Urges and Impulses

I had the urge to sleep in this morning. I’d had an alarm set – I always do – for a bit after five in the morning to get up and write this post. If I have it done ahead, on rare occasion, I shut off the alarm and roll over to sleep the sleep of the just. Then again, more mornings than not these days I have a kitten cavorting over me before settling onto my chest to purr loudly enough the neighbors are wondering about distant thunder. Her timing is impeccable. She knows I get up at 5 am. You can’t say cats aren’t smart enough to tell time.

This morning I chose to sleep in, and write this post a bit late, but it was a calculated decision. You see, last weekend we were busy from Wednesday until late in the day on Monday. This weekend I’d planned for Saturday supper at my house to be a simple, laid-back meal (hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill, potato salad, coleslaw, banana pudding and poundcake for desserts. All-American cookout fare). Then I had someone invite themselves to my house for lunch, and I’m trying to get it clean and ready and dealing with my son having built a grill during welding class for me but it’s not done yet and… I slept in. I shut off the alarm, went back to sleep, the kitten opted to wake the boy rather than me, and it felt wonderful. I’m not sorry I did it.

The art of writing is portraying humans. I mean, you can absolutely write aliens, but to get your very human readers to connect with the stories, there needs to be humanity in there. Humans are impulsive. We listen to our guts, which is not the same as doing whatever we have an urge to do. In my case, I had the urge to sleep more, but I didn’t give into that just to be lazy. The opposite – I have a very long and busy day ahead of me, taking care of friends and my own family, and I need the extra rest now because I won’t have another chance to sit down, it looks like, until late tonight. This is a calculated equation based on experience.

Listening to your gut is a far more complex equation than you might think. It’s based on reading unconscious signals that you aren’t processing on the surface level (at least, not initially) and then acting on them in a conscious manner. In some cases, you don’t have time to do all the mental math involved, you need to just react to the gut signaling that it’s time to be elsewhere, fast. It might look on the surface like an impulsive, even rash decision, but the reality is far deeper.

How best do you write this in fiction? You can’t weight it all to the after, in the story. If you do, you risk losing the reader. Ideally, you’ll want to foreshadow this subtly, so as to make it clear the character doesn’t even know what’s going on. Oddly, this can be done better in film than in writing. Music from the score, lighting, and ambient noises all make up an uneasy sense in the viewer that is very difficult to pull off – but not impossible! – in text. Similar effects can be had by describing the scene a bit. Not in huge detail, unless you ordinarily do it, but perhaps a bit more detail if you don’t go in for much. In your dialogue tags, you can use vocabulary to convey heightened emotions from the characters. When you are writing in ‘god mode’ or third-person omniscient, you can even describe hidden motivations, but this will give away some of the tension in most cases.

And you should take the time to go into it after the decision. In the aftermath of the gut call, take a little time to go into what tripped the alarm – or sparked the impulse. Explain for the reader, don’t assume they picked up on the foreshadowing, as they might not have. For that matter, most of us mere humans who acted on an urge don’t always realize what we were doing until later. Sometimes we can’t explain it at all. And a few people never investigate their own motivations, but that’s not useful! How will you know what to write if you don’t know why you did it?

12 thoughts on “Urges and Impulses

  1. There are people who need to do something the same time every day and achieved it by giving the cat a treat at that time. When the cat pesters for the treat, they remember

    1. Unfortunately, I have discovered the cat’s time sense varies with their estimation on whether or not they can fool you, and if they do, whether they can then get away with demanding the Proper Treat at the Proper Time.

  2. “What! Why did you shoot hm!”

    “He made my spidey sense tingle.”

    “You haven’t got a . . .”

    “Okay, fine! You know how I got mugged late week? He wearing my watch.”

    “He probably bought it in a pawn shop.”

    “Oops! My bad.”

    (Yes, I’m in a weird mood. Why do you ask?)

    1. Reminds me of the opening act of Silverado — those scenes with Paden reacquiring his stolen hat, horse, and pistols are pure cinema gold.

      “You’re wearing my hat.” half the saloon instantly clears out for a gunfight

  3. “I have a kitten cavorting over me before settling onto my chest to purr loudly”

    “50 Ways to Wake Your Owner.” 😎

  4. For the gut directed characters I’ve had so far, I haven’t really felt the need to explain their reasoning. They just do the thing they do and they’re either right or they’re wrong or it was ambiguous enough that the logic they used didn’t really matter.

    Now, I usually need know myself why the character is doing what they’re doing (and it will bring a story to a dead halt if I can’t understand the reasons for their actions) but I haven’t yet run into a spot where the reasoning was the critical part that the audience needed to understand.

    That may just be the stories that I’ve written so far though, or could be something about the way I myself think/function that limits me from basing justifications on that type of impulse?

    1. In my tender teens, I needed to write a story before I figured out the characters’ motives. Fortunately, my muse was into short stories.

      1. For me it’s more like I start one story and the characters announce that, no, they’re doing something else entirely, and would the author kindly keep up?

  5. I mean, you can absolutely write aliens, but to get your very human readers to connect with the stories, there needs to be humanity in there.

    There are people who believe that all Intelligent Aliens will be completely Non-Human in how they (the aliens) think.

    IE Humans will never understand the Aliens.

    I disagree and expect the differences (in how they think) will be mainly Cultural. Just look at the vast cultural differences between various humans.

    Besides that argument, I agree that if writers have Aliens peaceably interacting with Humans, there will have to be aspects of “humanity” in the Aliens for them to be able to interact with Humans.

    Of course, if the writer uses an Alien as a Point Of View character, then the Alien will have to have some aspects of humanity in order for the reader to understand the Alien.

    And why is the writer using aliens if he/she wants the reader to understand/like the Alien?

    By way, some people apparently dislike Doc Smith (creator of the Lensman series), but he had Alien Lensmen who very definitely weren’t human but he successfully made them characters that the reader could enjoy reading about.

    1. Sorry, that sentence should have been “And why is the writer using aliens if he/she doesn’t want the reader to understand/like the Alien?”

  6. IRL, I usually can’t analyze why I did things like buy a bunch of grapes for a movie night gathering and only find out when we get together that the hostess had bought assorted salty-crunchables for snacks. In the Ancestors of Jaiya and Star Master series, I’m pretty shameless about using precognitive characters for this sort of thing.

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