Visceral Reactions: Emotional Pay Dirt or Fast Track to Melodrama?

Are visceral reactions emotional pay dirt or a fast track to melodrama? The answer of course is: both!

But let’s back up the cliché truck. The word “visceral” is thrown around quite a bit, but not everyone understands what it means. A visceral reaction is an instinctive, gut-deep bodily response to a stimulus or experience. Without getting too complex, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in our brains) determine what emotions we feel and force a physical response. Raw and uncontrolled, these visceral reactions are something all people experience, making them a valuable tool for building reader empathy. Some examples would be shivering, adrenaline rushes, the heart rate and breath speeding up or slowing down, the stomach tightening, a flash of nausea, a flush of heat, and sweating.



Using visceral reactions as a way to convey a character’s feelings can make a scene more intense. These deep internal sensations are immediately recognizable to readers, and will evoke a strong reaction because of that shared commonality. However, there are two dangers to drawing from visceral reactions as we describe a character’s emotions. First, unlike body language indicators, internal sensations are limited. And second, because of the intensity of a visceral reaction, using too many will create melodrama.

Why visceral descriptions can be clichéd

The great thing about showing emotion through body language is that all character will express themselves uniquely, giving writers endless opportunities to describe through gestures and movement. Visceral reactions, on the other hand, are shared by all and therefore limited. This means the path to fresh visceral description is littered with clichés (see now why I’ve been playing around with them in this post?).

To keep visceral description fresh, know the clichés (such as, “a shiver running down the spine”) and think around them. Be aware of the most commonly described internal sensations, like ones involving the heart or breath. Minimizing these is half the battle. Remembering your body’s own instinctive reactions to an emotion can be helpful, and honing in on a lesser explored visceral descriptor can offer something new and powerful to the reader.

Similes and metaphors can also work to freshen, but only if they are tight and precise. Because visceral responses are a sign of intensity and often stress, flowery language or images may feel out of sync or nudge the scene toward melodrama.

The slippery slope to melodrama

Because visceral sensations are strong and compelling, it’s natural to draw on them during high emotion. Unfortunately when we get caught up in the moment, we send heartbeats and rushing breath and trembling fingers and pounding pulses cascading across the scene like kibble from a tipped over bag of dog food. (Can you feel the melodrama?)

With visceral description, a light touch is all that is needed. Utilize body language as much as possible, because action pulls the reader in and shows them the scene. Then use thoughts and a few well-placed internal indicators to complete the emotional experience!

Tell me your opinion: Do you find visceral reactions clichéd?

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About Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Her bestselling writing guides are available in eight languages, and are sourced by U.S. universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold 750,000 copies. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Come nerd out about writing with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Angela! Can’t wait to read your and Becca’s book.

  2. Great post!

  3. Interesting post. I typically don’t find visceral reactions cliched, as long as they are true reactions. I can think of one truly visceral reaction in my own WIP, and my MC calls it a bypass-the-brain move when she slaps a man who had kissed her.

    If it gets to be reaction after reaction after yet another reaction, then I think it will definitely get into the annoying, cliche area.

  4. This is some great advice! I hadn’t really thought about visceral reactions being cliche, but they certainly can be. I agree that having a light touch is essential to keeping melodrama away. 🙂

  5. This is why I’ve struggled with describing reactions – I hadn’t distinguished b/w visceral (which easily run into cliche) and other emotional reactions. This helps so much!

  6. Thanks for having me here, Katie!

    Thanks Susanne!

    Hi Liberty (love your name!) I agree, visceral reactions don’t need to be cliche. The same rule applies to this type of descriptor as all body language–to keep it fresh. Each of us should be using our own words to show, not someone Else’s. 🙂

    Hi Lauren, I think melodrama is the biggest dangers. I find that when I get caught up in the moment, I slide in some purple prose. Then I take it out as I revise!

    Monica, so glad this helped!


  7. As you said, they can be talked around–as in, how does character react when scared?, rather than, how does the body react? But visceral reactions are almost invisible to me in text, much like dialogue tags, because they seem perfunctory.

  8. Jill, you’re right–if done well, they mesh right in with the action of the scene. 🙂

  9. Writers Chronicle this month had a lengthy and excellent article on slaying the “abstraction,” coming up with fresh ways to reveal emotion without resorting to cliche. I’m sure if Googled, one can see the article, but not sure it can be read if not a member of Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Well worth getting a copy or joining, though.

  10. Thanks Linda–I’ll take a look and see. It would be great if it was accessible!

  11. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to Angela and Becca’s Bookshelf Muse for ideas on how to “show” instead of tell. They’re brilliant at this! Thanks Angela and Katie.

  12. Great post. I struggle with this a lot, so your insights are greatly apreciated. Getting around those vicseral cliches is tough because there is just so many of them.

  13. Thank you Julie–I’m glad to know the blog helps! We started it because we struggled with showing, and knew others must as well. 🙂

    Hi MaryAnn, I think writing fresh as far as emotion is concerned can be very hard. We need to really push to see beyond what has been done by others and think about what our characters would do. The key is really, really knowing the character inside and out!

    Have a great week!


  14. Viscerals can be tough to write effectively. My struggle is that I find myself using too many of them in close proximity. A little definitely goes a long way with these intense cues.

  15. It’s always a help reading the posts on this blog!
    This one in particular has blazed new trails

  16. Thanks for sharing this. I have turned to the bookshelf muse website more times than I can count while writing my novel. I am so excited to have the book with all of the added information. This was a great post and as always, Angela shows us how less is more.

  17. I shared this blog entry with a friend, and got this reply:

    “While I was reading the blog post, realization suddenly struck me like a frying pan to the back of my head, causing a staccato, electric pain to shoot through my brain like continuous, multi-mega-voltage shocks from an angry electric eel. The bottom fell out from under my stomach, as surging waves of bile-ridden nausea crested up and burned my esophagus with acidic efficacy. The world blurred as reality became a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic colors, erupting psychedelically like a crazed artist’s exploded paint palette. Crumbling to my knees, my body ravaged by dry heaves, I screamed mutely, but loudly into the vortex that had enshrouded me.”

  18. Excellent post, Angela! I hadn’t thought of it in these terms but it’s definitely something I struggle with. In the scene i’m currently writing, the heroine wakes in the night, heart racing, because her subconscious has put two and two together and come up with imminent danger. Then I focus on what she thinks and does.

    But I hesitated about the waking up, even though it’s absolutely honest and happens to me frequently when my mind is working overtime. This helps put it in perspective!

  19. Awesome post
    I’ve linked to it for our Kiss Of Death RWA Chapter members (and anyone else) who is playing along on our Twitter #1lineWed this week.

  20. I can only say, no, my personal experience could not be defined as a cliche.
    I think I have had two visceral responses to two extremely different experiences in my lifetime.
    Both were identical, almost complete shutdown of basic human inclination, such as appetite, the experience of any level of joy. This coupled with the feeling of overwhelming anger, only slightly tempered by a search for justice.
    Feelings of nausea, terror and without any drama, a weird disconnect from a grounded sense of reality.
    The inability to connect on the long standing and assured connection with loved ones.
    This overwhelming state is truly horrendous and spirals into what becomes a viscous cycle. Time becomes irrelevant and the only way the cycle can be broken is with concentrated focus on every means which you can access to escape the cycle…,,,exercise, focus on what is meaningful and real… much damage will occur if the cycle isn’t broken….both physically and mentally.

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