True story. Witnessed in a recently read spooky novella: our narrator, assailed by sinister events, tells us:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
Of course the writer has chosen a narrator who is no accomplished wordsmith so that might go some way to explaining the rather wooden description on offer. Look, there’s nothing wrong with narrators resorting to cliché if that’s what they’d do irl. (Or indeed repetition; one chapter later, his heart skips a beat again. The precise sentence is repeated.) But on the other hand, we do need to be immersed and invested emotionally in the protag’s terror… and when, in a chapter towards the end of the book, we get,
“A shiver ran down my spine…”
…we're running the risk that cliché denies the real power of fear, tames and civilises it – wraps it in something comfortingly familiar.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us, buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, a pre-civilised fight/flight dynamic. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you and ask, where exactly does fear breed? It’s not the spine, for my money. Neither is it, in my experience anyway, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
Check out 32 Ways to Write About Fear for a good physiological starting point. And consider ‘Killing the Word Was’ from Storycraft, where Jon Mayhew and I discuss ways young writers might replace “I was scared…” with something more visceral and emotive.
It's not a simple case of adjusting the adjective - it's about adjusting the whole approach.