Thursday, February 5, 2015

Pow! Right in the Viscera! -- Writing Prose with a Gut Punch

This week let's talk about writing visceral prose, the kind of stuff that really makes a reader feel like he or she is there in the work in a truly palpable sense. 

We get the word "visceral" from the word "viscera," which means "the soft organs of the body." So visceral in the scientific sense means simply "relating to the viscera," but that also transfers over to the literary definition as well: "characterized by or proceeding from instinct rather than intellect: a visceral reaction; characterized by or dealing with coarse or base emotions; earthy; crude: a visceral literary style."

In other words, visceral writing hits readers where it counts, right in the gut, right in those soft organs and igniting and inciting a physical reaction (or at least physiological facsimile thereof).

So why does it work, and how do writers make it happen? 

Why do visceral passages resonate with readers so much more effectively than passages that deal the only intellectual understanding? Or do you disagree?

Gordon Dymowski: Visceral passages are much more primal, hitting readers in their emotional centers on a much more direct level. I've written both "clinical" (as a professional) and "emotional" writing - visceral writing tends to be more memorable because the reader can connect an emotion with a particular passage.​

Richard Lee Byers: Visceral passages generally resonate with readers when the writer is trying to elicit an emotional response, which in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, is much of the time. That doesn’t mean visceral writing is always the best choice.

Humor sometimes works partly because the narrative maintains a wry, witty distance from the characters. P. G. Wodehouse did this even when writing in the first person, which is a good trick when you think about it. A detached, cerebral style also works to reflect the perspective of a detached, cold point-of-view character. And some passages, particularly ones that are mainly exposition, just don’t have content compatible with visceral writing. It would look silly if the writer kicked out the jambs in that particular paragraph.

Selah Janel: I think, in a lot of ways, it all comes down to human experience. We all have different levels of education and intellectual experience, and in a way approaching some subjects with that approach only serves to distance the reader. With visceral and emotional-focused writing, though, you bring things back to everyone’s core experiences: we all have some experience with terror, sadness, joy, unrequited love, etc. When an author really dives into what it means to feel those things, really digs in to what those experiences mean for the characters instead of just describing the experiences, themselves, then everyone has a way into that author’s work. Whether the approach is used to disgust or terrify, like in horror, or connect with a reader via human experience, it’s still very effective.

Ray Bradbury was a master at that. I still have vivid memories of being disturbed by a lot of his shorts in the October Country, because they played on such simple, human fears. Likewise, A Medicine for Melancholy and Hopscotch are two of the loveliest, romantic shorts I’ve ever read, and they’re even more impressive because the main characters in both are young women. Dandelion Wine is full of examples of really digging in and showcasing the emotions behind little life experience. It isn’t just about a boy who buys shoes and has a friend move away and gets sick – it’s about the elation of simple things, the importance of fear that runs away with you, the heartbreak of losing family, the frustration in miscommunicating with those you love. Otherwise, if it was written from an intellectual standpoint, it’d be a pretty boring book.

Iscah: They resonate in a different way. My imagine is very strong. I experience the things I read, so I prefer a degree of distance in my fiction, particularly when the situation is unpleasant. A distanced perspective also provides a broader view. The visceral approach lets you feel the knife. The intellectual approach allows you to appreciate the point of the knife. There's a place for both, but I tend to go light on the visceral when things are unpleasant and it's not important to the plot or character development. I feel it allows the reader to set their imagination to their own comfort level.

Stephanie Osborn: Visceral passages force the reader to have a physical and emotional response in a way that an intellectual grasp often will not. To say that something evoked a “visceral response” means that it created a “gut feeling” in the reader.

Let me give you a few examples from a book I co-authored with NYT-bestselling author and star of NatGeo’s Rocket City Rednecks, Dr. Travis S. Taylor. The book is called Extraction Point. It follows Dr. Ray Brady and his team of black ops, looking for a high-tech terrorist, who may be either an extraterrestrial, a time-traveler, or both.

