Start with their visceral reaction. That’s the involuntary physical reaction we have no control over, that just happens despite all our best efforts to suppress it or hide it. These reactions occur immediately, before any thought processes or deliberate actions, so it’s important to show your character’s visceral reaction first, to mirror reality and put your readers inside the character’s skin, feeling the fear or embarrassment or shock or anger right along with them.
Next, show an immediate thought-reaction, like Ow,or Oh no, or Damn, or Omigod, or That can’t be. Note that these sudden, short thought-reactions are usually italicized, both for emphasis and immediacy, and to indicate a direct thought. See my related blog post here on BRP, “Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction.”
Then go on to show the character’s other, slightly delayed reactions, such as their words, facial expressions, body language, and actions.
I had recently started drafting an article about the importance of showing immediate involuntary reactions and of describing reactions in the order that they would occur, when I read a blog post called “Visceral Rules!” by Margie Lawson on Stacy Green’s blog. In this post, Margie Lawson first reminds us that “A visceral response is a physical manifestation of emotion.”
Margie then lists some common visceral reactions to stressful actions, words or events:
· stomach clenching
· heart pounding
· rapid and shallow breathing
· pulse racing
· adrenaline surging
· legs weakening
· throat tightening
· mouth drying
· face flushing
· nausea imminent
· chest tightening
· equilibrium failing
· hear blood rushing
· vision narrowing
As Lawson, a psychotherapist, tells us, “Visceral responses are involuntary. You can’t keep your face from flushing. You can’t keep your mouth from going dry. You can’t keep your chest from tightening, your heart from pounding, your vision from narrowing.”
But she also counsels fiction writers to avoid overused, clichéd responses, which no longer have the power they once had. Similarly, don’t keep using the same reactions over and over, or pile on too many visceral responses – pick the best one or two for the situation, and save the rest for other scenes.
Lawson continues, “When a POV character experiences a strong emotional stimulus, they will have a visceral response. And that visceral response presents immediately.
“Visceral responses are experienced first. Always.”
As she reminds us, “When there’s a strong emotional stimulus, people don’t act first. People don’t think first. People don’t speak first. People experience a visceral response first. It’s immediate.”
So be sure to show characters’ reactions in the order that they naturally occur, and don’t skip that important involuntary initial physical reaction. If you show your characters experiencing a visceral response first, readers will recognize those reactions they themselves have felt, so they’ll feel more deeply what the character is feeling and become more emotionally engaged with the character and their situation—your story.
By the way, a wonderful resource I recently discovered for finding just the right physical, mental, and internal (visceral) character reactions for any given emotion, such as shock, embarrassment, anger, joy, fear, and worry, is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Here’s a link to my recent review of this excellent reference guide for fiction writers.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor specializing in suspense-thrillers and other crime fiction, as well as YA, mainstream, and historical fiction. For information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website Jodie is also publishing a series of e-booklets on various aspects of writing compelling fiction. The first in the series, Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction, is available on Amazon-Kindle or PDF for only $0.99.