas and raising four children in Siberia. I looked at Izzy, my character, and thought she was weak.

Until . . . I started rooting around my past. I went back to a time when I myself was struggling to leave my home. I wasn’t afraid to leave but rather–overwhelmed. When I was in Russia, I had four children under the age of five, so young I had to carry two of them when we left the house. We lived in a high rise, on the ninth floor. We didn’t have a phone. We didn’t have Internet. We didn’t have running water. I didn’t have a car. And we had to walk two blocks to the little grocery kiosk. There would be times when my husband would be gone for two or three days and we’d have saltines and peanut butter in the cupboard. I’d stare at the empty shelves, wanting to conjure up anything to eat. I would think . . . I don’t know how I’m going to leave the house to buy food. I wasn’t afraid but I felt trapped, and that was enough for me to relate to Izzy and say, “Yes, this is what it feels like to be trapped in your home.”

From that emotion, I was then able to create a scene where Izzy actually was out of food and she had to go to the store. More, I was able to accurately portray her struggle.

If your character’s Dark Moment Story is something you can related to, something you can pull from your own life, you’ll create authentic situations and authentic emotions as you build that character’s story. So, don’t pick a greatest fear you can’t wrap your brain or emotions around. However, the beauty of the Dark Moment Story is that you can pick whatever greatest fear that you want. So choose wisely.


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The Greatest Fear is going to be helpful in two ways.

  1. Recreate it in the Black Moment Event. Using the Greatest Fear as a template, you’ll find an event or situation that resurrects this fear in a tangible, believable way, played out in the Black Moment Event. This gives you plotting fodder! You don’t have to set the Black Moment in cement, but you can brainstorm a number of fantastic ideas to help in the formation of your plot.


  1. The Greatest Fear adds both motivation and behavior to your character from the first page. Characters are wired to stay away from things that are going to hurt them, especially their greatest fears. So as your character walks on the page, he’s already going to be making decisions that will protect him, and keep him from getting into that dark place.


e.g. In My Foolish Heart, Izzy never wanted to leave her house. So she rigged her life so she never had to leave. She knew all the delivery numbers by memory, paid someone to deliver groceries and had a work-at-home job.


The Greatest Fear is the single most powerful ingredient you as the author can pull from the Dark Moment Story to help you build motivation, behavior and the essential Black Moment Event that builds the external climax and sets up the character change.

Next time we’ll talk about creating a powerful Internal Journey by understanding the Lie your character believes.

Until then, Go! Write Something Brilliant!





Susie May

P.S. Need help crafting a novel?  Check out our Brilliant Writer series in kindle! 







You Don’t Have To Do It Alone – Brainstorming Help!

As writer’s we are constantly learning new things to improve our craft. That being said, brainstorming is one of the harder aspects of the writing journey for me. It’s amazing, I can help other writers with plotting but when it comes to mine, I get stuck. I was astounded (and greatly relieved) to find out I could get help.

Last week I met with my craft buddies and we had a fantastic time brainstorming. Not only did we flesh out our next novel but Gabrielle Meyer was an awesome hostess. She planned the schedule and created the perfect atmosphere of brainstorming and relaxing. For the most part, we worked in the mornings and played in the afternoons. Listen, if I didn’t love where I lived, I would move to Little Falls Minnesota. Thank you Gabrielle!

If you want to brainstorm with a group, here are a few tips.

  1. Have Clear Expectations. Like anything else, you want to go into a project with clear expectations and communication.Time is precious and you want to maximize it.
  2. Set a schedule. You want to make sure everyone gets equal time. We scheduled about three hours per person to brainstorm.
  3. Voice Recorder. Utilize a voice recorder or the recorder on your smart phone. I promise you won’t be able to type notes quick enough. Ideas can come fast and furious and they can change just as quick. A recorder ensures that you catch it all.
  4. Be flexible. Remember, you are brainstorming with people who have different perspectives and experiences. Listen to the ideas; you never know what may come from it. One idea leads to another and before you know it you’ve hit upon something that works!
  5. Speak the same lingo. The group of people you brainstorm with should speak the same writing lingo as you. Translated? If you follow the Lindy Hop, then they should know exactly what that means. If they follow a three act structure, you should know what that means. It helps ensure all needs are met.

These are just a few benefits I receive from our craft group.

  • Perspective. Each person has different talents and experiences. In our group alone we have a copy editor, a journalist/reporter, a grant writer and a historian. Throw the four of us together and we came up with awesome goals, disappointments and absolutely awesome love stories to write.
  • Lindy Hop. We utilized the My Book Therapy’s framework to plot a book and we were able to walk away with our next story almost complete. After I get home I plug everything into an Excel chart and then review it with The Book Buddy. Use whatever works for you, but I’ve found these two tools help ensure I haven’t missed any key points in plotting.
  • Friendships. We’ve developed awesome friendships because of our common passion of Jesus and writing. What a blessing to call these ladies my friends.