An unconscious Ray rolled over in bed again in an attempt to find a more comfortable position but it only aggravated his stitches. The pain woke him out of his dream. He squirmed a bit and, after several minutes of being unable to get comfortable, decided to get up and take another pain pill. He squinted at the alarm clock on the nightstand and the faint red numbers told him that there were still a few hours of good sleep time left. He eased out of bed, trying not to bother his wife, but he was too groggy and stiff to be graceful; he nearly fell out of bed on his first try. He stumbled into the bathroom on legs that felt as flexible as ramrods and ached about like rats gnawing on them, and rummaged through the medicine cabinet for his meds.

This particular passage shows us what the protagonist, Ray Brady, is feeling the night after a fight with their suspect. We understand his injuries, and we sympathize; we’ve all been there with stiffness and soreness — after a hard gym workout, a tumble down stairs, a minor (or major) automobile accident. But it’s more an intellectual understanding; it doesn’t feel like a giant, cold fist reaching into our bellies and grabbing a handful of entrails. Part of the reason is that what’s going on is not serious enough to really grab a handful of the reader’s guts. He’s uncomfortable; we get that. That’s about it.

This next passage, on the other hand...

Everything had proceeded normally until they’d driven squarely into the mine field about an hour after dawn the next morning. It wasn’t supposed to happen: the new vehicles were supposed to be shielded on the bottom, but Ray watched in slow motion horror as the vehicle ahead of him blew up from below, spewing fragments of humvee and human flesh everywhere. His own driver simultaneously slammed on the brakes as a splatter of blood sprayed the windshield. Part of a hand bounced off the hood.
One single Marine flew, relatively intact, through the air, a trail of bright red blood arcing behind him, to land hard on the ground a few yards away. Miraculously, his landing didn’t trigger a secondary explosion. But he wasn’t moving, and a puddle of blood was starting to form in the dirt under him.
“ALL HALT!” Ray barked as loudly as he could into his radio. “ALL HALT!MINE FIELD! MEDIC! MAN DOWN!”
...In less than a minute he had made big progress. He’d gotten to the side of the wounded Marine, managing to grapple him up and over his shoulder, with the [land mine] detector over the other, before starting to walk in his own footsteps back to the humvee. He’d glanced up long enough to see the medic, climbing from vehicle to vehicle in their convoy— 
—And kicked a pebble. Time slowed down in his mind as he watched the pebble skitter across the road and bounce, once, twice, a third time…Time always allowed for things to happen… 
He remembered a roar like all the cannons in the history of the world firing at once, and searing pain, and then blackness.

This is an excerpt from a flashback sequence: Ray had wartime experience in Mideast engagements. He and his unit were being extracted, when their small convoy ran squarely into a mine field. We’re dumped squarely into Ray’s brain as he experiences all of it. Tell me you don’t get that sense of time slowing down, of a sickening realization of what you’ve just done, a dizzying detachment — until all hell breaks loose and the time dilation snaps back into the horrifying reality.

But visceral writing doesn’t have to be about matters grotesque. Sometimes it’s about love. And sometimes it’s just about understanding. Try this little family scene: Ray, his wife Sam, and toddler daughter Abby (who has only just begun speaking), have just returned from the book’s adventures, and are trying to deal with the aftereffects. We start with Sam telling Ray a secret.

“Daddy showed me your files before we came in to recruit you. I felt so bad that your handsome face had had to be reconstructed. But they did a really good job. And it doesn’t matter either way, Ray. I love YOU,” she said, putting her free hand over his heart, “the guy in here, and I think I’d have loved you even if they hadn’t been able to put your face back together at all.” 
“I love you, too, hot stuff,” Ray murmured, sucking in a deep breath as he relaxed. All I could want, all I could ever ask for, and more. He put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and squeezed lightly, then released her. 
“Da,” Abby said again, looking up at Ray, recognizing his voice. “Da?”
“Yes, honey,” Sam told the girl. “That’s Daddy. I know he looks a little diff— um, I know he looks kinda funny, but it’s Daddy. Do you want to go to him?”
Ray held out his hands, tentative, prepared for rejection. But Abby went to him without hesitation. She buried her little face in his chest, wallowing around for several minutes, breathing deep and recognizing his scent; then she looked up at him and smiled. 
“Da,” she declared, certain. A tiny fingertip ran along a berry vein on his cheek, and she laughed, then clapped her hands. “Da! Da da!” And she giggled. 
“That’s right, princess, Dada,” Ray beamed, feeling like his chest would burst.

