Guest - Shauna Roberts

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Guest - Shauna Roberts

Good morning all! Our guest today is author Shauna Roberts. Shauna will be discussing how creating emotions will deepen the story.


The Closet Door Slowly Creaked Open And Then…

…a writer jumped out, waving a stack of printouts, to tell you about her research!

Okay, you probably didn't jump at the thought of a writer jumping out of a closet. But why not? With Halloween only a week away, I thought I’d share with you some of the research I’ve been doing on human fears and elements that make a story scary.

Some fears are instinctual. They evolved to protect animals from dangers they were likely to encounter and might not survive. For example, all young mammals know not to walk off an edge.

A more recent fear (evolutionarily speaking) is the fear of spiders and snakes among primates, whose ancestors encountered these creatures in the African jungles where they first evolved. In experiments, baby monkeys, apes, and humans all react with fear when a scientist puts out a toy snake or spider.

Scientists have suggested several other fears that may be instinctual in modern humans: the fear of blood (and fainting in response to seeing it) and items linked to blood such as surgical instruments; fear of dirt and contamination; and fear of vermin such as rats, mice, and insects.

“Instinctual” does not mean immutable. People can learn to not be afraid of scary things. Many people skydive, become doctors and nurses, and make pets of snakes.

The opposite is true, too. People can develop phobias, an excessive fear of something. Interestingly, a biological predisposition probably underlies some of these fears as well. The top causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory diseases, stroke, accidents, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, and the flu. Yet people are more likely to be afraid of flu shots than of the flu, and few people are afraid of cars or fast-food hamburgers. Instead, the most common phobias include fear of dogs, fear of thunder and lightning, fear of social events, fear of dead things, fear of confined spaces, fear of clowns, fear of public speaking, fear of the dark, fear of flying in an airplane, and fear of situations from which it’s hard to escape.

Knowing what people tend to fear most is useful for a writer. Reptiles, people in masks, dark places, and zombies, for example, are common elements of horror movies. But we can’t rely only on a vivid description of a snake or a corpse to horrify.

It’s the emotions a story generates in the reader that make it scary, not just a vat of spiders or a rundown Victorian house. Many techniques stir emotions:

  • Create characters readers care about. If Nancy Nogood abuses her kids and dog, the reader won’t identify with her or feel anything if she encounters danger.
  • Have events that seem possible. For example, most people don’t pick up hitchhikers anymore, so a murderous hitchhiker story may not engage readers….unless you make the hitchhiker someone even your most cautious readers would consider stopping for, such as a woman with a baby hitching on a deserted road at night in a terrible snowstorm.
  • Give the antagonist abilities, strengths, or daring far superior to the main character(s). Ghosts are scary because they can’t be killed and you can’t escape them. Sociopaths are scary because they lack empathy and normal inhibitions; they see no difference between destroying you and destroying a coffee table.
  • Put a child in danger.
  • Create a mood with your setting or description. For example, a cemetery at midnight is inherently scarier than a shopping mall at noon unless you fill that shopping mall with zombies. Choose your words for intensity and emotional impact: Compare the thoughts and feelings evoked by the description “red” versus “crimson” or “fevered” or “bloodstained.” Ditto for “water vapor” versus “mist” or “fog” and for “box the size of a refrigerator” versus “box the size of a coffin.”
  • Put your strongest words at the ends of sentences and paragraphs. (A good idea for every kind of writing, by the way.) Strong words at the end of sentences in this blog post include “spider,” “snakes,” “horrify,” “danger,” “snowstorm,” “coffin,” “zombies,” “trouble,” and “axe.”
  • Make escape seem impossible.
  • When a character manages to escape danger, they should land in greater trouble.
  • Follow a shock (such as a writer jumping out of a closet) with physical and emotional reactions—the physiological reaction to the surprise, the shriek or scream, running away, the emotions caused by being chased, the emotions that accompany encountering obstacles that prevent escape, and so on.
  • Hint at the danger awaiting a character but drag out showing the event so that the timing is a surprise. Have the event be at least a little different from what the reader is expecting. For example, show the prison escapee breaking into the cellar and finding an axe. Then stretch out the parents’ disagreement upstairs as they get their kids ready for bed.
  • Keep what’s going on at least a partial mystery to the characters.
  • Gore or fully described monsters aren’t necessary to make your scene scary. Sometimes the unseen is scarier for the reader. For example, in “Beowulf,” we never see the monster Grendel in full; we only see his arm reaching in the window to snatch a sleeping warrior. Or think of the monsters that hid under your bed when you were little. You never saw them, but occasionally they would snuffle or scratch the floor…. 

Like Mayflies in a Stream

Within the walls of ancient Uruk on the bank of the Euphrates, more than fifty thousand people live, love, work, and play, ruled over by King Gilgamesh and protected by their patron goddess, Inanna.

Although Gilgamesh epitomizes manly physical perfection, in other ways he falls short as a king. His subjects fear him, and for good reason, because he has become a bored and restless tyrant.

The people cry out to the gods for relief. The priestess Shamhat fears Gilgamesh's growing wildness will attract the wrath of the gods. She wants to protect Inanna and her temple, as well as free the people of Uruk from Gilgamesh's oppression, but she fears the repercussions for her and her son if she acts against the out-of-control king.

Then word comes to Uruk of a wild man living in the desert, a man the equal of Gilgamesh in size and strength. The king thinks the wild man can relieve his boredom and restlessness and sends someone to bring him back to court. But the person he has chosen, Shamhat, has her own agenda: She believes the wild man can humble the arrogant king.

Enkidu the wild man becomes a pawn in the struggle between Gilgamesh and Shamhat, and the future of Uruk hangs in the balance.

Available on
The book is available as an ebook, a trade paperback, and a hardcover. People can order it from, Barnes & Noble online, and local bookstores.

About Shauna Roberts is a novelist, short-story writer, and editor who lives in Southern California. She writes primarily science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. A 2009 graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, she won the 2011 Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant.

Her publications include many short stories; Like Mayflies in a Stream, a novel based on an ancient legend, the “Epic of Gilgamesh”; and Ice Magic, Fire Magic, a fantasy novel with romantic elements to be published by Hadley Rille Books in summer 2013. She is also working on a cookbook of recipes for prehistoric and ancient foods for modern cooks tied into Hadley Rille Books’ “Archaeology Series” novels. 

Contact information

Shauna Roberts (the email to give to readers) (fiction Website) (personal blog) (blog related to forthcoming cookbook) (Facebook page)


-- Lynda Again,
   That's it for today.

   Have a Blessed Day!

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7 Responses to "Guest - Shauna Roberts"

Lynda K. Scott said...

Great article, Shauna! Thanks for being with us today!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for hosting me, Lynda! It was a great opportunity to put my thoughts about invoking fear in a reader in one place.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


This really is an excellent article. Great advice for writers!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. I'm glad it was useful for you.

Unknown said...
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