Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 22, 2015

Creating Tension with Lizard-brain Writing

Tiffany Yates-Martin pic Tiffany Yates Martin

Writers love their brains: We exploit our highly evolved prefrontal cortex to infuse our prose with dazzling verbiage and transport our reader to the world of our creation.

Yet for creating tension—one of the most important elements of compelling fiction—nothing beats the lowly amygdala: the primordial lizard brain that handles the most basic functions of survival.

Authors of all levels can fall into the trap of intellectualized “summing-up,” which drains your writing of tension and can leave your readers unmoved, uninvolved, and disengaged. But juicy, suspenseful, irresistible fiction lies in those gut-level reactions that are so under the radar of our higher reasoning, they barely even register before the quick-thinking cerebrum analyzes and labels it.

Spotting Cerebral Sabotage

Most of us don’t react to a shark by thinking, “I’m scared!” That’s the clever cerebral cortex instantaneously putting together a slew of input (big gray fish, lots of teeth), comparing it to past experience and knowledge (Jaws!), and coming up with a conclusion to lead us into quick action (“Swim, fool!”). The lightning-fast process makes for impressive biology (and a higher survival rate), but really dull prose.

So what’s happening in that immediate, subconscious microsecond after a stimulus? Consider this scene:

The noise startled Josie, and she sat up in bed, wondering what the sound was. Could someone be in the house? Unease pricked her—Jim was still out of town. She eased out of bed, pulling a robe on over her flimsy nightgown. She reached for the penknife he’d left on his nightstand—the only thing resembling a weapon.

On the surface, that’s not a bad premise for a scene: things that go bump in the night have been a staple of suspense since Homer, and here we have a heroine in a dangerous situation—a great recipe for fiction.

But descriptions like these rob what could be a riveting scene of all its narrative tension. And no matter your genre, when tension flags, so will your reader’s interest.

Digging Down to the Lizard Brain

The writer’s job is to slow down time—to stretch out that microsecond of primitive lizard-brain reaction so that the reader can experience the scene along with the character, rather than being told about it by the know-it-all cerebrum.

Let’s take a look at the above example. Everything is in place, and we have all the makings of good storytelling: a suspenseful situation (a mysterious noise waking what appears to be a relatively defenseless character); a strong heroine we can root for (despite her fear, our brave protagonist goes to face the threat even scantily clad and poorly armed); high stakes (alone with potential danger!). Yet why aren’t we particularly concerned for poor defenseless Josie?

It’s because the writer has let her cerebrum do the writing here, when this scene calls for the remedial lizard brain.

Let’s put ourselves in Josie’s situation and prolong the lizard-brain reaction that the cerebrum processes as fear. First we might feel our heart race, our stomach hollow out; maybe we suddenly need to go to the bathroom. Perhaps our armpits prickle with sweat and we shoot to an upright defensive position almost instinctively—as a dog might when startled. That’s beat one in the Josie scenario. Only after these autonomous physiological responses have kicked in does her higher reasoning brain draw its first conclusion: There’s a noise in a house where I am alone; someone is here.

Now our brave heroine covers her near-nakedness and consciously looks for a weapon, lighting on the best option available to her in her absent husband’s penknife—resourceful, our Josie. An opportunistic writer might take another lizard-brain moment here to add more juice: perhaps her heart leaps as she sees it, then sinks even as she grabs it, her nimble cerebrum quickly concluding it’s an inadequate weapon, but all she has.

In the above example, the author has skipped over the experience Josie might be having and instead intellectualized these events—in more common writing terms, she has “told” this action, rather than “showing” it.

In actuality the first, gut-level thing we register is not the logical conclusion we reach, but the effect on us of whatever is happening.

In your writing, show us that.

Let the Reader Be the Cerebrum

What makes writing vibrant and immediate, and characters three-dimensional and relatable, is showing more of the characters’ behavior and reactions, rather than simply describing them— i.e., telling us about them. Instead plunge us directly into the scene by letting us experience the scene as the characters do, in their heads and through their eyes. It’s visceral instead of intellectual, and that’s where tension springs from.

Paint the picture for us and show us the scene; let us come to the conclusions you want us to by leading us there, instead of stating them directly for us. The idea is to lead the horse to water, not shove his head in and make him drink. Show the effect the stimulus—in this case, the noise from downstairs—has on your character, and then let the reader draw his own conclusion—She’s scared!—the same way the cerebrum takes the lizard-brain reactions and does so. That involves us, makes us more invested in the story. If you simply tell us the result (“she was scared”), you keep us at a remove—we are hearing a distant narrator describe events, but we don’t experience them in the direct, visceral way that grabs a reader by the throat and thrusts her into the story.

Here are some easy ways to root out and fix cerebral sabotage in your writing:

  1. Look for adjectives in your descriptions: scared, happy, excited, nervous, etc. These are often red flags for the intellectualized conclusions the cerebrum has leaped right over the juicy lizard-brain stuff to reach.
  2. Then backtrack: Great writers, like great actors, play “what if” wonderfully. What if you were in that situation? What might you feel before the label of the emotion registers? Or have you been in similar situations—i.e., maybe you were never in a fiery car crash, but have you had a fender-bender? Remember that sick lurch in your stomach on the second of impact, that flicker of disorientation before you processed what had happened, the flutter of panic as soon as you did? Start from that rather than using the easy label.
  3. Amp it up: You’re a creative type—now take those reactions you felt or can imagine to extremes using your writerly imagination.

