Descriptions of physiological reactions are hard to write well because:
- We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
- Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
- It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
- Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.
Far too many stories these days prove merely three-dimensional. In other words, their principal characters display psychological width, length and depth, but operate as minds utterly detached from corporeal beings. As readers, we live inside their heads—not inside their bodies. We discover how their psyches process their surroundings, but not how their skin senses the living world. These characters explore an intensely abstract universe like brains trapped within jars, conversing with other similarly trapped entities. They suffer ennui and angst, but never a stomach ache or a chest cold. They are the opposite of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman in that their existence does not extend below the neck.Fiction Writers’ Review
Yet now and again I come across a physiological description that’s original and engaging and poetic, and I’m filled with hope that it hasn’t all been done before. And then I think, “The field of possibles has just narrowed. I wish I’d written that!”
I wonder if anyone’s ever had a GOOD case of diarrhoea.@stephenfry
Be careful not to use descriptions of physiological reactions in the wrong place. Below, Jane Friedman is talking about story openings to avoid:
If we meet a character who is in crisis or pain from line one, we have something tension-filled on the surface, but it may not raise any interesting questions or reasons to keep reading if there’s not sufficient context. In some openings like this, we don’t even get the character’s name—just the fact they’re in wrenching agony.
Such openings tend to emphasize physical, bodily description, and showing, not telling.Jane Friedman
EXAMPLES OF PHYSIOLOGICAL REACTIONS IN WRITING
Feeling Hot In Summer
Wherever you went in the summer in America it was murder. It was always ninety degrees. If you closed the windows you baked, but if you left them open everything blew everywhere – comic books, maps, loose articles of clothing. If you wore shorts, as we always did, the bare skin on your legs became part of the seat, like cheese melted onto toast, and when it was time to get up, there was a rippling sound and a screaming sensation of agony as the two parted. If in your sun-baked delirium you carelessly leaned your arm against the metal part of the door on to which the sun had been shining, the skin where it made contact would shrivel and disappear, like a plastic bag in a flame. It was a truly amazing, and curiously painless, spectacle to watch part of your body just vanish.Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
Since I come from a Land of Celcius, I had to look up ’90 degrees’. I found out it’s a measly 32.222 degrees celcius, which means Bill Bryson should make it to Australia one day. (Oh that’s right. He did.) Part of what makes Bill Bryson so funny (to many, at least) is his creation of unlikely similes. He sometimes takes something quite grand (say, a landmark river) and compares it to something everyday and unremarkable (a drink spilled across a table). He compares many things to food. (Like legs, to cheese on toast.) If you are writing comedy, it’s possible to be endlessly original about physiological reactions, because you’ve got an infinite list of bizarre imagery at your disposal.
Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent. Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The one other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin.Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
I love how the first paragraph is serious, mock poetic, with the three adjectives listed to conclude. Of course, this is a build-up to the clincher: Grand Canyon compared to an old man dead in a coffin, which I probably shouldn’t find funny, but do. Wonderful juxtaposition.
And then we’re kissing.
I lean in this time, and she doesn’t turn away. It’s cold, and our lips are dry, noses a little wet, foreheads sweaty beneath wool hats.from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan
It’s very easy to sound Mills-and-Boonish when approaching anything sexual, and it’s sometimes safer to make it deliberately unarousing. The wet noses make sure of that. (Unless you love dogs, perhaps…)
It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.Colm Toibin, Brooklyn
So ‘homesickness’ isn’t technically a physiological reaction. But the psychological is connected, somehow, to the physiological.
Notice the very long, run-on sentence making use of commas rather than full-stops. This echoes the feeling of ‘no end’ in sight. It’s almost always a good choice to follow such sentences with a short, pithy one, and this is exactly what Toibin has done.
It is like a little pocket of air has rushed into her mouth and sent a little shiver down her back and tugged at the empty half-basin of her pelvic bone. She feels a prolonged and dislocated swoop in her belly and a yank of emptiness in her ribcage, and suddenly she is much too hot. Isolde feels this way sometimes when she is in the bath, or when she watches people kiss on television, or in bed when she runs her fingertips down the soft curve of her belly and imagines that her hand is not her own. Most often the feeling descends inexplicably — at a bus stop, perhaps, or in the lunch line, or waiting for a bell to ring… Here in the hallway Isolde is thinking, Did I feel this feeling then, that night? Did I feel this jangled swoop of dread and longing, this elevator-dive, this strange suspended prelude to a sneeze?Eleanor Catton, from The Rehearsal
That’s the most original description I’ve read. (And in case you’d thought that was all that could be possibly said on the subject, it goes on in totally original fashion for another few pages.)
