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?


Paty Jager said...

Deep subject, Karen.

Visceral always reminds me of gutting an animal. Sorry, but that's the image I get. The animals entrails being laid out in the open. And that's more or less what you are saying. You want to lay your character's emotions out there and make the reader feel what the character is feeling and go away with that feeling after the book is done.

I've tried for that a couple of times. Not sure I hit the mark, though I had one judge say the ending( it was an ending contest) of my spirit book made her cry. My sister-in-law said the same thing when she read it. That was the impact I wanted- and I know at least two people were affected the way I wanted them to be.

Myself- I don't remember the name of the book, but it was by Ruth Rendell- she got so deep into the mind of the crazy/bad person I felt nauseous- I didn't finish the book and I haven't picked up another one of hers.

Alice Sharpe said...

I've thought about this a lot. I can't recall titles, but I have read books that left a deep and abiding impression -- and it needn't be negative, right? it can be positive, too.

As for my own writing? Sometimes I am quite involved by the situations my characters find themselves in. I'll write a sex scene, even one that's just sensual and not all the way, and think it's quite exciting or a murder scene, or the revealing end to a situation and I'll think it's visceral, it sure felt it as I was writing it, but I don't know, hard to judge that kind of thing as you tear it apart and put it back together so many times.

My dh liked the ending to my last book. Said he cried. I was touched and I kind of wondered however, if he was telling me something he thought I needed to hear. But a couple of days later we were at my mother's and he picked up her copy of that same book and reread the end and got all emotional. I was stunned it had gotten to him so much he wanted to read it again and that it affected him that way a second time.

Great subject, looking forward to what others have to say.

Anonymous said...

Okay, the first thing that came to my mind was "Outlander", the book by Diana Gabaldon. I don't see how it could get more "visceral" than that story. That book affects me still; when I think about it.

The way she tortured her hero, Jamie Fraser, just about killed me. I finished the book, but I took it and the other 4 books in the 6 book series and traded them to a used book store. Granted, I did try to read the second one, but I was too afraid. LOL

For me it was all too real; and I could see and feel it happening and I'm just not strong enough to go through that with him. I LOVED his character. Absolutely loved him, and I couldn't stand to go through that with him. I cried so hard and was so sick to my stomach when I read that book. I could never torture my characters the way she can.

I finished that book. I couldn't put it down because I had to see him get out of the situation he was in; but, I had NEVER read anything so emotionally and physically draining in my life and have not since.

Now, I would love to write something that has that "visceral edge" you talk about. (Just not to the extreme of Diana Gabaldon; who, btw, I'm not faulting in any way. She's a great writer. Obviously.)

I want the readers of my stories to ache, cry, laugh, and feel the emotions of love, sadness, hate, envy, whatever I'm putting my characters through at the time; you know, all those things we all love to relate to and feel when we read fiction? But, I don't want to rip the readers heart out and leave them in a deflated heap on the floor while their "relating" to my characters. It's too deep for me.

I'm a wimp. LOL

Okay, that's my 2¢. :)

Great topic Karen!

Danita Cahill said...

Thought-inducing blog, Karen.

Unfortunately, I don't know when I've written something gut tightening, or funny or sad. I know when I write it and I feel those emotions, but I'm never sure if others will feel the same. That's why I ask for help from first readers and CPs. Their reaction helps me know if I've hit the nail on the head, or missed and bruised my thumb.

The first book that pops into my mind that had a way viceral effect on me like you're talking about was "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb. He writes from an insane woman's POV. He pegs this character so well that the whole time I was reading, I had to keep peeking at the author's name to make myself believe it was written by a man. I walked around in a half-trance for a week or so after reading it, trying to decide if I could be insane too. Sounds weird, but the reader was allowed to get that deeply into the character's head.

Genene said...

Interesting topic, Karen!

I agree with Piper on this one. I don't want to be deep in the murderer's head or endure intensely tortuous situations with a character. Maybe because I've had too much "reality" in my own life.

Can I write these kind of scenes? Sure. Do I put them in my books? Not intentionally.

When I read a book, I like to laugh until my stomach hurts, ache from a temporary setback, and go "awwww" in touching places--if I know the hero/heroine will get to their happily ever after and the bad guys will see justice. And these are the kind of scenes I strive to write.

I don't want readers so adversely affected they never pick up one of my books again. Or worse yet, that I will be so adversely affected that I don't finish writing the danged thing! :)

So where is the balance between writing deeply emotional scenes with a visceral edge and writing scenes that make a reader nauseous (as Paty mentioned)? Ah, the answer is contained in a lost book that reveals the secrets to writing a fantastic book every time you sit down at the keyboard!

As always, Karen, very thought-provoking topic!