Oh my aching stomach!

Being a writer and a reader are two very different things. For some of us those lines cross paths on a daily basis, and I know many readers would never consider writing, just as I’ve met a few writers who don’t read (sorry–but I don’t understand you guys).

As a writer, sometimes it’s difficult to turn off my reader. Very difficult. And sometimes it’s difficult to turn off my writer when reading. Am I confusing you yet? I’m beginning to confuse myself! 


That’s what this post is all about. Knowing when to turn off either the reader or the writer switch. 

What sparked it was a writer’s meeting I was at yesterday and a comment I’d received in my submission from another writer. He wrote to me that I use heart and stomach problems way too often as a signal that my character is distressed.

I explained that these were generic terms I put in and only go through in the final final stages of a draft to make the writing more original, and if that’s not possible I reduce the amount of stomach’s flopping in a given scene to only the moments of highest tension.

Another writer interjected at that point and said that as a writer when she reads about hearts skipping beats and knots in stomachs it drives her crazy, but as a READER these cues are invisible.

And this is of course true. At least I believe it is.

And yet, at the same time we writers don’t want to be so dull that we can’t think of anything past stomach pains when trouble is coming.

This roused a discussion about the physical symptoms of stress. I for one had done some research on this particular subject in the past, because I’d gotten really bored of myself writing chest tightening so often. And yet, the symptoms for stress are not unique. Our body will respond the same way over and over to various stresses: “Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper.”* 

It’s up to us as writer to try our best to have unique writing, and it’s up to the reader in us to know when it’s okay to leave in a generic invisible cue. Now, if only our writer and reader selves would just listen to each other!

How about you: how do you handle the physical reactions of your characters to tense moments in your writing? Have you ever noticed an onslaught of aching stomachs and pounding hearts in your own writing? And do you agree that sometimes these cues have a place in writing, or do they just plain drive you crazy?


*quote taken from: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm


10 thoughts on “Oh my aching stomach!

  1. I don’t THINK I over use reactions like that, but then I guess I’d have to go through and count to know that.

    Personally, as a reader, I’d much rather read a generic clue than an artificial “literary” one. Those obvious I’m-trying-hard-to-be-unique wordings draw the spotlight to themselves and pull me out of the fictive dream.

    Like the other writer said, often these “cliches” are invisible to the reader—and that’s a good thing.

  2. I try hard not use or overuse these kinds of reactions and I hope I succeed. I guess the only one who can truly answer that are the ones who will take the time to read what I have written.

    Thanks Jennifer,

  3. Hi, I think it’s difficult to do anything else but use these reactions to stress, etc. People tend to react in the same ways, so it’s inevitable the character will have the same reactions again and again. Perhaps you can rephrase some of the descriptions later.

    Best of luck with your work, Lawrence

  4. I don’t think it’s confusing at all Jen! I was just discussing with another blogger-friend(an avid bibliophile who’s not a writer) of mine the other day, about why I sometimes take so long to read a book. I boil it down to not being able to take my writer-hat off when I’m reading for pleasure. Especially if a novel is well-written or I come across an exciting paragraph, I’ll stop and analyse and think about it and then half-an-hour later I find I’m still on the same page!

    The throats of my characters tend to constrict when they’re nervous(no matter who they are, LOL.). Thanks for drawing attention to this Jen, I just realised there might be too many oesophageal lumps and frogs in my stories! 😀

    1. Ohhhh so often I wish I was more like that, taking my time through books–I just devour them. It’s such a wasted opportunity….

      It’s tricky, Nisha, having original writing all the time. Sometimes those lumps gotta stay! Lol. 🙂

      Sent from my iPad

  5. I am a martial artist and react in ways most people don’t. That means I have to avoid reactions in my stories that make sense to me but wouldn’t to the character (or to readers).

    Test readers helped me notice that too many of my characters could feel an adrenaline dump in their feet, hands, and limbs. My characters would want to take action *against* the stressor–instead of reacting more passively to the more typical pounding heartbeat and sweaty palms.

    In stories I’m reading, physical reactions don’t stand out unless they are out of character. A purple–overly literary–description is almost always out of character. “His throat tightened” usually isn’t.

    1. How interesting, Ann.
      I’d love to read those type of physical responses you describe here.

      Maybe one day one of you MCs could be a martial artist and you could leave those responses in.

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