Think of it this way: Would you rather watch someone’s vacation slide show as they dryly narrate all that they did? Or be on that vacation with them and experience it? The latter is what lizard-brain writing does for us—puts us there, with the characters; lets us live the scenes through their eyes, in their heads. That’s why we read—to live experiences outside our own—and experienced writers know how to offer that to their readers.

Do you notice cerebral sabotage in others’ writing, or your own? Have you come up with other ways to spot it—or address it?

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About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty years, currently through her editorial consulting company, FoxPrint Editorial, helping authors hone their work to a tight polished draft. As a developmental editor she works both directly with authors as well as through major publishing houses.

As a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, she has worked with major New York publishers, among them Random House, the Penguin Group, and HarperCollins. She holds a BA in English Literature from GSU and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she is the author of The Breakup Doctor and Bedside Manners, part of the Breakup Doctor series from Henery Press.

42 comments on “Creating Tension with Lizard-brain Writing”

  1. Thank you! I've been struggling with my latest WIP and have spent days trying to figure out what was wrong. Now I know: I've been holding it at arm's length instead of embracing it. Awesome post. Sharing it on Twitter!

  2. Tiffany, you nailed it. I've read other's writing, and known something was wrong - they were killing tension, but didn't know how to fix it. I'm sure I'm guilty of this as well (always easier to see in someone else, right?;)

    The 'Lizard brain' will stick in my head, too. I'm putting that on a post-it on my monitor!

    Thanks so much for the insight, and for blogging with us!

    1. You're welcome, Laura. Actually, I always say that one of the best ways to learn to see things like this in our own writing is to learn to see it in others'--it's much easier when we're able to be objective. But then it's like Waldo--once you see it, you can't unsee it. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Great post! And just in time...I'm editing a new book and trying to ramp up the tension. Thank you for presenting this info in such a useful way.

    1. I thought of the scenes I wrote during Write Up A Storm, Mark. Taking my "sharpener" out, too.

  4. I'm always thinking: deeper point of view, gotta get deeper. For some reason, this makes more sense to me, I'm with Laura and will remember "lizard brain!" Plus, it sounds way more fun to write with lizard brain, than to get a deeper point of view...and I'm all about the fun!

    1. I think this is the root of deeper POV, Amy. And you're right, it's a lot more fun!

  5. Greatness! Very helpful tips. I have 2 book projects in work. The first is a non-fiction, but the second is sci-fi and this will most definitely help me be more aware when creating those tension scenes! Thanks

    1. Wahoo, another sci-fi writer here, Shawn! I'm on a battlecruiser now (oh, that's my characters) and now I can really ramp up the tension.

  6. I write Christian non-fiction about the Bible and related topics. While your lizard brain recommendations are great, I'm not sure they apply to all genres. In my case, the emotional response to the scenario was written 2,000 and more years ago. For example, the Bible puts us at the place of the cruxificion, calling for a lizard brain response. As I see it, my job as an author is not to duplicate the Bible but to help the reader understand the love and beauty that is behind the Bible narratives and other writings.

    Thank you for the great insight on writing. I will look for more of these lizard brain techniques in the Bible.

    1. Thanks, prayergardeners. These techniques can bring your reader to the event so they can feel the experience.

    2. Fae took the words out of my mouth. Tension is the soul of vibrant writing, regardless of genre--lizard-brain writing is just one way to create it, though. Among many, many others. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  7. You won't believe how timely this is for me. I'm working on my first middle grade book, and a picture book. The picture book has been especially challenging because a boy and his mom experience a tornado while Dad is not there. I'm writing from personal experience, but capturing the young boy's spectrum of emotions is difficult, to say the least. Thanks very much for your valuable advice!

  8. Terrific! This advice gives me a useful filtering tool for re-examining my work. Well-presented...thank you for taking the time to write this so well and with such a fine example, too.

  9. Wow, I so love the timing on this issue. I'm at a point in my WIP of building tension--I had been very clueless until today! A huge thank you Tiffany!! I plan to take notes from this and apply your advice.

  10. Fab tips! Definitely book marked this, and will be keeping it in mind as I'm finishing the first draft (and for sure while I'm editing it later!).

  11. Thank you, Tiffany. A clear cut solution to building tension and getting rid of endless fluffy writing. I can see the "find" tab working overtime.
    Cheers, Wendy

  12. I'm late to the lizard party. Great to see you here, Tiffany! Thanks for blogging with us. 🙂

  13. Tiffany,I enjoyed this article. The lizard brain is going to stick in my brain every time I write a scene with suspense. The primary fear, excellent. Thank you.

  14. This is so great. A welcome jolt of how it can be better. I have been staring at a scene in my WIP and knew it was going to fall flat because the story is at the point where tension needs to be running high in the protag. The reader needs to FEEL it as it grows and grows. I vaguely told myself the reader would have to 'latch on' and not let go till the big 'fall' came... Just so they could fall too, but nothing I did was working well, only because I couldn't articulate this in my head. - Not making much sense, but just so you know, this post helped put everything into perspective. It really, really did. Thank you!!

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