When I use the word Visceral to talk about writing I mean ‘in response to emotion’ or ‘touching deeply, inward feelings’: the words on the page that create a deep emotion we can feel.
The Physical and Visual are not hard to understand – those are what we write that show us (visual), making our descriptions and scenes seem alive (physical).
If you had written the good-bye scene in Casablanca and you bothered adding the fog, the chill, the rain or the searchlight, you would have tapped into what makes a scene we can see hear and feel. These visual, and auditory cues are part of what makes a scene alive on the page. The visceral requires you to step away from telling and delve into making us feel.
We’ll search your existing scenes for these types of cues and if need be, find the best places to edit some in if they’re missing from your work
- Example Toggle
Scenario: Sunrise. A girl wakes up to find herself in a motel.
- Why is she there?
- What is her problem?
- What is unique to her circumstances?
Using smell to show us this is a bad place, how would you write her? Where would she find herself? You might go with the triedand true – awful smells found in a motel. Girl awakes to the realization of her previous nights misadventures. But work outside of your comfort level and don’t go that way.
It was early morning. Crystal hadn’t opened her eyes yet when she smelled the stench. Roses. She hated roses. The smell came from somewhere to her right, behind her head. Which meant she was probably lying crosswise on this mattress, West to East. She peeked out from under the sheet and saw a huge glass vase on the night stand; looking rosy, smelling like death.
“Shit.” Crystal rolled over onto her stomach, then curled up into a ball. Besides the stench she made out the sound of running water. Mr. Snively. In the shower. So, all of this was real. Definitely. Sliding her hands prayer fashion down between her knees, the forgotten diamond on her finger scrapped a long stinging line on the inside of her thigh.
“Sisssss. Shit, shit, shit.”
Death and scars. So this was what married life was going to be like.
Be unique. Step out farther; let your imagination move on from the usual. Weave in the emotion that comes to your mind for this scenario, but remember not to name it outright.
- Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle
Lesson Exercise 1:
This will be a long exercise - because this is a big concern for novices. Look at any one of your scenes. Are you showing enough sensory writing to have us see the scene? Are you providing us with things to experience? To feel?
Emotions Search & What to Do When You Find Them:
Emotions: Defeated – Happy – Sad – Frightened –Angry –
He looks in the mirror, and with his green eyes he sees his drawn face stained with dry tears. He reaches for the little orange bottle beside the sink, and clenches his teeth as he attempts to open it. The lid comes off and two pills drop into his right hand. With his left hand he pushes his straight hair back over his ear. He tilts his head back and swallows the pills. He'll be happy in a few minutes.
— Harrison S. age 17
A very impressive start, and that last line is a killer! It uses clean words not fancy ones-
- green eyes, drawn face, dry tears, orange bottle, right hand, straight hair
But the author might be missing the chance of using all this physical stuff to tell us how this character is feeling, what his intentions are, what his story is. And because of that we are not feeling the visual and physical of these nouns & verbs - of being this character.
This draft showed a lot about how the character looks and what movements he made; let’s circle some the verbs the writer employs:
- Looks, sees, stained, reaches, clenches, attempts, comes, drop, pushes, tilts, and swallows.
The writer has, in a way told us all this. Showing it to us would pull us closer and allow us to feel more of this along with the character – look at these revisions:
Green eyes and a drawn face stained with dried tears stare back at him from the mirror. The little orange bottle in his grip fights being opened, till his teeth clench; a final twist and he is the victor. Two pills drop into his stinging hand. Now he gazes down on two white eyes in his reddened palm. The mirror still holds that pale face, and he pushes his straight hair back over his ear, trying to rearrange that image. He closes his eyes; nothing that simple will work, tilts his head back and swallows the pills. Dry. He'll be happy in a few minutes.
The break down of these edits:
- The edit moved us more into being him. Try not to stand back and watch your character. Instead, let us, the reader, be the character.
- Active voices show us this. Passive voices tell us this. He reaches, he clenches, he attempts = writer telling reader something.
- Try to make even the inanimate objects have action (the bottle fights). Use action words to bring things alive and closer for the reader: grip, fights, clench, & twist. Notice none are in the '-ed' word form.
- Not all specifics are required (the lid comes off) instead, show us details of him here (his stinging hand, his reddened palm) less details of the pill bottle. Again make the inanimate alive – his pills as (two white eyes).
- Remember to give us the story, not just the details, (The mirror still holds that pale face) there is an intention here; what is he all about? (trying to rearrange that image).
- Action requires reaction even if only one character is on stage. (He closes his eyes; nothing that simple will work), remember the visceral' that which makes us feel; swallows the pills. Dry.
Instead of writing to 'set up' these three things: feelings, intentions, facts, by telling us story facts, try ‘putting’ all that stuff in every line you write using verbs that are visceral, physical and visual.