Thursday, March 06, 2008
The Visceral Experience
Viscera are the soft internal organs of the body, especially those contained within the abdominal and thoracic cavities. The meaning of the word visceral couldn't be better at describing the core of good fiction. According to my handy Word dictionary, it describes visceral as:
1. Proceeding from instinct rather than from reasoned thinking
2. Characterized by or showing basic emotions
3. Relating to or affecting one or more internal organs of the body
The first definition, of course, is dependent on a character's situation and the scene being played out. Is it instinct that drives him? Or did he reason it out with his trusty gray matter to help him decide what to do.
Definition two is that all important display of emotion we go for as writers, but hopefully its tempered from making a character act melodramatic or from being so angsty that readers have to pause to retch every few pages. I can't stand overly emo characters who have more going on inside their head than outside. However, lots of readers love the angsty character, so to each his or her own.
Number three is my favorite. As a reader, I need me some visceral story telling to make my heart pound, my mouth go dry, my tears flow, and my stomach tighten. It's rare, though. It's the difference between a good story and a fantastic one. I've read some stories that are over the top in a visceral sense, though I've witnessed this more in literary fiction than genre fiction. It stays with me, that's for sure. Usually it's the shock factor that leaves such an impression I feel branded by it.
There was a comment over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler recently from a member who struggled with the visceral aftermath of a powerful book he'd read. He was asking for advice on how he could come away from reading a powerful story and not be zombified by it for days afterward. I envy such an experience! That's phenomenal story telling.
I try to achieve that visceral level to my own writing, and when I feel it as I'm writing, I'm reasonably sure readers will feel it, too. But I've learned it can't be forced. It has to manifest naturally from the story and the characters.
How about you? Are you aware when something you've written has that visceral edge? Do you make a conscious effort to reach that heightened level of emotion? Can you name books you've read that accomplished this successfully?