Using Stress in Writing

09 Aug

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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21 responses to “Using Stress in Writing

  1. Johanna Harness

    August 9, 2011 at 6:37 AM

    Great list, Liz! We communicate so much more through descriptions of our characters’ reactions than we do through labeling them with an emotion. Also: important tie-in with taking care of the writer. Thanks for this.

  2. Liz Fredericks

    August 9, 2011 at 7:01 AM

    Thanks, Johanna. Sometimes our characters can take care of us by mirroring fears, concerns or the consequence of choices. I think it hearkens back to the duty to self/others hierarchy. If we don’t prioritize self-care, then we won’t be much good to others – or our plots/characters.

  3. Meredith Conner

    August 9, 2011 at 7:02 AM

    Taking care of ourselves is so important and one of the things we continually neglect. Thanks for pointing it out!

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 9, 2011 at 10:41 AM

      You’re most welcome! I can’t take all the credit. My friends point this out to me all of the time. 😉

  4. Janis McCurry

    August 9, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    Hamsters have a relatively short lifetime. That’s the good news. Bad news: The rodents breed like rabbits!! Another notion/hamster will naturally occur.

    Great points on how writing parallels life.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 9, 2011 at 10:43 AM

      It’s odd how rodents serve well as metaphors for the writing life.

  5. Peggy Staggs

    August 9, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    Great advice, and great list. Stress does a lot damage to our health and our mental wellbeing. Using writing as a personal release valve and incorporating our experiences in our MS’s is great advice.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 9, 2011 at 10:45 AM

      I’ll echo what I said to Meredith. I can’t take credit for the advice as it’s what my friends offer me. I will, however, take credit for looking up the Selye stuff. He was an interesting scholar – a real renaissance man.

  6. Judi L. Romaine

    August 9, 2011 at 8:11 AM

    Thanks for excellent topic. Stress is always who we are ‘being’ – although not so easy to shift who we are being in life – but there are such great tools like yoga, Tai chi, meditation – or our books! Writing our emotions into our books is the only way. Books that have the author immersed in the story are the best books! – lynn romaine

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 9, 2011 at 10:46 AM

      You’re most welcome! And thank you for checking in on gem state writers. I’m glad you mentioned yoga and Tai chi – it’s been a real blessing and I think it’s useful content for books. I’ve an outlined ms entitled ‘Downward-Facing Dog’ – there’s a story behind every asana.

  7. Mary Vine

    August 9, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    Ummm, counting backwards starting at 100 works for me 🙂
    Good thoughts here. Thanks.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 10, 2011 at 7:12 AM

      Love it, but then I get stressed when I forget the sequence!

  8. Patricia Yager Delagrange

    August 9, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    Thanks for the information on using stress to enhance our novels. I think some of my angst definitely comes through in my books either directly or indirectly noticeable by me or those who know me. And, like you, I find exercise and yoga a great help for me personally, both mentally and physically. We can’t sit at our laptops all day long without getting “out there” to live life.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 10, 2011 at 7:14 AM

      I think it’s powerful when a writer’s emotional depth comes through in their writing. This always draws me into a book and suspect it does the same for your readers.

  9. Carley Ash

    August 9, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Thanks for the fantastic blog, Liz. I’m keeping for reference.

    • Liz Fredericks

      August 10, 2011 at 7:16 AM

      Thank you, Carley! Sharing reference material through the GSW has certainly helped me. I’m glad this is useful.

  10. Clarissa Southwick

    August 9, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    What a fantastic list for writers. I loved the poem too. You never fail to amaze me. Great post 🙂

  11. Patsy

    August 10, 2011 at 6:42 AM

    Great post!

  12. Liz Fredericks

    August 10, 2011 at 7:17 AM

    Thanks Clarissa – I’m rather taken with the Selye poem as well.

  13. Charla Chin

    August 10, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    Great blog and right on. Thanks for the reminder. How to show stress is often overlooked in writing how-tos.

  14. lynn mapp

    August 10, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    Stress? What stress?


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