One second I was upright, walking across a patch of ice on the patio. The next, I was face-down on the bricks with blood gushing from my nose.
I’m sure I felt some pain in the moments after my recent fall, but that wasn’t my primary concern. My first thought: Omigod, are my glasses broken? (No, but they were so badly scratched that I had to buy new lenses at an exorbitant price.) My second thought: Omigod, what a mess, I’m bleeding all over everything. (I was.) I didn’t pay much attention to the pain until later, when I was resting with my head back and a handful of paper towels clamped over my nose. That was when I finally had the leisure to notice that the middle of my face felt as if I had, well, landed nose-down with great force on brick paving.
If I were describing this event in a novel, the pain would get the character’s attention a lot faster. And I’d have to come up with a more evocative description than the one in the last line of the previous paragraph. I would have to make the reader feel the pain along with the character. What kind of pain is it? Sharp? Dull? Shooting? Throbbing? Blinding? I could spend an extraordinary length of time putting together the right handful of words to make the suffering real to the reader.
Allowing the reader to experience physical sensations vicariously through a character’s body is part of the reader-character bonding that produces devoted fans. We may think it’s unimportant compared to letting the reader into the character’s heart and soul, but if you leave out sensory details a story seems flat and incomplete. Often the physical and emotional can’t be separated, because emotions cause physical reactions – the pounding heart of anger, the cold sweat of fear may be cliches, but they are familiar to almost every human being. It may be enough if we leave a reader with the thought, Yes, I know that feeling, I know exactly what it’s like. But a gifted writer can make us believe that what we’re experiencing through his or her character is unique, something never felt in quite this way before.
This is Anne Tyler’s description, in the non-mystery Celestial Navigation, of an agoraphobic character’s terror during his first outing in many years: “Dread rose in him like a flood in a basement, starting in his feet and rapidly filling his legs, his stomach, his chest, seeping out to his fingertips. Its cold flat surface lay level across the top of his throat. He swallowed and felt it tip and right itself. Nausea came swooping over him, and he buckled at the knees and slid downward until he was seated flat on the sidewalk with his feet sticking out in front of him.”
In cozy mysteries, pain and bloodshed are usually kept offstage, but in the darker forms of crime fiction, characters stagger from one emotional and physical extreme to the next. When they aren’t terrified, they’re reeling from gunshots, stab wounds, blows to the head. If a character is rendered unconscious, the reader wants something a little more detailed than the old standby, “And then the world went black.” Yeah, but in the seconds before that descent into blessed oblivion, how did it feel?
Is it possible to accurately describe something we’ve never experienced? I’ve never been shot, stabbed, thrown off a building, or clobbered with a blunt object, so what do I know? Granted, many readers haven’t had those experiences either, but that won’t stop them from passing judgment on the authenticity of my descriptions. How do I get them right?
I can extrapolate. I know how a deep cut on the hand or foot feels, and I might be able to use that sensation if I amplify it several thousand times. I’ve banged my head on enough cabinet doors and other unforgiving objects to imagine how a blow from a pipe or baseball bat would feel. I’ve fallen from a height and will never forget the feeling. A gunshot? Nothing comparable in my bag of life events, so I have to ask someone who’s been through it. When I questioned both a combat veteran and a former policeman about being wounded in the line of duty, their answers were surprising – and surprisingly similar. Both said that so much adrenaline was pouring through them that they felt no pain at first and didn’t realize they’d been hit. I’ve seen a similar reaction described in some crime novels, but more often the character collapses in agony. Whether a particular scenario works or not depends on the skill of the writer, but as a reader I find the delayed reaction more intriguing and realistic in an intense action scene.
Sex scenes are the bane of crime novelists, and some writers shun them, either because they don’t want to stop the story long enough to throw in a sexual encounter or they dread writing about such intimate contact. Only the writers who started in the romance genre seem to feel comfortable detailing every touch and thrill of their characters’ sex lives. Do readers appreciate the effort? Many don’t. Sexual pleasure somehow seems out of place in most mysteries and thrillers, and I suspect that a lot of readers skim those scenes or skip them entirely, preferring to move ahead to the next round of pulse-pounding terror and excruciating pain.
Some writers are so good at making the agony feel real that I have to wonder whether they have a touch of the sadist in them. When I need inspiration, I can turn to Val McDermid’s thrillers, Lisa Gardner’s Gone (a lead character is imprisoned in a wet, cold basement for much of the book), a terrifying chapter in Elizabeth Becka’s Trace Evidence that’s written from a victim’s viewpoint. For depictions of characters teetering on the psychological and emotional edge, no one matches Ruth Rendell and Thomas H. Cook.
When I was young, long before I published a novel, my chief failing as a writer was that I didn’t let readers get close enough to my characters. Too many times, critique partners complained that they couldn’t feel what the characters were experiencing. I’m learning and, I hope, improving. Maybe I still have time before I check out of this life to produce a passage that will make a reader exclaim, “I’ll never forget that scene – I felt like I was living it through your character.”