So, I was reading the book WITHOUT CONSCIENCE while I was traveling to the London Book Fair last month because, as many of you may know, I have a strange fascination for psychopathy. (Not for the reasons you might think — wait, what do you think? The mind boggles.) But because the closest evidence I can find for the existence of the soul is that some people are so clearly born without one.
What on earth does any of this have to do with writing, you may ask. Well, strangely, I found myself flagging a couple of sections for this very blog: “How Not to Write Like a Psychopath.” One section in particular that caught my attention was when the author, Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. was quoting a psychopath asked to describe fear: “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue-tied. One barfed over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t know why.” It continues. The long and short of it was that he described what happened, but he couldn’t understand or describe the associated feelings. Dr. Hare goes on to note that “psychopaths lack the physiological responses normally associated with fear.” I find this so often in fiction—a writer will remember to say that the heroine is running from a killer, for example, but neglects to show us that her heart is pounding, that she can’t seem to take a breath deep enough to fill her lungs and they’re working like a bellows, that she’s sweating like a fiend who’s gotten too close to the fires of hell…. Likewise, if people who are attracted to each other are thrown together , breath might quicken or that same breath might be held. Whenever you write, you should be doing it from a point of view. We should be in the head of one of the participants in the scene, who should have an emotional, visceral, physiological reaction to what’s happening and not just describe the scene as would an observer. Too often I see narrative that reads more like a summary or synopsis than a scene actually unfurling.
Dr. Hare also mentions what he calls “hollow words”. The psychopath will understand the definition of words, but not their emotional value. This is something I see as well, standard word choices and short cuts taken in place of actually setting a scene in such a way that the reader is drawn into it. Dr. Hare says, “A word such as PAPER has dictionary meaning, whereas a word such as DEATH has a dictionary meaning plus emotional meaning and unpleasant connotations. Emotional words have more “punch” than do other words.” Now, obviously, PAPER and DEATH aren’t interchangeable, but you get the point. In a scene where your hero is about to step in front of a bus, for example, you could have your heroine “reach out to grasp Jason’s arm and steer him back to the curb” or “launch herself at her oblivious brother and grab him out of the way of the onrushing bus.” One obviously has a lot more emotional impact than the other, though what’s actually going on hasn’t really changed.
To sum up the first point. A body is not just a brain. A person does not just process, he or she experiences, and if he or she is not a psychopath, this involves physiological and autonomic reactions that should not be forgotten in developing your scene. For the second: don’t use shorthand, but choose words and modes of expression for maximum impact and to allow the reader to feel the tension or sensuality or terror of the scene. Yes, this is a longwinded way of saying “show, don’t tell,” but hopefully more helpful in its specificity.