(This is one of my most popular posts; it originally appeared on the Writers in the Storm blog in 2015.)
Writers love their brains: We exploit our highly evolved prefrontal cortex to infuse our prose with dazzling verbiage and transport our reader to the world of our creation.
Yet for creating tension — one of the most important elements of compelling fiction — nothing beats the lowly amygdala: the primordial lizard brain that handles the most basic functions of survival.
Authors of all levels can fall into the trap of intellectualized “summing-up,” which drains your writing of tension and can leave your readers unmoved, uninvolved, and disengaged. But juicy, suspenseful, irresistible fiction lies in those gut-level reactions that are so under the radar of our higher reasoning, they barely even register before the quick-thinking cerebrum analyzes and labels it.
Spotting Cerebral Sabotage
Most of us don’t react to a shark by thinking, “I’m scared!” That’s the clever cerebral cortex instantaneously putting together a slew of input (big gray fish, lots of teeth), comparing it to past experience and knowledge (Jaws!), and coming up with a conclusion to lead us into quick action (“Swim, fool!”). The lightning-fast process makes for impressive biology (and a higher survival rate), but really dull prose.
So what’s happening in that immediate, subconscious microsecond after a stimulus? Consider this scene:
The noise startled Josie, and she sat up in bed, wondering what the sound was. Could someone be in the house? Unease pricked her — Jim was still out of town. She eased out of bed, pulling a robe on over her flimsy nightgown. She reached for the penknife he’d left on his nightstand — the only thing resembling a weapon.
On the surface, that’s not a bad premise for a scene: things that go bump in the night have been a staple of suspense since Homer, and here we have a heroine in a dangerous situation — a great recipe for fiction.
But descriptions like these rob what could be a riveting scene of all its narrative tension. And no matter your genre, when tension flags, so will your reader’s interest.
Digging Down to the Lizard Brain
The writer’s job is to slow down time — to stretch out that microsecond of primitive lizard-brain reaction so that the reader can experience the scene along with the character, rather than being told about it by the know-it-all cerebrum.
Let’s take a look at the above example. Everything is in place, and we have all the makings of good storytelling: a suspenseful situation (a mysterious noise waking what appears to be a relatively defenseless character); a strong heroine we can root for (despite her fear, our brave protagonist goes to face the threat even scantily clad and poorly armed); high stakes (alone with potential danger!). Yet why aren’t we particularly concerned for poor defenseless Josie?
It’s because the writer has let her cerebrum do the writing here, when this scene calls for the remedial lizard brain.
Let’s put ourselves in Josie’s situation and prolong the lizard-brain reaction that the cerebrum processes as fear. First we might feel our heart race, our stomach hollow out; maybe we suddenly need to go to the bathroom. Perhaps our armpits prickle with sweat and we shoot to an upright defensive position almost instinctively — as a dog might when startled. That’s beat one in the Josie scenario. Only after these autonomous physiological responses have kicked in does her higher reasoning brain draw its first conclusion: There’s a noise in a house where I am alone; someone is here.
Now our brave heroine covers her near-nakedness and consciously looks for a weapon, lighting on the best option available to her in her absent husband’s penknife — resourceful, our Josie. An opportunistic writer might take another lizard-brain moment here to add more juice: perhaps her heart leaps as she sees it, then sinks even as she grabs it, her nimble cerebrum quickly concluding it’s an inadequate weapon, but all she has.
In the above example, the author has skipped over the experience Josie might be having and instead intellectualized these events — in more common writing terms, she has “told” this action, rather than “showing” it.
In actuality the first, gut-level thing we register is not the logical conclusion we reach, but the effect on us of whatever is happening.
In your writing, show us that.
Let the Reader Be the Cerebrum
What makes writing vibrant and immediate, and characters three-dimensional and relatable, is showing more of the characters’ behavior and reactions, rather than simply describing them — i.e., telling us about them. Instead plunge us directly into the scene by letting us experience the scene as the characters do, in their heads and through their eyes. It’s visceral instead of intellectual, and that’s where tension springs from.
Paint the picture for us and show us the scene; let us come to the conclusions you want us to by leading us there, instead of stating them directly for us. The idea is to lead the horse to water, not shove his head in and make him drink. Show the effect the stimulus — in this case, the noise from downstairs — has on your character, and then letthe reader draw his own conclusion — She’s scared! — the same way the cerebrum takes the lizard-brain reactions and does so. That involves us, makes us more invested in the story. If you simply tell us the result (“she was scared”), you keep us at a remove — we are hearing a distant narrator describe events, but we don’t experience them in the direct, visceral way that grabs a reader by the throat and thrusts her into the story.
Here are some easy ways to root out and fix cerebral sabotage in your writing:
1. Look for adjectives in your descriptions: scared, happy, excited, nervous, etc. These are often red flags for the intellectualized conclusions the cerebrum has leaped right over the juicy lizard-brain stuff to reach.
2. Then backtrack: Great writers, like great actors, play “what if” wonderfully. What if you were in that situation? What might you feel before the label of the emotion registers? Or have you been in similar situations — i.e., maybe you were never in a fiery car crash, but have you had a fender-bender? Remember that sick lurch in your stomach on the second of impact, that flicker of disorientation before you processed what had happened, the flutter of panic as soon as you did? Start from that rather than using the easy label.
3. Amp it up: You’re a creative type — now take those reactions you felt or can imagine to extremes using your writerly imagination.
Think of it this way: Would you rather watch someone’s vacation slide show as they dryly narrate all that they did? Or be on that vacation with them and experience it? The latter is what lizard-brain writing does for us — puts us there, with the characters; lets us live the scenes through their eyes, in their heads. That’s why we read — to live experiences outside our own — and experienced writers know how to offer that to their readers.