Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Scaredy-Pants! 4 Breeches-er- BREACHES That Elicit Fear in Your Characters

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Fear is a powerful tool for writers and helps us create stronger stories. Bonnie Randall takes her month place at the podium today to share tips on how to scare the pants off our characters. And if you're in the mood for some good old fashion scares for Halloween...checkout her short story No Vacancy. It's creepy and scary in all the right ways.

Take it away Bonnie...

When something happens that shouldn’t happen OR when something that should happen doesn’t, the results range from feeling mildly jarred to all-out terrified. Breaches to different cognitive constructs are the underpinnings of fear.

Here are four that may resonate if you’re crafting (or watching) frightening fiction this spooky season:

1. Breach of Reality

What is that?

In 1996’s film Phenomenon, George is a simple-minded guy who, after being struck by an alien ball of light, becomes progressively smarter over the course of the story. The viewers’ reality mimics George’s own: something supernatural has happened to make him brilliant—and a whole lot more appealing. 

Except ‘reality’ is upended when it’s revealed that the bright ball of light was actually an ocular mishap caused by a brain tumor which, as it enlarges, pushes all the right places to make George smarter…as it also slowly kills him.

Less poignant, and more disturbing, are other uses of breach of reality such as in Fight Club, Jacob’s Ladder, and the excellent, yet under-rated, film Identity—all stories within which reality, as the viewer understands it, is completely upended for a virtually different—and far more upsetting—landscape, one which catches the viewer off guard and wholly unprepared.

For a supernatural(ish) take on breach of reality, consider The Matrix—a concept so smart and darkly horrifying that you leave the story wondering…what is real? 

(Here's more on Creepy Clowns and Haunted Hotels—Unspooling Why Our Characters Get Scared)

2. Breach of Expectation

Just don't open the door.
The most recent adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House is certainly frightening—in part because the house looks the part. Equally, and sometimes more terrifying, though, is when scary things don’t look scary at all. These instances breach our expectations. 

Consider beautiful Nicole Kidman as a Stepford Wife. Or the idyllic farming village in Thomas Tryon’s iconic Harvest Home. Rosemary’s (sweet, newborn) Baby was a breach of expectation, and George RR Martin’s chilling red wedding upended the expectation of love.

Something sinister that looks like it is not is a fantastic literary-scary device because it creates ambivalence, discomfort, and sometimes even shock.

(Here's more on Psychological Trump Cards That Cripple Us)

3. Breach of Trust

Am I a joke to you?
Horrifying and tragic in the literal, real-life sense, is the sociopathic mother who chooses to be deliberately cruel to her children. (Ahem: is the newest Joker not built on exactly this premise?) The incestuous father who molests his own child is—among other things—a massive breach of trust. The Church which betrays its faithful followers by being party to practices which invert the goodness and decency they worship breaches trust. Or what about the government of the country to which generations have been patriotic? What if it turns out to be controlling the minds of its constituents, ala’ Orwell’s 1984?

When trust is broken by something or someone we all assume (and expect) to be completely trustworthy, our entire world view is shattered—and that is very scary, indeed.

(Here's more on What Makes Your Characters Uncomfortable?)

4. Breach of Beliefs

There are certain things we just know: the sun will rise tomorrow. Human beings evolved. The dead can’t speak. Ghosts aren’t real. Psychics are scam artists.

Except what if they’re not? What if they can? What if they do?

Somebody help this poor kid

Breached beliefs are a cornerstone of horror. Think kids can’t become possessed by playing with a Ouija Board? Watch The Exorcist. Think the Book of Revelations is just a cobbled together set of fables? Check out The Omen. Scoff at psychics and ghosts? Try The Sixth Sense for a double-whammy that will make you think and think and think all while you twist your pre-held beliefs around like a Rubiks Cube.

(Here;s more on Writing the Terror Scenes)

The best horror stories slide these breaches over top of each other like a Venn Diagram; defying both expectation and belief, for example. Or reality and trust.

Apply this template as you read and watch scary stories over the next week—and discover which cognitive constructs the author or director breached in order to craft a sensational scare! 


Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

Website | Blog Facebook | Goodreads |


Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”

1 comment:

  1. I nearly spit my tea when I saw you mention Thomas Tryon! I read it when I was in high school - it creeped me out so totally and completely that I bought it for my best friend 🤣