Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cardiopulmonary Reality

You know the tendency some authors have toward filling their thrillers and romances with pounding hearts and quickened breathing? I once heard a great expression for it: cardiopulmonary hyperbole (I wish I could acknowledge where I got this gem, but I’ve forgotten). It’s an easy trap to fall into because, how else do you describe the human reaction to fear?

Last night, I was stopped at a red light at the corner of Vets and Transcontinental here in Metairie when I saw a blue minivan come barreling up behind me, swerve into the turning lane, and shoot on out into the intersection. In the slow motion way these things happen, I had time to think, “That idiot is going to run the red light,” and, “Oh my god this guy’s going to get hit,” before a car going about 45 mph slammed into him. The impact flipped the minivan and sent it airborne. As I sat there watching this upside down minivan flying through the air toward me (and my shiny new red car), my thoughts naturally turned to, “Eeek, this guy could come down right on top of me!” and “There’s a car behind me, I can’t back up.” Then the minivan crashed down on its roof a few feet in front me and skidded to a halt beside me.

Without the least danger of falling into hyperbole or exaggeration, I can quite accurately say that my breath was coming hard and fast. I punched on my emergency flashers and watched incredulously as the guy behind me calmly pulled out into the turning lane, passed me, and continued on through the intersection when the light turned green. No cardiopulmonary excesses there, obviously. Everyone else in the vicinity was spilling out of their cars, yanking out their cell phones (of course I didn’t have mine), and screaming, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

Writers are sick people. Yes, I was horrified by what I had just seen happen to the occupants of that minivan, and humbled by what almost happened to me. But a part of my brain was also thinking, “Hmm. My heart actually isn’t pounding all that hard, but I am seriously hyperventilating. What other physical symptoms of shock and horror am I experiencing? How would I describe them?”

The problem is, of course, that these are the standard human reactions to fear and shock—pounding heart, rapid breathing—and there are only so many ways to describe those physical manifestations. The secondary reactions set in a few minutes later—the shaking and (for those of us with a tendency to cry) the tears.

So how do writers of books filled with shootings, explosions, chases, etc, avoid falling into cardiopulmonary hyperbole while still giving readers a realistic description of the effect of these incidents on their characters?

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow. I've seen a couple of accidents up close and personal but this sounds like an intense one. As for finding new ways to describe the adrenaline rush and heart rush, I wish I knew. Tell me some and I'll borrow them for the story I'm working on now.

Steve Malley said...

Jimminy Jillickers! Glad you're all right!

My response is getting too big, the more I think about it. I'll do a quick blog post...

Lana Gramlich said...

Ironic...The accident reminds me of a dream I had not long ago in which a truck flew up in the air & crashed to the ground, coming close to (but not damaging,) another truck...

Sphinx Ink said...

Wow, what a stunning and terrifying thing to witness.

But I have to ask: were the occupants of the van killed?

As you say, we writers are "sick people," because a part of us always stands aside in the midst tragedy to observe and analyze and record.

And my lawyer-brain is analyzing the possible legal actions that are likely to be taken, both criminal and civil, as a result of the collision.

I'm glad you're safe, at least.

liz fenwick said...

Interesting post. In London this week I was on a bus when a series of explosions went off. Now in these times we live in I had no idea what it could have been. Everyone on the bus went silent. I too tried to note my reactions. I felt my chest almost compress and my mouth dry. Both reactions totally cliched but accurate.

I still don't know what the explosions were - some one suggested work that was taking place on the underground however I can still feel the dread and helplessness.....

Sustenance Scout said...

Candy, simply by describing the scene you made my heart race! Maybe the trick is to suggest what a character is experiencing without noting every detail? Yikes, so glad you're safe! K.

cs harris said...

Thanks, everyone. Sphinxy, I assume the occupants of the minivan survived, since I didn't see anything about their deaths in the paper. You know what they say about drunks, babies, and car crashes. And Scout, I suspect you're right--a dash of physical reactions goes a long way.

Shauna Roberts said...

That sounds terrifying. Glad you and your car are ok.

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