I nod sympathetically. Beginning writers (and even some published ones) have a tendency to turn to lurching stomachs, shivers up or down the spine and hair rising on the back of the neck. It's true it's difficult to come up with new responses to fear, anger, shame or any other emotion, but there are better ways than resorting to clichés. If you feel you must use a visceral reaction, at least make it fresh and original.
In her memoir titled Daughter of Neptune, Theresa Wisner, one of my students, used a physical response that feels absolutely appropriate. Here's an example. Theresa is on a plane landing in Alaska.
The deafening racket hits my ears and I’m sure it’s the pilot’s last failed attempt to avoid the mountainside.
But we’ve missed it. My sober heart and stomach try to find their way to their natural position, but I can tell it’ll be a while before I’m back to normal.
Later, she describes visiting her father in the hospital. She doesn't have to tell the reader she loves him because she shows it.
I bend down again and give the kind of half hug a hospital bed forces, my head against his chest. When I stand, a damp spot remains on the hills and valleys over his heart.
I’m right there with her, tears in my eyes.
In that example, Theresa taps into a universal feeling. If you've had a father you love (and most people do), those two sentences resonate. It's just as important to create emotion in the reader as it is in the character.
Contained emotion, especially anger, feeds on itself and builds to a crisis point. When a character can no longer suppress his feelings, he explodes, leaving him no choice but to reveal the rage, lies and secrets that haunt him.
Think of contained emotion as a full pot of water on the stove. Put the lid on the pot and turn up the heat. First, it simmers. Then it boils. Then eventually it overflows. You can’t suppress strong feelings. They will come out, sometimes safely but often in destructive ways.
In The Starlite Drive-in, 12-year-old Callie Anne is playing a record with the song, "Rock Around the Clock." In 1956, many parents believed rock 'n' roll was sinful. Callie Anne's father shows how he feels when he hears the song.
"Where'd you get this?" he growled, little flecks of spit collecting on his lips.
The heat rushed into my cheeks. I stared at his nose the way I always did when I lied to him. As I opened my mouth to speak, my mind suddenly emptied. I searched desperately for some answer, anything he might accept. I swallowed hard. "Found it at the drive-in field, propped against a speaker pole."
There was a heartbeat of silence, and I realized I'd made a serious mistake.
His eyes narrowed, and he fixed me with a look that could have singed my hair. "Like hell you did," he breathed.
He stepped back a few feet, held the record up and pressed his thumbs against it. Thinking only of the extraordinary music and how long it had taken to make it my own, I screamed and lunged. The snap of the record was dreadful, almost deafening. Clasping one broken half in my hand, I crumpled to the floor."
In this example, the father and the daughter react internally and externally. The father, who is angry about many things, explodes like the boiling water.
Consider how you can use this technique. Contain your own character's emotion. Then turn up the heat.