The Visceral, Physical and Visual

July 23, 2012

Think about that famous final scene from the movie Casablanca. Imagine reading that scene as your novel’s ending.

The foggy night, the chill in the air, the rain-slick tarmac, the growl of a small plane readying for takeoff, the sweep of floodlights crossing behind the characters, the droning of the plane’s taxi-ing and lift off. And finally— a single ringing gunshot as the bad guy gets his in the end.

In this post let’s explore how adding sensory touches such as these brings a scene to the mind’s eye of the reader.

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 shows 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 for 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.

Think about your existing scenes and these types of cues and if need be, find the best places to edit some in if they’re missing from your work.

Scenario: Sunrise. A girl wakes up to find herself in a motel.

Why is she there? How can I show that without saying it outright to the reader?
What is her problem? How can that problem feel real without my using reader-feeder telling words?
What is unique to her circumstances? How can I bring in something the reader doesn’t expect?

Using smell, if I asked you to show us this is a bad place for her to find herself. You might go with the tired and 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.

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.

Example:
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.

“Crap.” 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. Crap, owww, crap.”
Death and scars. So this was what married life was going to be like.

Whether you write a 6 word Bio, or a 55 word story, or 500 words (known as Flash Fiction) or an average short story (about 3,000 words), or a novella (a short novel, approximately 50,000 words) writing is writing and the words you select have to work to get the Visual and Physical and Visceral on the page.

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 –

A fellow NaNo’er from a few years ago wrote this:

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. Don’t write to ‘set up’ these three things: feelings, intentions, story. ‘Put’ all that stuff in every line you write.

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:

He looks in the mirror, and with his green eyes he sees his drawn face stained with dry tears

into–>

Green eyes and a drawn face stained with dried tears stare back at him from the mirror.

The edits move us into being him. Try not to stand back and watch your character. Instead, let us, the reader, be the character. In-scene voices show us this. Narrative voices tell us this.
He reaches for the little orange bottle beside te sink, and clenches his teeth as he attempts to open it

into–>

The little orange bottle in his grip fights being opened, til his teeth clench; a final twist and he is the victor.

He reaches, he clenches, he attempts = writer telling reader something.

Instead, 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.

The lid comes off and two pills drop into his right hand

into–>

Two pills drop into his stinging hand. Now he gazes down on two white eyes in the reddened palm.

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.

With his left hand he pushes his straight hair back over his ear

–>

The mirror still holds that pale face, and he pushes his straight hair back over his ear, trying to rearrange that image.

Remember to give us the story, not just the details, (The mirror still holds that pale face) there is an intention here.

But what is he all about? (trying to rearrange that image).

He tilts his head back and swallows the pills. He’ll be happy in a few minutes

into–>

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.

Action requires reaction even if only one character is on stage.

He closes his eyes; nothing simple will work, remember the visceral’ that which makes us feel; swallows the pills. Dry.

 

 

 

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8 Responses to “The Visceral, Physical and Visual”

  1. Gotta Says:

    Well I’m having I found this on the NaNo Camp forum, I’ve been told this main idea several times, but you made it seem simpler and I especially like your examples. I will defiantly be looking at this again when I get to revising any of my stories.

    ~LovelyMoon (nano username)

  2. ejrunyon Says:

    Hi there,
    Glad you commented. I think the examples are what make the idea easy to ‘get’.
    Look around at the other posts. Hopefully more help will be waiting for you.
    EJ

  3. Anna Says:

    When I was starting to try to write again several years ago, I remember being totally flummoxed as to how to go about it: how did I know what words were right, what the _right way_ to tell a story was? There are SO MANY words, and infinite ways of arranging them. How do you know which is the best way? It was such an odd feeling, and one I’d never had before. I think it came down to needing to find my voice, which at the time had been drastically missing. This may seem tangential to this post, but I do think that how one describes, what words and in what way, has so much to do with finding that voice and owning it.

    • ejrunyon Says:

      Did this help at all?
      I really wanted to put things in ways that are beyond jut the ‘You should’
      and on to Here’s ‘why & how’.

      Keep watching. And happy writing.


  4. […] kind of advice may turn my next effort into a more beautiful, visual one, as I wrote about in the July post The Visceral, Physical, […]


  5. […] was mostly eager to get things down on the page. Not to make sure what was captured was done in a visual, physical, or visceral way. Thankfully, there’s a second draft and then further […]

    • ejrunyon Says:

      That’s the joy of writing. It’s all in your command. And further drafts are just waiting to happen. Good Luck. nd let us know if you have more questios
      ej

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