Thursday, April 20, 2017

Visceral, Visceral, Visceral (to the tune of Marcia, Marcia, Marcia)

by Sean Taylor

On their way to New Orleans...
More than once or twice, and if you’re a long-time reader of this blog you’ll have noticed, I’ve talked about what I consider one of the most important parts of writing strong genre fiction, particularly when that genre fiction ventures into adventure fiction.

What do I mean by that? Well, genre fiction has a sliding scale of tone, just like all other fiction. There’s a world of difference between the literary tone of much of Bradbury and Vonneguts’s sci-fi and the political satire of Heinlein and the straight out action of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey or Deathworld by Harry Harrison. If you’re looking to make your mark on literary fiction with your genre work, you might at first feel this may not exactly be the article for you, but...

I would argue that the principles here don’t hurt any tone, from literary to pulp and all points in between (thank you, ZZ Top). In fact, the skills you learn in writing visceral descriptions only make your better at your writing game -- whatever court you choose to play on.

Still with me? Good.

Let’s all settle in on our starting point. What is visceral writing?

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
4.  of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera :  splanchnic visceral organs

To keep it simple for the sake of this tutorial, visceral writing means to me writing that seeks to bypass the brain and aim straight for the emotions and a tight feeling in your gut. That means that visceral writing triggers responses a reader can’t help but feel automatically, sort of the storytelling equivalent of a doctor tapping your knee with that annoying rubber mallet.

Why Visceral?

As an English major, I’m usually the last person to tell you to go for a lowest common denominator engagement. I hate seeing concepts reduced to bumper sticker slogans, and I particularly detest strawman arguments in politics and culture. But, when it comes to grabbing a reader’s attention, I have to change my stance.

Visceral writing, while I wouldn’t call it lowest common denominator thinking, does however go straight to the feelings and reactions most human beings have in common. It goes for the sensation of queasiness from pain, the warm glow of a lover’s touch, the hunger in the stomach for one of grandma’s fried apple crumbles. When done well, it’s the closest a book (which is, at best, let’s just agree here, a series of words and has not real impact outside the imagination) can come to creating a physical sensation in the reader -- a knot in the stomach, a quickening of the blood to the nethers, perhaps even salivation.

No seeing dead people here... Only five senses...
Well-crafted visceral storytelling can reach every kind of reader, from the Oprah book club zombie to the Doc Savage collector. After all, even literary readers enjoy a little gut clench with their cerebral exercise.

Why Does It Work?

It’s not just a writer’s hocus pocus. It’s science. You see, our brains are hardwired by years of history, and we are automatically triggered by certain stimuli to react with an appropriate sensation.

As writers, if we want to be effective (and better yet, profitable, popular, able to remove the stigma of our chosen vocation from our parents who still don’t get it), we need to bring some science to our writing desk.

Though we humans have large, sophisticated brains, and like to see ourselves as thinking, feeling creatures, deep inside the basement of our minds there still lurks the brain of a reptile that continues to behave not by logic or emotion, but gut instinct. When triggered, this visceral brain still has the primal power to override all higher rationality. This is why otherwise calm and intelligent persons can panic when in danger or be driven to violence if strongly provoked. The visceral grips the mind in an excited, irrational state – a sensation not unlike what we feel when held in the grip of a great movie. Though our rationality should tell us the film is fake, our hearts still pound, our blood pressure rises, and we cannot tear our eyes from the screen. A great film makes us slaves to our reptilian minds. 
Great storytellers manage to exploit the power of the visceral by presenting situations that trigger the primal instincts that remain hardwired into our brains. But what are these instincts? If one observes animal behavior, it becomes clear that life revolves around one thing: survival. Nature is harsh, and death is always around the corner. This forces creatures to be forever preoccupied with either the search for food, successfully mating before one dies, or running for one’s life. To put things simply, the survival of the fittest has honed animal instincts down to either LUST or FEAR. “Lust” here does not necessarily have a sexual connotation. Though the urge to procreate is among these instincts, lust can be defined as any undeniable urge to fulfill a physical or deep-seeded behavioral need. We have all heard of a “lust for food,” a “lust for power,” and even a “lust for life.” All are expressions of irrational impulses to fulfill a deep, primal, often unexplainable craving. “Fear,” as used here, hardly needs definition. It is the compulsion to avoid personal harm.  

In other words, we still startle when an unknown someone taps our shoulders from behind because somewhere in our brain, we know that could be a man-eating beast ready to pounce. We still react sexually to a person we find appealing because we somewhere in our brain, we remember the importance of carrying on our tribal group.

See? Science. Like I said.

Cool, But How?

Story narrative is based in what characters see and hear. There’s almost no way around that. Those are the foundations on which you build the frame. And that’s okay. But remember, nobody lives on just the concrete slab. You actually have to put up walls.

(For a cool drinking game as you read this, take a swig every time I switch over to a new metaphor. You’ll be reading the final paragraph from a ditch somewhere with a missing liver.)

a) Get in touch with your feelings.

What makes you cringe? Not just the image of it, but the very thought of it.

What sounds make your eyes squint and get that tiny sliver of headache along the edges of your brow?

What smell makes you both afraid and compelled to turn to see what’s behind you?

What kind of touch makes your skin crawl or gives you excited gooseflesh?

What taste turns your stomach? What taste creates a hungry nostalgia?

Okay, but I can still write about shooting things, right?
b) Now go deeper.

Think about your “metaphysical” senses. While visceral writing is designed by nature to affect the physical body, don’t forget that the brain is still a part of that body.

What ideas create longing for you? (Remember, not just the idea of longing as an intellectual exercise, but the actual sensations of longing within you.)

What type of sensual experience makes you feel at peace?

What does “home” feel like to you?