A more succinct description:
He turned to look at her…Purl felt her pelvic floor contract and she steadied herself against the bar.Rosalie ham, from The Dressmaker
Accurate enough, I suppose. Functional writing. Slightly comic, which is the intention. That’s the thing about making use of the correct anatomical terms. It can come across as comic even when unintended. A few years back I complained that a drink was too hot and that it had ‘burned my esophagus’. This was not met with sympathy, but laughter. Apparently it was only funny because I’d used the correct term. Besides, some body parts can’t help sounding comical, and esophagus is one of them.
I woke up half an hour later, when she sat down on my bed, her butt against my hip. Her underwear, her jeans, the comforter, my corduroys, and my boxers between us, I thought. Five layers, and yet I felt it, the nervous warmth of touching — a pale reflection of the fireworks of one mouth on another, but a reflection nonetheless.Looking For Alaska by John Green
A perfect portrayal of a teenage proto-relationship.
Elizabeth stared up into the darkness. She could feel, like tiny electric shocks, involuntary muscular spasms at the very core of her being, as if her body, like her mind, was trying to come to terms with what had transpired.Judy Nunn, from Maralinga
I don’t read much romance but I’m sure there are plenty of better examples. I’ll add a few more excerpts if I come across them. Even so, I’m thinking ‘spasm’ might be a popular choice of word.
Related Post: Why is there no good sex in fiction prize? from The Guardian.
Gasping For A Drink
Dick had not been married long and at the thought of the beautiful and curvaceous Dinah a clot of emotions lurched sweetly, a sensation he had come to terms with. It was a sensation which cried out for strong drink. Dick had found Dinah an exotic dish to have on his menu. Her presence, her absence, the very thought of her, called for a heady sauce. He took a turn around the room and peeped into the cupboard, although he knew before he opened the door that the bottle with the famous label which stared blankly back at him would be a skinner.Came A Hot Friday, by Ronald Hugh Morrieson
Two emotions are described above: wanting a drink, and being in love. For this character, the feelings are similar and he’s unable to fully separate the two.
I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier.
(several pages later)
With her mouth half open, it occurred to me that she must already be drunk as a I noticed the far-off look in her eyes. The thousand-yard stare of intoxication, I thought, and as I watched her with idle fascination, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was a little drunk too.Looking for Alaska, by John Green
Flat Out Drunk
I don’t know how many beers I had, but – I will be frank here – it was too many. I had not allowed for the fact that in the thin mountain air of Santa Fe you get drunk much faster. In any case, I was surprised to discover as I stood up a couple of hours after entering that the relationship between my mind and legs, which was normally quite a good one, had broken down. More than that, my legs now didn’t seem to be getting on at all well with each other. One of them started for the stairs, as instructed, but the other, in a burst of petulance, decided to make for the rest-room. The result was that I lurched through the bar like a man on stilts, grinning inanely as if to say, ‘Yes, I know I look like an asshole. Isn’t this amusing?’Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
I’ve never been drunk, myself, so all I know about being drunk is what I’ve read in books and hearing people whinge about it afterwards. I’ve heard that you don’t always lose control of your legs when you get drunk – it depends. On what, though? Anyone know?
“All right. All right. No screaming. Head hurts.” And it did. I could feel last night’s wine in my throat and my head throbbed like it had the morning after my concussion. My mouth tasted like a skunk had crawled into my throat and died.Looking for Alaska, John Green
I can’t see that being hungover is any different from any other kind of dehydration headache. Anyone willing to comment on that?
Stuffed With Food
The… plate was such a mixture of foods, gravies, barbecue sauces and salad creams that it was really just a heap of tasteless goo. But I shovelled it all down and then had an outsized platter of chocolate goo for dessert. And then I felt very ill. I felt as if I had eaten a roll of insulation. Clutching my distended abdomen, I found my way to an exit. There was no moving sidewalk to return me to the street – there’s no place in Las Vegas for losers or quitters – so I had to make a long weaving walk down the floodlit driveway to the Strip. The fresh air helped a little, but only a little. I limped through the crowds along the Strip, looking like a man doing a poor imitation of Quasimodo…Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
Blergh. I hate that feeling, evoked excellently here.