If that doesn’t give you a gut-level response, you might wanna check your guts.

Robby Hilliard: It just so happens that when I went back to school to finish my degree, one of the courses I took was a psychology survey course. One of the things we looked at had to do with various aspects of brain functioning and I came across a study dealing with mirror neurons. It turns out that when reading, if the reader is actually visualizing an action, sensory input, or feeling (especially if these are things that the reader could conceivably do or experience themselves), the same mirror neurons fire in the brain that fire when the person is actually doing said thing. This would suggest that there is a real, physical reaction in the readers brain when writers use visceral descriptors. So if for no other reason, the fact that visceral descriptors fire up a reader’s brain should be enough! The fact that it can do things like get the reader to become immersed in the story world is also an excellent reason.

Robert Krog: Different readers react differently, of course. What seems visceral to one, may seem merely crude to another. What strikes one as visceral, may strike another as only gory. There should of course, be distinctions among all of those. On the other side, what strikes one reader as intellectual, may seem to another as only stuffy and boring. And some find attempts at visceral writing to be boring, on an intellectual basis. And, strangely enough, some have a visceral response to the intellectual. I find that, as a reader, the more knowledge I have, the more thoughtful I am, the more likely I am to respond well to both, so long as both are well done.

Rose Streif: Visceral passages can draw the reader in to point where they are virtually experiencing the story themselves: seeing, feeling, hearing, even tasting.  Where one may disagree is with technical writing or even with certain types of hard science fiction, where technical qualities traditionally outweigh the emotional.

What do you believe contributed to the shift from passive, removed, intellectual descriptors in early novels (particularly British and American) to more visceral, in-the-middle-of-it-all descriptors used in contemporary stories?

Gordon Dymowski: ​I'll put the blame on Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett. They were both responsible for paring written language of its more flowery flourishes, keeping their writing direct. I think that social changes in both countries around World War One had a huge effect on prose, since people were so overwhelmed with the particularly (at that time) nasty nature of that war. It's much easier to relate to things "in the middle of it all" than it is to ornate, elaborate writing.​

Richard Lee Byers: The purpose of visceral writing is to evoke strong emotion in the reader, and since that’s exactly what many fiction writers are trying to achieve, it was natural for the technique to become increasingly prevalent over time.

Selah Janel: My timeline isn’t the greatest, but I think Gothic literature in Europe and pulp fiction in the States at least contributed to the trend. Both played on pushing buttons, on the gruesome, adventurous, and romantic, and came at times when people were either supposed to be very buttoned up, or were going through economic hardship. I think it was only a matter of time before those styles matured and became not just about escapist fiction, but using a toned down version of those styles to catch reader interest with other stories.

Iscah: Television is the main factor. Part of the reason old novels were so descriptive was that the reader may well have no visual concept of the Sahara or a whale unless they had been there or seen one in person. So the descriptions to capture color, sight, and sound gave the readers a unique experience. These days film, full color magazine, and mainly television have allowed the average person to develop a ready mental picture of things far outside their geographic or personal experience. Action based stories with minimal time spent on settings are nothing new, that describes most folklore, but the 18th and 19th century saw huge explosions in travel technology. However it was a minority of the population who could actually afford to travel. Improved interested in public education raised literacy levels, so you had a larger audience of readers with limited travel funds. Thus the writer traveled for their audience.