What about you, what experiences have you had with brainstorming?

Act 2: Adding in Unexpected Twists, Turns and Tests


Last week, we talked about the GUTS, or Act 2 of your novel, the first element being the Growing romance of the hero and heroine. 


However, this romance only happens through the next element:


U- Unexpected Twists, Turns and Tests:

During the GUTS portion of the story, the hero and heroine’s mettle will be tested – especially as it relates to their competence, that thing they do well.  The point of the middle to cause them to grow as human beings through lessons, revelations, challenges and epiphanies.  However, the middle is often where the tension sags – and that’s usually because we run out of the unexpected, and our motivation to keep going sags.  The key to a powerful middle is using the  peripheral plotting, and stakes and motivation techniques.


For example, your hero might handle climbing down a mountain just fine, but put a wounded child on his back, and it ups the challenge.  Now, add in a bad guy holding the mother hostage and give him a choice between saving the boy and saving the mother.  And then make the hero fall and break his ankle.  Move in a storm.  Have him wake a sleeping bear.  Finally, make his rope break.


Look at what the hero has around him you can cause trouble with – does he have a child who is bleeding? What if his car goes off the road? What if the kidnapper suddenly calls and he has ten minutes to get to the drop off point? Think outside the box, and make it worse, always testing their competence, or what they think they are good at. 


For example, In my book Expect the Sunrise, Andee is a survival expert, but she’s got a bunch of city slickers with her who panic.  Not to mention the wilderness, weather and a crazy FBI agent who thinks people are out to get him.  I have a lot to work with in the periphery.  And, every time she encounters something, it chips away at her abilities until she is finally kidnapped and ends up nearly dying.  She realizes that despite her best efforts, she has failed. 


All the while, make sure you have enough motivation to push him forward, over these obstacles.  (to get a refresher on this technique, click here).  Here’s some questions you can ask to keep the tension high for every scene: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now?  What’s the most unexpected?  How can you combine these? 


Thanks for reading!  Next week we’ll talk about the next two elements of the GUTS section. Have a great writing week!

Susie May 

Writing a Suspense: The basic elements

Over the past four months, we’ve been covering the basic elements of Act 1 of a Suspense. 

Before we take a little romance rabbit trail (for all your romantic/suspense novelists!) let’s review the basic Act 1 elements:


The first act consists of the setup, or what I call: The Game:  Players, the Goals, the Rules, Board/Playing field. 


G =  Let us meet the Guys and Gals.  Who are they?  What makes them common/sympathetic?  What makes them extraordinary?  We’ll be talking in coming weeks about developing the romance of a romantic/suspense novel, also, but for now, there are a number of elements a suspense hero/heroine should have.


If you took my plotting class, you’ll know I spend a lot of time on developing my characters, and making a plot specific to them.  However, in review there are three elements you must have for a suspense novel: 


  1. Sympathy.  A hero/heroine need to be believable – everyday people.  Even if they are Navy Seals or police women, they need to have some connect to the reader.  You do this by creating a common element with the reader. 


Ask: What situation can you open the story with that connects your reader with a feeling, an idea, a sacrifice or a moment that we can all relate to?  



2.  Competence.  A Hero/Heroine also need some area of Competence.

            Everyone has something they are good at, even if they don’t know it and a great suspense novel brings this out.  The suspense should challenge their abilities at each turn, and yet in the end, it’s this hidden competence, or rekindle competence that saves the day.


            I often start by showing a glimpse of the hero/heroine’s competence, putting them in a situation they are good at – so we know later how we will work to destroy them.


3.  Greatest Fear: A hero/heroine in a suspense novel also needs a greatest fear, something we will use to craft that climactic moment when everything goes wrong.  Often the greatest fear has something to do with his/her past, some dark moment, or his/her mistakes.  It’s exactly this greatest fear that you will make happen. 


Sometimes you can start a book with the greatest fears coming true.  This is a great way to set a baseline, or an understanding of what could go wrong.  You can also have this greatest fear happen to someone close to the hero/heroine, or have it be in his backstory, and have it dredged up because of something that happens. The key to a Greatest Fear is that it has to be tangible, specific, and possible, and compelling.


In a suspense novel the hero/heroine will – using their unique abilities, learning more, confronting their own demons –  eventually find a new strength to overcome and win the day.



A = Anchoring  This is the use of storyworld to build suspense.  