“when your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it’s always hard to sleep.”E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
It was too dark to see the gemstones in the sand now. She was fighting back nausea and swallowing back a bile in her mouth that tasted like warm beer, pasta, and woody aftertones… all mixed with a hint of self-loathing.from Girl At Sea by Maureen Johnson
Alternating waves of hot and cold washed over her, and she knew she needed to get out of the bed, but her legs would not hold. Remaining on her knees, she crawled to the door. Shaking violently, she tried once again to stand. This time her legs stayed under her, but she could not get her equilibrium. She felt as though some central ball bearing inside her that made balance possible had been knocked loose… Never had she been this sick before. Kneeling with her head over the commode, she was so violently ill that the contractions sent pain into her neck and back. Her head throbbed so that she no longer saw shapes, only patches of gray and black. She felt as if she were being turned inside out, as if she were being scoured.Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
…the urge to be sick became even more intense then before, forcing her to get down on her hands and knees and vomit a thick liquid with a vile taste that made her shudder with revulsion when she lifted her head.
The ship’s movements took on a harsh rhythm, and replaced the sense of lunging forward and then being pushed back she had felt when she woke first. … There was hardly anything left to vomit, just a sour bile that left a taste in her mouth that made her cry…Colm Toibin, Brooklyn
In a state of profound agitation he arrived back at Elphaba’s little eyrie atop the corn exchange. As he climbed the stairs, his bowels turned suddenly to water, and it was only with effort he managed to make it to the chamber pot. His insides slopped noisily, wetly out, and he held his perspiring face in his hands. The cat was perched atop the wardrobe, glaring down at him. Voided, washed down, and at least loosely done up again, he tried to coax Malky with a bowl of milk. She would have none of it.Gregory Maguire, Wicked
The room was big. He could feel its size although he could not clearly see. He could feel a cold breeze in his face, the blood in his heart. It was cold, too, the blood, and it felt as if it cracked — like ice — when his foot bumped into a soft heap on the floor. A body, a dead body.Christopher Pike, The Party
That one doesn’t work for me at all. I think it’s something to do with the extended metaphor of ‘cold blood’ – which is hard get away with, because it’s so old. (Truman Capote, anyone?) Not only is the blood cold, it’s ‘frozen’, and cracks, which is overdoing the metaphor.
Blomkvist shut his eyes. He suddenly felt acid in his throat and he swallowed hard. The pain in his gut and in his ribs seemed to swell.Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Most often ‘bile’ is mentioned in this case, to the point where ‘bile rising in one’s throat’ is almost cliche. I think it’s therefore wise that the translator made use the word ‘acid’ instead. I think I know this reaction, but I may have led a sheltered life because I can’t think of a time in which I was so shocked and frightened that I actually experienced it. I wonder if I have a stronger stomach than most, or if it takes extreme stress to produce the bile in one’s throat (the sort of stress most often recreated in thrillers), or if this physiological reaction is used disproportionately more often in novels than happens in real life.
She woke screaming, the smell of burning fabric assaulting her nostrils… Although she didn’t see or hear anyone in the room with her, it felt like a pair of strong hands grabbed her from behind and pulled her out of the room… Vivi’s fear was so strong she could taste it in the back of her throat. So strong it caused her to pee ever so slightly in the borrowed boxy panties she wore.Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Wells hasn’t mentioned ‘bile’; instead she says ‘could taste it’, which is judicious, given the aforementioned cliche.
Her head was in her hands, and when she looked up at Vivi and Pete, her black face was streaked with tears that shone silver in the fading light… Vivi could hear Genevieve’s screams coming from the master bedroom. She ran past Shirley and up the stairs. When she stepped into the bedroom, Genevieve was slapping Mr Whitman on his face, his neck, his arm, whatever she could reach. Teensy stood by herself, near the bay window, her hands covering her face.Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
The character of Shirley describes the involuntary scream of shock (at a son’s death) as ‘the screech howl’, which is executed perfectly in the film. One woman commented on the YouTube segment of this movie that unless she had personally witnessed her own auntie’s reaction at losing a child, she’d not have believed that this screech howl happens in real life. She would have considered it melodramatic. It does seem that people do unexpected things when faced with terrible news; some more than others, some cultures more than others.
