Imagine you are a young teenage girl. You are waiting in the math hall, and that handsome senior with an air of indifferent confidence strolls past you on the way to calculus. Normally you are watching unseen, but today he looks you in the eye and says “Hi, how’s your day going?” Your heartbeat increases, you breath faster, you start to feel warm, and your face begins to turn red – otherwise known as blushing – these are the physiological effects of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.
Now, imagine you are a soldier sent to scope out the number of men guarding an enemy compound. After stealthily scaling the chain link fence, you slide between the fence and building, treading softly, trying to conform to the shadows. You can hear unintelligible conversation. Then, there is sudden silence followed by the click of a semi-automatic weapon. Your heart races, your breathing becomes rapid, you start to sweat, your face begins to turn red – but it is far beyond blushing.
The physiological changes to in your body are similar for excitement and fear, the difference is in the intensity. The amount of a change, such as heart rate, are often used to measure emotions in experiments. These innate responses occur before people have a conscious realization of their emotional state. Some scientist have even proposed that the racing heart beat and clammy skin is a cue that lets a person realize he is feeling strong anxiety, fear and so on.
Recognizing how to describe physiological reactions in writing is the first step to putting the reader into the character at the moment that the unexpected happens. Simply describing the scene puts the reader in the place of the voyeur, watching other’s lives as we often do, seated safe at home or in the theater in front of the big screen. Knowing what the characters feels inside puts us into their heads. This is something more easily captured in writing than it is by seeing a camera shot from the characters viewpoint, which often leaves the audience dizzy and not too sure of the details.
Cathartic writing, to rid oneself of obsession, stress and anger, has often been prescribed by psychologists. What I think about is not how it works to relieve the pent up emotions of the writer, as much as what it captures within the words. Are the ardor, zeal and fury still there? I wonder when I write, tears streaming down my face, or trembling in rage, how much of it remains to be released when someone else reads it.