            I talk about Anchoring in my hooks class, but it’s so important in a suspense to help your reader see the scenes, and to craft the correct mood that creates a sense of forbodeing.


Just as a review, take these two descriptions: 


            She stood in the doorway, one foot on the threshold, hands on the frame of the door.  The laughter was menacing and harsh, and in the darkness she sensed movement.  Something cold trickled across her cheek.  “Come in, little Susie,” said a voice from across the hollow room. 


            She froze in the doorway, one foot trembling on the threshold, the other cemented on the front porch.  Laughter cackled from inside the black room — the kind that made her shrink back — and ran an icy finger up her spine.  The room was so dark it seemed to press into her, like oil, seeping into her pores.  She licked her lips, swiping from them salt, but her throat closed on the moisture and sucked it dry as the odor of something unwashed and putrid, a marinating New York dumpster, watered her eyes. 

            And then the voice.  Soft, like a tickle in the silence of the room.  Too sweet to be safe.  “Come in, Little Susie.” 


Which one is more evocative?  Creepier?  (Hopefully the 2nd!)  When you’re building scenes in suspense, you want to raise the emotional and sensory level of the reader by using specific, evocative words from the five senses.  Smells: be specific with them, and if you can, use a metaphor.  Sounds: make them stand out.  Sights: give them action, and remember you’re in the pov of the character, so they’ll interpret things through their lens, whether it be fear, or hope, or dread.  Tastes: you can taste your fear – dry throat, tinny, salty.  Touch: like the icy finger up her spine.  Or, I could have added how the wood from the doorframe pressed into her fingers, marking it. 


In suspense, use your imagination to get specific with your setting and help your readers really feel as if they’ve walked into that haunted room with the character. 


**In Anchoring, you also want to consider the backdrop of where your suspense takes place – find places that make it harder for your hero/heroine to accomplish their goals.  I’ve done scenes on trains, in caves, the Alaskan frontier, night clubs, a monastery, a graveyard, a burning building….any environment that will raise tension, both in the setting and in the plot.



M = Motivation vs. Stakes –In a great suspense, there is always a rising interplay of balance between the motivation and stakes of the story.  As things get worse, and their fears grow, so also do their motivations to defeat the fears.  Make sure your characters have powerful motivations to push them forward into increasing insurmountable obstacles and compelling stakes.


Always ask – does my character have sufficient motivation to fight this battle?  If not, you need to increase the motivations to equal the challenge. 



E = Event – The bad thing that will happen needs to present a Believable, Compelling, Immediate, & Terrifying Threat


Whether the event that is/will happen is caused by an elements or a villain, it needs to have four components:


(Elements – sometimes the suspense is an action adventure story, and it’s beating a volcano (Dante’s Peak) or some other natural or man-made element – like The Perfect Storm.)


1.      Believable – can show the event happening before, or a small glimpse of what COULD happen. We need to believe that the threat is real, and deadly.  We need to believe that the bad guy WILL pull the trigger, or detonate the bomb, or that the volcano will erupt.    


2.      Compelling – it’s personal, and affects their life.  At some point in the story – preferably near the beginning, it needs to get personal.  Either they walk in on the situation/crime, or they are the targets, or they are caught up in it.  This compelling aspect can be peripheral – meaning it can affect loved ones — (this is why romantic suspense works so well)



3.      The Event needs to also be Immediate there needs to be a deadline.  The reader has to believe that the threat will happen, and happen soon. 


Note: Somewhere in the middle of the book there needs to be a ticking clock or countdown to the big bang.  Whether it’s the mounting pressure inside the volcano, or the harried hostage taker losing his patience.  Or, it’s the plane running out of fuel. 



4.       Terrifying – We need to believe that this is  a horrible thing –meaning, we need to see exactly it would be horrible if it happened.  This is different from believing it can happen.  It’s answering the questions — so what?  If it happens, how does it affect me? 


You make it terrifying by looking at two different perspectives – personal and public fears. 


Personal fears are all about losing someone we love – a family member – a wife, child, something we all fear. 


The public fear is about how devastating the event is, and who is affected.  (And if you can throw in someone in the personal circle, that increases the effect.)


The reader needs to understand why this threat is scary!


Now, you have the Game set up.  In the first three chapters, you want to introduce us to the players, show us the goals, tell us what’s at stake, and then push us into the action.  


Now, you’re saying…wait, wait, Suspense books have to start off from the very beginning fast and on the run. 


Yes, they do.  And we’re going to get to that during the “tricks” phase.  This is just the overall structure.


Tomorrow we’ll jump into Act 2 – or all the GUTS of the story. 


See you then!

Susie May