A Dinosaur Is About to Eat You; Care to Talk About Your Feelings?
On Saturday, my older sister treated me to the Jurassic World exhibit at The Franklin Institute as my birthday present. That's where I got to meet some very well-done animatronic dinosaurs up close and personal.
How did I feel when she first announced we were going?
Delighted! Excited! And very slightly concerned that it would turn out to be as much of a dud as the movie it’s based off of.
As it so happened though, that last emotion wasn’t necessary. The tour was a ton of fun.
There was a stegosaurus, a brachiosaurus and several other critters that my six-year-old dinosaur-loving self probably could have identified in a snotty-certain instant, but that my 34-year-old self cannot recall to save her life.
Except for a raptor. Now, that one's easy to recall, and not just because it got particuarly up close and personal with the tour group.
Fortunately, it was behind bars and couldn’t get at us with its wicked-sharp teeth and razor-like claws. So there was no chance of it slashing our stomachs open and feeding on our innards while we’re still alive.
By the way, thanks for that lovely mental image, Dr. Alan Grant.
But as fascinating as the raptor was, the most evocative moment was when we got to meet the Tyrannosaurus rex.
They designed her to come stomping into a large room set up to look very much like something out of Jurassic Park, the movie that started it all. So there were exotic-looking plants everywhere, a green and yellow jeep, and a tall “electrified” containment fence meant to keep T-rex away from the tasty tourists.
Yet all of that and the fact that she was also quite fake was only so much of a comfort considering that she. Was. Huge.
And loud. And really realistic. And hungry-looking. And did I mention how enormous she was?
Roaring several times, she advanced further into the room, making it clear that the only thing keeping her from turning it into a bloodbath was the fence. Which, incidentally, wasn’t as tall as she was.
And when she bent her head forward and downward to eye the mouthwatering morsels she was already oh-so-close to – with me being right in her direct line of sight – I found myself thinking something along these lines:
This dinosaur is so well done. Like really, really realistic.
Look at those teeth!
Dang. She’s looking right at me. Don’t move, Jeannette. Don’t move. She can’t see you if you don’t move.
Okay. So clearly she wasn’t alive. But what if she was? What would I be feeling if she was real?
My conclusion to that question came very quickly. Simply put, I don’t think there’s a way I can ever know.
Oh, I suppose I could go on safari, then wander off from the group until I meet a lion or two. I mean, the end-result would be the same: screaming and running, blood and gore, and then ultimate death. But I think there might be an added level of terror when the carnivore in question is towering yards and yards above you, and its slobber is hitting your head.
That’s a rather difficult situation to duplicate in our current era, so I’m very doubtful that there’s any way I can really know what it would feel like to be in the I’m-about-to-be-eaten-by-a-dinosaur hot seat.
Which, incidentally, I’m okay with.
So why am I wondering this in the first place? Because I’m a writer, obviously. And that’s what writers do. We wonder about the situations we throw or might throw our characters into.
But there are plenty of situations we might want to write about, yet simply cannot or should not be able to comprehend. In which case, what in the world do we do to convey the amount of realistic feelings we’re looking for? Something beyond the typical heart-racing, pulse-pounding clichés?
Well, here’s one trick to try when dinosaurs are in short supply: Think back to something terrifying you experienced.
A deer jumping across the highway onto the hood of your car late at night after you watched an unexpectedly horrifying movie
The sight of a grey, pointed fin gliding past you in the open ocean
Sitting atop an otherwise deserted German train station platform while a midnight rave goes on below, leaving you staring at the stairs just waiting for trouble to come stumbling up.
Whatever it is – just as long as it won’t send you into a bout of PTSD (seriously, no story is ever worth that) – analyze it as best as you can, remembering the way you physically, emotionally and mentally reacted to said situation.
Then transfer those feelings into your character’s situation and your readers’ nervous systems.