For a moment, everyone in the gym was silent, and the place had never been so quiet, not even in the moments before the Colonel ridiculed opponents at the free-throw stripe. I stared down at the back of the Colonel’s head. I just stared, looking at his thick and bushy hair. For a moment, it was so quiet that you could hear the sound of not-breathing, the vacuum created by 190 students shocked out of air.
I thought: It’s all my fault.
I thought: I don’t feel very good.
I thought: I’m going to throw up.
I stood up and ran outside. I mae it to a trash can outside the gym, five feet from the double doors, and heaved toward Gatorade bottles and half-eaten McDonald’s. But nothing much came out. I just heaved, my stomach muscles tightening and my throat opening and a gasping, guttural blech, going through the motions of vomiting over and over again. In between gags and coughs, I sucked air in hard.Looking for Alaska, by John Green
She began to cry until tears soaked her face, her hair, her gown. She did not remember putting on the gown she wore, did not recognise it. She needed terribly to blow her nose, but she did not have a handkerchief. She could not bear the thought, but she decided she was going to have to blow her nose on the sheets.Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Crying is one of those things that you can’t get away with much in a book — I don’t identify with characters who mope about and cry all the time, regardless of their circumstances. I think this has something to do with passiveness. Also, the act of crying can sort of absorb the feeling which caused it; if the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to. That said, it’s done well in the paragraph above.
The Mole subsided forlornly on a tree-stump and tried to control himself, for he felt it surely coming. The sob he had fought with so long refused to be beaten. Up and up, it forced its way to the air, and then another, and another, and others thick and fast; till poor Mole at last gave up the struggle, and cried freedly and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found. […] Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon another so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came.The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Being Adjacent To Someone Else Crying
His wife was crying, and he felt nothing; only each time she sobbed in this profound, this silent, this hopeless way, he descended another step into the pit.”Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Social Exclusion and FOMO
“Fear no more,” said Clarissa. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; for the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her made the moment in which she had stood shiver, as a plant on the river-bed feels the shock of a passing oar and shivers: so she rocked: so she shivered.
Millicent Bruton, whose lunch parties were said to be extraordinarily amusing, had not asked her. No vulgar jealousy could separate her from Richard. But she feared time itself, and read on Lady Bruton’s face, as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered, and felt often as she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
“Beautiful!” she would murmur, nudging Septimus, that he might see. But beauty was behind a pane of glass. Even taste (Rezia liked ices, chocolates, sweet things) had no relish to him. He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel. In the tea-shop among the tables and the chattering waiters the appalling fear came over him—he could not feel. He could reason; he could read, Dante for example, quite easily (“Septimus, do put down your book,” said Rezia, gently shutting the Inferno), he could add up his bill; his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then—that he could not feel.”Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Tiredness had its own strange energy. When they were little girls they used to try and stay up all night together, jus to see what it was like. Deep into the night, long past midnight, they’d tip out of exhaustion into a wild, stupid wakefulness.We Played With Fire, Catherine Barter (2020)
I like this. I use the phrase “show don’t tell” quite often. Usually in combination with advice about not pulling the language back so far that we lose the connection between reader and character.
But… TELL me the character’s OPINIONS about what you are SHOWING happen in scene.
Emotional reaction does not all have to be shown. Some of it is stronger told. For example, it’s not enough that your character buys another flowers if he does not confess, even if only to himself, that he is falling in love with someone.
Or pities them.
Or is stalking them.
Perhaps a character says something surprising to your MC. It’s not quite enough to show me his heart thudding in response. Because he also needs to tell me is thudding because
“I feel the same way.”
“I think he’s lying.”
“I’m lying to him.”
Telling those opinions deepens it
…and helps your reader know, accurately, why the heart is doing the thudding. Show, don’t tell is good advice for many things. But as a loose guideline, if you’re showing it all & telling nothing, you’re probably every bit as “zoomed out” as if you tell it all and show nothing.
Telling gives flavor and meaning to what you show. In general, if you scour your document for filter words like “felt, realized, understood” etc, you’ll find where you’ve told and should have shown.
In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.Bessel van der Kolk