What comes to your mind when you feel lost, even in a place you know well?

These are all feelings just as valid as a gut punch or a tasty pie. Each of them creates a physical connect somewhere between your brain and some nerve ending inside you.

c) Don’t confuse visceral stimuli with visceral reactions. 

What do I mean by that? Well, creating an emotionally empty list of ways your protagonist responded to something, regardless of how “visceral” he or she did so, isn’t the same thing as triggering that same response in your readers.

Make no mistake -- while using the idea of gut reactions to help you character react more authentically is a fantastic way to improve your characterizations, it isn’t visceral writing. It’s only better character writing.

The goal of this article is to help you create those sensations in readers, and keep their eyes glued to your story, not to make your characters more realistic (although that can be a wonderful added-on value as you master the techniques).

d) Visceral doesn’t mean gross. 

Sure, the feeling of needing to vomit is a visceral reaction, but just as the saying goes, “All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles,” visceral writing isn’t limited to the realm of the painful or the gross.

This belief tends to lead to one of two errors in thinking:

  1. I don’t write crime stories or horror stories, so visceral writing doesn’t concern me.
  2. I only need to think about this when I’m writing some kind of fight or heavy action sequence.

Wrong. And wrong. As you’ll see below, even literary fiction benefits from connecting with raw emotional response. Not only that, but one of the least bloody genres out there, romance novels, has been a bastion for years for writing that gets a physical response.

It’s not just for headless corpses and fist fights.

e) General Pointers to Improve Your Gut Punches (and your work period)

Use concrete, to-the-point word choices. Don’t slow down your readers with concepts. Let your nouns be the most accurate noun possible and your verbs be the most accurate verb possible.  For a useful list of strong verbs that convey both action and emotion, click here:

Have a K! And a P! And another K! And here's a D!
It’s a common thread here on this blog, but I’ll add it here too. Listen to the sound of your words. Punches sound better with hard, stopping sounds like k, p, d, etc. Running moves faster with the sounds of soft letters like s, z, m, and n.

Watch your pacing. Let a fight have a dance and flow. Let a moment of passion vary from slow to fast. Let the scent of baked macaroni and cheese linger in the reader’s nose then chop off into short wisps of scent with sentence fragments. Let form meet function.

Putting It All Together

Here are a few examples to help demonstrate how it all works inside the framework of your story (or, inside the framework of other people’s stories, since I probably haven’t seen your story yet).

From Raymond Chandler, THE BIG SLEEP:

The main hallway of the Sternwood Place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. 
The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.

Why is it effective?

Chandler could have left the description of Sternwood Place to just the eyes, but he was better than that. The detail of the knight and the naked women not only set up his worldview, but also appeal to lustful affectations of a male reader of the time, but not just lust, no, lust with a side of chivalry, that good feeling in the heart to accompany the happy feeling in the groin. And… for the really astute readers, even the name of the place creates a sound of disgust in the the throat. It has no flow. All stops.

From Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt”:

And he  marched  about  the house turning  off the  voice  clocks,  the stoves,  the heaters, the shoe  shiners, the shoe lacers, the body scrubbers and  swabbers and massagers, and  every other machine be could put  his hand to. 
The house was full of dead bodies, it seemed. It felt like a mechanical cemetery. So silent. None of the  humming hidden energy  of machines waiting to function at the tap of a button.

Why is it effective?

Ray counters the clean efficiently of clocks and stoves with the introduction of “dead bodies.” The words carry a smell and a sight, but not only that. It also has an emotional context, particularly when combined with the silent “mechanical cemetery.” And listen to the “hidden, humming energy of machines,” which ironically contains the very hum the reader has just been told he or she can’t hear, creating conflicting feelings.


The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.

Why is it effective?

Because it doesn’t even matter what the hell the word "pugnacious" means. We’re already worked up by grape fruits and a rope of black hair. To top even that, Morrison gives us the tinge of sadness by noticing the fleetingness of such a heavenly view, “saving with the mind what they lost with the eye.”

No blatant advertising here. Nope. This
actually relates to that paragraph right there.
And, because this is my blog, after all, here’s one from my own work. This one’s from the story “Lucky Strikes” in my collection SHOW ME A HERO:

The Senator’s death was a textbook shooting. Muldaine had taken one slug in the temple and died instantly. His body slumped in the leather desk chair, and his head lay back, eyes still open, staring in vain at the office’s high ceiling. 
The intern wasn’t so lucky. His body lay in the doorway, arms and legs spread out like a stomped spider. He had taken eight rounds, three in his chest, one in his right kneecap, two in his face, and the remaining two in his right arm. The bullets that had disfigured his face had done most of the damage. One had taken his left eye and left a bleeding, empty socket in its place. The other had shattered his jaw, exposing the muscle and bone of his cheek. The three chest shots were clean—though none of them had pierced his heart. The shot to the knee had made walking away impossible. With any luck, he had passed out before he died. But judging by the pained grimace on his face, that hadn’t been the case. 
And there was the matter of the word “Atlanta” he had scrawled in his own blood on the hardwood floor.

Why is it effective?

Which body do you immediately care more about? The Senator? No. The intern. He doesn’t even have a name, making the death that much more “forgettable,” but the words won’t let the reader forget someone seemingly unimportant. The language of “stomped spider” and “exposing the muscle and bone of his cheek” and “bleeding, empty socket” have visuals that immediate create a picture in the mind, a picture most find anything but soothing. And hopefully, if I’ve my job write, you want to walk around the word “Atlanta” drawn in blood on the floor.

Take Me Home, Daddy

Feel free to post some of you favorite visceral examples below in the comments. I’d love to see them.

Until next time.


Note: For more information about this topic, visit the roundtable article, “Pow! Right in the Viscera! -- Writing Prose with a Gut Punch.