Stephanie Osborn: I think part of the change from a more isolated, intellectual style to visceral has to do with history, and the overall social milieu; and part of it has to do with the changing news media of the day.

The modern novel as we best recognize it dates from the Victorian era for the most part, and that was in general a very reserved time, with very formal interactions defined. And if you exceeded or otherwise violated those definitions, woe betide! But by WWI, things were changing drastically. WWI was the first “modern” war, and it was in-your-face and VERY visceral — and there were few who were not personally touched by it. This, coupled with the Spanish Flu pandemic which swept the world near the end of the war, resulted in massive societal changes. We dumped right into the Roaring '20s from there, and kept going.

In 1920, radio broadcasting became the new medium, immediate and gripping, which lent a wholly different feel to news reporting (which began airing in 1920 pretty much everywhere) and storytelling (first aired in 1920 in Argentina, ~1921 in the USA, 1922 in the UK). Witness the reaction of listeners to Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre On The Air, when in October 1938 they dramatized H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. This was, in turn, closely styled on the live radio news broadcast from the Hindenburg disaster a year and a half prior. (“Oh, the humanity!”)

News reporting went, almost overnight, from the relative detachment of the newspaper, where at best it would be hours before the public got the news, to the on-the-scene, happening-right-now, don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next of live radio broadcasts, where the audience could hear the emotion of the reporter in his voice. Only a few decades later, and arising out of the same networks the radios had created, came an even more visceral, immediate medium — television.

All these societal changes resulted in a change in outlook — personal and worldwide — and perforce a change in writers’ styles. People had experienced that visceral response in real life, and wanted more realism, more gut-level writing, in their books.

The world just...changed. And writing had to change with it.

Robert Krog: As in music and the other arts, there comes a point when a new generation looks at the depth and breadth of the previous generation's work and responds to that depth and breadth, that mastery, with awe or indifference or even disdain. The new artist looks at it and says to himself, I can never do more than copy that. I cannot equal it, much less surpass it, so I have to either give up and not be an artist or I must fo in another direction. He might also say, so what, I've seen it all before, and I want something different. And thus we have innovation. There is another way, of course, that occurs more rarely. Some innovative member of the new generation looks at the work of the previous ones and is inspired to do new work in the same canon. What no one else though was possible is sometimes achieved in this fashion, The old masters are surpassed at their own game.

In the case of the passive, removed, intellectual descriptors of which you ask, there is, of course, a cultural aspect as well. The writers of those times and places came from a more staid society. A few generations down the road, society had become less staid.

Rose Streif:  The Enlightenment and Victorian eras valued intellect and judgement over emotion (the Romantic style will differ and seem more modern,) and therefore the stories and novels reflected this tendency.  But the Pendulum swings, and readers largely grew tired of the dry prose, preferring a more engrossing style as time progressed.

How do you as a writer focus on creating visceral prose to grab your readers' attention?

Gordon Dymowski: One thing I try to do - and yes, it's the writer's cliche - is to show not tell. Describing a person's body language in response to tension says much more than looking up synonyms for tense in a thesaurus. A person's eyes darting about as they bite their lower lip says more about their fear than them screaming "I'm afraid!". It's about making sure the reader feels the emotion along with reading how it's described.

I also focus on how I would react physically to a situation. Sometimes, it even means placing myself in such danger (at least, in my imagination) and noting how my body's reacting. I have a background in psychology, so I also note others' body language, voice inflections, etc. in similar situations. The more I can describe a physical reaction - and the less I need to say "This character feels that" - the greater the emotional payoff.

Richard Lee Byers: My approach: Use concrete, specific language. Focus on what the viewpoint character is perceiving and involve as many senses as possible, not just sight and hearing. Link emotions to events in the body as opposed to just stating that they’re happening in the mind. For example, the voice of a frightened character can become shrill, and the eyes of a sad one can tear up. Be leery of qualifying adjectives. It’s likely to be more effective to say that a character is angry than to say he’s somewhat angry even when the latter more precisely reflects what you see in your imagination.

