Even if they aren’t reading aloud, our readers tend to breathe as if they were. That might not look or even feel exactlythe same as reading aloud, though I have seen people reading in public moving their lips, eyes bugged out, hand over their mouths, and otherwise really, really into it. And I love that, by the way, and always try to see what they’re reading, as unobtrusively as possible so as not to interrupt them, especially in that state. If a book can get someone to look like that, as far as I’m concerned it’s worth a look. Still, even if they aren’t breathing exactly as if reading aloud, your readers’ internal experience matches that sensation much more closely than you might think. The way you feel has a huge impact on how you breathe, and how you breathe has a huge impact on how you feel. If you don’t believe me, how about Thomas A. Richards, Ph.D. of the Anxiety Network, who wrote:
The flow of adrenaline and the resulting extra blood flow increases your strength and awareness of the danger. This extra “awareness” of the perceived danger may cause all sorts of feelings, such as dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, heart palpitations, confusion, lack of control, unreality, being dazed, shaking, trembling, and sweaty palms, among others.
Neuroscientist Alex Korb, from his book The Upward Spiral:
Different types of breathing have different effects on the body and the brain. A study from Sweden showed that a combination of different breathing types (slow, fast, and superfast) increases feelings of optimism and decreases feelings of depression, anxiety, and overall stress.
Breathing affects the brain through signals carried by the vagus nerve. Not only does the vagus nerve send signals down to the heart, but it also carries signals up into the brain stem. Vagus nerve signaling is important in activating circuits for resting and relaxation, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight instinct. Slow breathing increases activity in the vagus nerve and pushes the brain toward parasympathetic activity. Slow, deep breathing calms you down.
By contrast, rapid breathing deactivates the parasympathetic nervous system and activates the sympathetic nervous system. When you are anxious, excited, or scared, you breathe quickly. But it’s also true that if you breathe quickly, you’re more likely to feel those feelings. Fast breathing can make you more nervous—but also more excited.
A state of anxiety causes hyperventilation, and hyperventilation causes a sate of anxiety. What this means to authors—of any genre, really—is that if we think about how our readers are reading, on a physical level, we can start to manipulate their physical states to some specific effect.
I know, that sounds creepy, but so are stories about vampires, so…
But seriously, there’s no reason to believe you can actually do anyone actual harm by writing a piece of fiction, and none of these techniques will effect someone on so extreme a physical level that they’ll be physically altered in any way. What we’re looking for, and are limited by reality to, is subtle changes in breathing to nudge our readers into the feeling we’re hoping to convey in that scene.
Today let’s focus in on anticipatory anxiety. This is the feeling of fear or dread of something that is going to happen in the near future, or you’re afraid will happen in the near future. You’ve probably felt this from time to time, manifesting as things like “test anxiety” or the “fear” of some scheduled appointment—a job interview or doctor’s appointment. In this state of anxiety we tend to pause too long between breaths. Your mind is going through all these terrible possibilities and you focus in on what if I blow the interview, what if she says I have cancer, what if the plane goes down, what if I go to school tomorrow but forget to wear pants…?
So then if we want our readers to worry about what’s going to happen next, but we’re not ready to reveal the monster (the interview flub, the cancer diagnosis, etc.) that means we’ll need to prevent our readers from taking a deep breath. And this is done through the magic of punctuation!
- An em-dash in the middle of a sentence indicates a sharp transition from one idea to another, with no pause at all.
- A comma in the middle of a sentence signals a very short pause, just a quick breath.
- Ellipsis in the middle of a sentence indicates a longer pause, time enough to take a breath, and the same is true of a period at the end of a sentence.
- A paragraph break indicates a deeper breath.
So then if you want your readers to experience a faux panic state, make them breathe more: more periods, more paragraph breaks, coming right on top of each other. But anticipatory anxiety, breathing less often and less deeply, means the opposite: a longer paragraph made up of longer sentences.
Still don’t believe me? Try breathing through this long paragraph from Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House:
Hillsdale was upon her before she knew it, a tangled, disorderly mess of dirty houses and crooked streets. It was small; once she had come onto the main street she could see the corner at the end with the gas station and the church. There seemed to be only one place to stop for coffee, and that was an unattractive diner, but Eleanor was bound to stop in Hillsdale and so she brought her car to the broken curb in front of the diner and got out. After a minute’s thought, with a silent nod to Hillsdale, she locked the car, mindful of her suitcase on the floor and the carton on the back seat. I will not spend long in Hillsdale, she thought, looking up and down the street, which managed, even in the sunlight, to be dark and ugly. A dog slept uneasily in the shade against a wall, a woman stood in a doorway across the street and looked at Eleanor, and two young boys lounged against a fence, elaborately silent. Eleanor, who was afraid of strange dogs and jeering women and young hoodlums, went quickly into the diner, clutching her pocketbook and her car keys. Inside, she found a counter with a chinless, tired girl behind it, and a man sitting at the end eating. She wondered briefly how hungry he must have been to come in here at all, when she looked at the gray counter and the smeared glass bowl over a plate of doughnuts. “Coffee,” she said to the girl behind the counter, and the girl turned wearily and tumbled down a cup from the piles on the shelves; I will have to drink this coffee because I said I was going to, Eleanor told herself sternly, but next time I will listen to Dr. Montague.
This paragraph contains, believe it or not, only ten sentences. At eighteen words, the first sentence is the shortest, and the last is the longest: 52 words. Shirley Jackson refused to insert a paragraph break even where a copy editor would likely demand one, like before the single word of spoken dialog: “Coffee,” or the transitions between description and direct thought.
It all stays firmly and entirely inside Eleanor’s experience, inside her anxiety. Eleanor’s mind is racing, she’s hyper aware, because she’s excited and terrified at the prospect of getting to the haunted house—and so we are too—and she’s holding her breath. Shirley Jackson puts us firmly in Eleanor’s experience and keeps us there, which is precisely what fiction, almost by definition, is, does, and should do.
Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans…
Link up with me on LinkedIn…
Friend me on GoodReads…
Find me at PublishersMarketplace…
Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.