Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Let’s Get Visceral

A visceral reaction is the physical feeling that often accompanies an emotional response to an experience or event. Think about the last time you were excited about something – the way your fingers and toes tingled and you felt a little bit light headed. That is a visceral response.

Visceral responses are great tools in the ‘show, don’t tell’ toolbox. You show your character being afraid (She looked over the edge of the cliff and her stomach clenched) rather than telling the reader she’s frightened (She looked over the edge of the cliff and felt afraid). There also a great way of showing the reader, hey this is real. This character feels things just as you’d expect them to if they were real.

Recently I found this great article about visceral responses which you can read yourself here. The article makes a couple of useful points:

  • Visceral responses are thought to be universal ie. they’re consistent across races.
  • Visceral responses are a physical occurrence but they don’t necessarily equate with a measurable physical change in the body ie. you may feel hot when you’re angry but that doesn’t equate to a change in your temperature.

It also included this great graphic:

Self-reported body maps showing areas where subjects felt sensations increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors) for a given emotion. (Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences)

If you’re not already including visceral responses in your writing, then maybe you should consider it. A visceral response is subconscious and out of the character’s control, so even if they actively say and do something different, the visceral response shows their true feelings (Her heart hammered in her chest but she kept her face blank. “As if I care,” she said.).

Do remember though to be thoughtful with how you use these responses, they’re like salt – a little will bring out the flavour but too much will ruin the dish. If you want an excellent discussion of this read Angela Ackerman’s post over at K.M. Weiland’s blog, ‘Helping Writers Become Authors‘.

Do you include descriptions of visceral responses in your writing? What visceral responses do you notice in yourself?


I'm an educator, mum and wife living in beautiful Victoria, Australia. I make learning resources for passionate, but time-poor, teachers in need of a better work-life balance. I'm a voracious reader, love a good curry, and believe life is always better with chocolate.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Get Visceral

  1. I have been schooled! I think if I were writing a novel I would do these things naturally…probably because the novelists I enjoyed did them. But I always like seeing the process laid out the way you do it.

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