Selah Janel: Technically, I try to put more effort into descriptions and I play with pacing more. In longer work, I tend to choose scenes where I have wiggle room to flesh things out and dive into the emotional context and scatter those throughout. I also am always very aware of what my characters are going through, and make it a point to try to have an internal dialogue about what I’ve gone through in my life that might line up with what the characters are going through. It’s almost like a literary riff off the actor’s sense memory trick. I do my best to really focus on those feelings and figure out how to transpose that to the situation I’m writing. Then, it’s just a matter of amplifying certain details and twisting things to fit the character. Likewise, I’ve tried to become much more present and really experience my life, and be aware of how certain things are playing on my emotions and how I react to them.

Iscah: I'm on the more intellectual than visceral end of the spectrum by choice, but when I want to create a visceral moment, I'll focus on small sensory details both internal and external. "He punched him in the jaw." becomes "The crunch of fist on jaw was followed by the satisfying pain of hairline fractures, internal repercussions of pulsing anger unleashed." Particularly as we become more surface oriented in our social interactions, what lies below the surface has become the inaccessible place where we want to travel vicariously.

Stephanie Osborn: I sit down and look at what bothers me, what upsets me, what evokes fear in me. This does not have to be something horrific. It can be a phobia, or a heart-wrenching experience from my own past, or a death in the family — anything like this. Anything that evokes strong emotion. The emotion is key.

I actually learned how to do this reasonably well before I started writing professionally. I used to play around in what’s now known as “fanfic,” creating my own characters to populate a world created by someone else, and getting responses from my fellow fans. (It actually allowed me to play around with certain aspects of style, making it easier in that I didn’t have to build a complete world first.) Mind, I had no intention of publishing any of it. I was simply enjoying...I dunno, think of it as an extension of roleplaying games like D&D. That’s actually how some of it played out, as a roleplaying game. But it also gave me a clue as to what writing was all about.

In one shared fanfic universe, I put one of my characters, much-beloved by the other fans, through hell, almost literally. I opened up one of my own phobias — I’m pyrophobic, due to some traumatic events in my very early childhood — and had the character get caught in a forest fire. The story was not a horror story, and was not handled that way at all, but I let the reader see my character through the eyes of her love interest as he fished her damaged body from the heart of the fire. We saw what he saw, smelled what he smelled, felt what he felt, lived his emotions, his distress, horror, grief, and remorse. And felt his shock and desperation when he realized, as badly damaged as she was, she was still alive — but might not be for long, unless he hauled ass.

I got plenty of feedback on how strongly the other fans responded, ranging from screaming at the computer, to bursting into tears, to running out of the room. The word “traumatized” was bruited about a bit. And after that, they were locked into the story. That was the first time I realized what...power is not the right word, but is the closest I can come...what power I could wield, as a writer, over my readers.

And I took what I learned then, and have tried to improve on it since, as a professional writer.

Robert Krog: I don't ever stop to design a scene so that it is visceral and grabs the readers attention. I tell stories, and some scenes simply are visceral and require language that is immediate, action oriented and full of such descriptors, while others aren't.

And that which some find to be visceral, others do not.

Here's a bit from my story "Tell Me Your Dreams" that immediately grabs some readers in a visceral way and doesn't others.

Jeannie was still shaking a bit from the stun gun when the captain used his good arm to pull her to her feet and give her a push down the corridor. She felt drool on her chin and, trying to compose herself, she attempted to wipe it off on her shoulder, the soft fabric of her jacket working adequately as a handkerchief. The captain made a “Tut, tut,” sound as he had before and then stated again, whispering, “Such a pity.”

It's not overly so, but has some visceral, grabbing elements. So much of it is a matter of what readers respond to. The shaking, the drool, the push, the soft fabric against the chin, and the presence of the stun gun evoke an obvious danger, right off the bat really grab some readers. The passage is the beginning of the story, and it usually makes the reader wonder how poor Jeannie ended up in that particular, undignified, slightly traumatized situation.

