How to prompt a visceral reaction with prose, one word at a time.

Written by Cole Schafer


I realized I loved her three, maybe four months into our beautiful awful perfectly imperfect mess.

We were traveling back and forth to one another –– catching early morning jet planes and beating sunrises –– just to steal a handful of hours in the same room.

On this particular afternoon, we were existing silently on the back patio, the sun was losing itself to the horizon, turning the world a deep crimson color that photographers affectionally call the Golden hour.

I was staring at her, jealous of the wind playing with her hair.

Her face was lifted, ever so slightly, towards the sky; and her eyes were clasped shut. She reminded me of a lioness basking in the sun.

Eventually, she opened them, pointing their viridescence at me, making my day; smiling softly at me, making my day; nuzzling her forehead into the crook of my neck, making my day.

And, it was somewhere in this moment where I thought… what a wondrous way to live? To be a single glance, a smile, a nuzzle away from a better day.

What is a visceral reaction?

A visceral reaction is an almost instinctive, guttural wave of emotions to an experience or stimulus.

Another way to look at it is when our emotions manifest into something physical; when our emotions become something we can feel in our skin and flesh and bones and gut.

If you’ve ever been in love or are lucky enough to be in love now, there is a very good chance the story I shared up above welled-up some emotions…

But, more than this, it might have even caused these emotions to transform into something physical.

Perhaps you felt a lump ball-up in your throat or your heart thumped like a rhythmic timpani in the distance...

Maybe you found your hand inadvertently reaching for your phone to remind your human how much you love them…

These physical sensations are visceral reactions. And, in my humble opinion, it the greatest asset a writer or marketer has.

How to create a visceral reaction.

If you’re looking to create a visceral reaction with the words you put to paper or the marketing you breathe life into, you can do worse things than look to literature.

So, as I do my damndest to create a manual of sorts for you to begin evoking visceral reactions in your readers and customers, I will include a few lines that made me feel something; truly made me feel something.

Find beauty in simplicity.

Novelists are extraordinary at creating visceral reactions with their words. Take the singer-songwriter Johnny Cash for example. Once upon a time, someone asked him what his definition of paradise was.

His response?

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

The beauty in the line is its simplicity. There is nothing especially complicated about sharing a cup of coffee with someone you love deeply. It’s what we might call one of life’s simple pleasures.

But, its simplicity makes it relatable.

Say something relatable.

A little while back I had the pleasure of curating a few hard-hitting lines by the fearless underground poet and novelist, Charles Bukowski.

His prose never fails to blow my damn mind. He’s an extremely passionate, albeit dirty, writer whose power to ignite visceral reactions in the reader comes from just how incredibly relatable he is.

Take this rather nasty line for example…

“Nothing is worse than to finish a good shit, then reach over and find the toilet paper container empty. Even the most horrible human being on earth deserves to wipe his ass.”

All of us have been there and Bukowski is right… we wish that on nobody.

To create a visceral reaction in your reader or customer, say something they can relate to and from there… get descriptive.

Don’t be afraid to get descriptive.

Like most everything in life, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing where it concerns simplicity and relatability.

Too much of it and your writing and marketing can become bland and unoriginal… which will almost certainly kill any shot you have at inducing a visceral reaction.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes, in-depth, the complicated sadness humanity feels in the fall and our longing for the spring…

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

Imagine if he would have written…

“I’m sad in the fall, but I always look forward to spring.”

While this feeling is simple and relatable, it certainly isn’t visceral, is it?

And, sometimes, it helps to be abrasive.

And, when all else fails, shoot from the hip and say something surprising… and, perhaps, borderline abrasive.

While Anthony Bourdain was widely known as a television host, he was an exceptional writer known for his raw, almost abrasive style.

Read along as he reflects on his days in culinary school…

“They’d let us practice our knife-work on whole legs of beef, my novice butcher classmates and me absolutely destroying thousands of pounds of meat; we were the culinary version of the Manson family.”

Visceral reactions don’t always originate from positive emotions… Bourdain excelled at making the reader’s skin crawl.

Your turn.

The last tidbit I will leave you with is this…

The beautiful aspect of being human is the emotions we feel. Some might even argue that we are nothing more than the emotions we feel in each passing moment.

If you’d like your writing and marketing to create a visceral reaction in your readers and customers… take what you have felt and recreate this same feeling for others.

Sometimes this is done through a striking line of copy, other times it is achieved with a single photograph.

Your turn.

By Cole Schafer.