When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral level. Merriam Webster says:
Visceral is an adjective:
vis·cer·al | \ ˈvi-sə-rəl , ˈvis-rəl\
Definition of visceral
1: felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body : DEEP a visceral conviction
2: not intellectual : INSTINCTIVE, UNREASONING visceral drives
3: dealing with crude or elemental emotions : EARTHY a visceral novel
In other words, emotions that hit us hard evoke sudden feelings deep within our guts as well as in our hearts and minds. Yes, these feelings can be reflected in our expressions, but facial contortions alone don’t show what is going on inside the character.
Visceral reactions are involuntary—we can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding. We can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. It is this internal physical gut reaction that is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.
Simplicity has impact, so selecting the most powerful words to convey emotion is critical. What do we want to do with our opening paragraphs? We want to tantalize the reader.
Words are the author’s Jedi mind tricks. The right words compel the reader to turn the page because they must find out what comes next.
When choosing words with visceral and emotional impact, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants have more impact.
One way to create a sympathetic response in the reader is to use a simple 1 – 2 – 3 trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.
- Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
- Follow up with a thought response. “Oh my god!” That is how it hits us, right? Gut punch then mental reaction as we process the event.
- Third, finish up with body language.
Twenty years ago, I witnessed a horrific motorcycle accident. The young man flew by me on his bike at twice the speed limit, with his girlfriend clinging precariously behind. Both wore helmets but were dressed for a hot day in the sun, wearing cut-off shorts and tank-tops. As they passed me, I had a premonition their ride would end badly. No sooner had I registered that thought, when they blew through a red light at the next intersection and crashed into the side of a minivan at fifty miles per hour.
Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch: the disbelief/OMG moment, followed by knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!” which is sometimes followed by disassociation.
In the slow-motion minute that the motorcycle plowed into the side of the van, I experienced those reactions in that order. In the immediate moments following the crash, I felt disbelief, which transitioned into calm disassociation. Separated from the emotion, I was able to think clearly, knew exactly what to do. Getting the medics called and the injured stabilized took priority: action overrode emotion. However, afterward, with the injured gone from the scene, I broke down, shaking so badly I was unable to drive.
When you dissect them, you will see that all emotions, from the mildest to the strongest, affect us both physically and mentally in that 1-2-3 order:
- Initial gut reaction
- Flash of mental processing
- Body language, expression etc.
When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because mild is boring. But strong emotions create powerful, compelling characters and highly charged situations.
But if you want to emphasize a certain chemistry between two characters, good or bad, visceral reactions on the part of your protagonist are a good way to do so.
Here are some examples of simple emotions from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact it was written ninety years ago, and we all have different tastes in reading, hopefully you will see the powerful words he uses.
Here, Fitzgerald describes a feeling of hopefulness:
And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees—just as things grow in fast movies—I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.
Next, he describes shock:
It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
Her expression was curiously familiar—it was an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable until I realized that her eyes, wide with jealous terror, were fixed not on Tom, but on Jordan Baker, whom she took to be his wife.
The discomfort of witnessing a marital squabble:
The prolonged and tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back.
Fitzgerald’s prose is written in the literary style of the 1920s, but we modern writers can learn something important from him: We can convey a wide range of emotions without resorting to cliché descriptions. His words are carefully considered, deliberately chosen, powerful words intended to convey the greatest impact in the least amount of space.
- great bursts of leaves growing on the trees
- the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
- an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable
- intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back
Throughout the novel, the way Fitzgerald combines words evokes emotions in the reader.
We feel shocked at the casual callousness of our protagonist and the cruelty of the others; the lack of empathy for the working class; and the hedonistic immersion into a culture where money and alcohol can get you anything you want—except love. We feel pity; we feel Nick’s remorse for the things he couldn’t change about Tom and Myrtle or Tom and Daisy, and Jay Gatsby.
We understand Gatsby’s final act of self-sacrifice, although we don’t agree with it.
We will continue the exploration of depth in the Word-Pond that is Story with a look at the influence of atmosphere/ambiance on the reader’s emotions and their perceptions.
Edit: The accident I witnessed actually occurred in the summer of 1999. As I was writing this post, my wonky grasp of passing time incorrectly listed it as “ten years ago.” My, how time flies!
Credits and Attributions
Definition of visceral, Merriam Webster Online © 2019 Merriam Webster Online Dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/visceral (accessed 07 July 2019)
Quotes from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. PD|75 Fair Use.
Original Cover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. Cover artist: Francis Cugat. PD|75 Fair Use.