Rose Streif: Language is key, but mostly, treat the characters as people rather than puppets or tools. Empathy on the part of the author is necessary, but they are not "your babies." Bad things should happen if you want things to be interesting.  They should screw up.  They should face disappointment or terrible odds, even if they succeed in the end.  And they should feel every minute of it.

What can beginning writers do to build up their ability to write more viscerally?

Gordon Dymowski: Become "people watchers" - literally. Spend time socializing with other people, but also observe how they react physically. When talking with friends, listen very carefully for words, pauses, etc. When it comes time to write a character's reactions, reactions, focus more on overt behaviors and shadings of emotion than on plain descriptions. As the writer, you're describing a particular situation to a particular character - do everything you can to make the reader feel the same as that particular character.

Richard Lee Byers: I pretty much covered this in my previous response. In addition to those tips, I recommend avoiding omniscient point of view, which can put distance between the characters and the narrative. Instead, filter everything through the point of view of a single character and convey his reactions as the scene unfolds.

Selah Janel: Live, live, live. Get out there and live your life. Journal, and just go nuts on the descriptors. Put yourself in all sorts of situations and keep those memories close to you. When writing a manuscript, really just go to town on scenes where you want to connect with readers or where you want a punch if it’s horror or  a thriller—you can always pull back if it becomes too over-the-top. Give yourself permission to really feel those scenes, and just go for it. Write practice vignettes if you’re uncomfortable delving into more emotional writing. You can always toss them or file them away for future use. The point is, reading that type of literature is important, but you have to find your own way in, your own visceral style, your own comfort zone.

Iscah: Pay attention to way in which we experience the world, not only with our five senses but in terms of pain and heat and how our bodies physically react to experiences. However, I find visceral description to be used too often as cheat for lack of story substance. So I think it more important to understand the visceral images should enhance a story, not replace it. They are not a story unto themselves. Fight club is incredibly visceral, but without a very intellectual frame work of story, it would just be another boxing match.

Stephanie Osborn: I think the real trick, at least for me, is to look within myself, and figure out what it is that moves me the strongest. Often, they’re things that I can’t even talk about, or tend to choke up when discussing. And then I use those things, I find some way to work them into the story. And I use my own feelings and emotions, my own gut reactions, my personal visceral responses, to drive the scene. I’ve long said that every detailed character I write has some aspect, some facet of my personality, buried somewhere inside. I look at where I can relate to that character, and then build on that relating. And sometimes that relating comes in the form of this visceral response.

It’s a scary concept, laying out your guts on the page. I know. But if you truly want to hook your reader, get him or her addicted to your writing, it’s the best thing you could do.

Robby Hilliard: The old adage, ‘show, don’t tell’ comes to mind. Whenever a writer can “show” the reader how a surface feels against the finger tips (the grit rolling under the skin and the sharp protrusions snagging against the fingerprint ridges) instead of simply saying, “he touched the brick,” the writer is showing instead of telling. But more importantly, the reader will automatically visualize or imagine what it feels like to be doing that very same action. Again, firing up the brain!

Robert Krog: For many, using shorter, descriptive words works, but mainly it's describing how things feel to the character in a particular moment of danger or passion. Some poetic devices seem to work pretty well, if they're not overdone. Alliteration can help, for instance, though rhyme usually throws people out of the moment. It mainly seems to be a matter of focus or subject matter. If the writer describes well situations that are physical and immediate, the reader should respond appropriately.

It helps to show rather than to tell. One can say that a character is scared, or one can say that when the gun was put in his face, he nearly wet himself, and he broke out in a salty sweat, heart pounding, pulse throbbing in his temple. It helps, of course, if the reader has already come to like that character, and isn't hoping that he gets shot in the face, though that too, can be very visceral, if the reader thinks he's got it coming to him.

Rose Streif: Life experience helps.  But where that fails, use your imagination.