Daily Archives: August 9, 2011

Using Stress in Writing

The damn hamster in my head won’t give up.

And I know I’m not alone.

Writers often observe variations of this refrain – ‘voices in my head’, ‘characters in my heart/soul’, or ‘ideas bubbling’. Face it, we have writing stuff and life stuff and ‘world going to hell in a hand basket’ stuff to sort, categorize, and apply. We write to derive a semblance of order from our particular chaos. The reality is such control is an illusion and the resulting stress may linger. Use it.

Draw upon stressors to move your plots forward. How do we show, rather than tell, the internal and external conflicts sparking our characters? The same diagnostic set used to monitor the individual impacts of stress offers an arc for our characters.

As I blogged a few weeks ago, stress is not necessarily negative unless we aren’t able to respond in a way to bring closure to a stress event. With sustained stressors or scenarios engaging us in a heightened sense of readiness without a tangible threat, our bodies can’t always recoup.

 Welcome to stress exhaustion!

 This is not good for us or for our characters except as we can identify its existence, use it to connect with our readers, and manage its effect in our plots and in our lives.

For our characters . . . we can show escalating stress in dialogue, character interactions, body language and behavior. For example, if a character’s perceived security becomes threatened as the plot develops, then your suffering protagonist or antagonist could exhibit a wider variety of symptoms. To enhance tension, draw upon multiple categories of stress symptoms and increase the number your character might evidence from the different categories.

You’ll gain your reader’s empathy. Most people, at one time or another, experience some combination of the following:

appetite change; headaches, tension, fatigue, insomnia, weight change,  colds, muscle aches, digestive upsets, pounding heart, accident prone, teeth grinding, rashes, restlessness, foot tapping, finger drumming, self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, tobacco, food or sex

repetition, fixation, nightmares, crying, irritability, despair, worry, joylessness, numbness

cynicism, apathy, martyrdom, fascination with magic or astrology, lackluster goals, misdirection

forgetful, poor concentration, confusion, lethargy, whirling thoughts (AKA the hamster in your head), stale ideas, boredom, negative self-talk

isolation, intolerance, resentment, loneliness, limited or excessive communication, low sex drive (don’t use this in romance writing – defeats the purpose of the genre), nagging, distrust, manipulative

For our selves . . . please do not neglect your psyche. Writing is therapeutic, but what we learn in our research to build interesting plots and bring happy endings (an outcome I demand from my own stories) applies to personal well-being.

The late Hans Selye, a microbiologist, is often tapped as the seminal scholar in the field of stress. In a show of poetic genius, he pondered creativity and discovery. I’ve borrowed a bit of his From Dream to Discovery to share:

A long and hazardous course lies between me and my goal,
How could I travel alone?
How could I force this fog of half-understanding,
That confuses my sense of direction?

The other shore is not in sight – alas, there may be none:
Yet I – like all those who, before me,
Have succumbed to the lure of the vast unknown
Must take this risk in exchange
For each chance to experience the thrill of discovery.

And that thrill I need, or my mind will perish,
For – thanks to You – it was not built to stand
The stale security of well-charted shore waters

Excerpt from Hans Selye’s From Dream to Discovery, p 41 <>

Writers don’t need to travel alone, despite the hours we spend in solitude. We have communities of like-minded thrill-seekers through twitter (#amwriting), interest loops (RWA, Sisters in Crime, or SCBWI) or local and virtual critique groups.

If you recognize symptoms of stress exhaustion, please reach out to your compatriots-in-script.

By the way . . . any ideas on slowing the hamster?


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