When writers talk about how they infuse their work with sensory detail, it’s usually about describing the color of something or what a character’s hair looks like. Let’s face it: breathing is one of the things we take for granted as humans. We do it so unconsciously that most people don’t even realize when or why they’re breathing. Our breathing rate changes with our emotions – it can be fast and shallow when we’re anxious, and deep and calm when we’re relaxed. As a creative writer, you can make your descriptive writing more vivid by incorporating more sensory information into your novel or story.
What’s in a Breath?
When thinking about how to describe breathing in your novel, ask yourself what you want to convey. Word choice matters.
If your character is having a panic attack, she takes short, shallow breaths.
A character preparing for a fight will have more controlled breathing; their breaths will be slow and steady and then become faster and shallower as the adrenaline kicks in.
Shallow breathing can also indicate stress or panic, as the fight starts to go badly, for example.
At a lull in the fight, the character might start heavy breathing, to get enough wind to continue.
During or after the fight, pain can come through the breath.
Just as the reader can get information about a character through their actions, they can also find out who they are by the way they breathe.
This technique is useful when you’re writing a suspenseful scene and building tension or fear.
If there’s something sinister under the bed and your protagonist’s heart is racing, you should express it through her breathing: “heart-pounding,” “breath coming in short gasps.” When you describe their breathing in this way, the reader senses that something is wrong because it deviates from normal behavior.
Take a Deep Breath
That was a deep breath, and you’re still reading. Good!
Now let’s go over the basics of describing breathing in creative writing:
- Sensory details can tell you a lot about a person’s state of mind. For example, when you take a deep breath through your nose before speaking in public, what does it smell like?
- What does it sound like as the person exhales?
- Describing breathing in terms of sensory input is an effective way to convey the main character’s thoughts to readers and help them understand why the character does or doesn’t feel prepared for the challenge that awaits them.
- As with any literary device like an allusion or a metaphor (and yes – breathing is a literary device), don’t overdo it. A character who takes a deep breath more than once per scene may be perceived by readers as weak-willed or indecisive, and that’s not always what you want them to think of your main character; again, use this technique judiciously unless that’s exactly the aspect of his or her personality you want to emphasize!
In the context of creative writing, holding your breath means that tension is rising. As we’ll see in the last example, you can achieve this effect by describing exactly how long someone held his or her breath.
But what else happens when someone holds their breath? How do they feel? What’s going on inside him or her?
- The first thing that happens, of course, is that they stop breathing. The need to breathe becomes stronger and stronger as the oxygen level in the blood decreases. This causes blood pressure to rise and pulse rate to increase. Over time, the body compensates for the lack of air supply by increasing the carbon dioxide content in the body; it’s easier to keep the blood pumping with an increased CO2 content than with low oxygen content.
- Soon this leads to headaches, dizziness, and disorientation (which can make breathing difficult).
- After a few minutes of not breathing, your heart starts beating irregularly due to the low oxygen level in the blood: fast or irregularly at first, then slower and slower until it stops completely – and when your heart stops beating, you’re dead.
There may be scenes where you can use physiology to increase tension, but be careful not to overdo it. Emphasize the characters’ reactions, not their physical reactions.
Breathing on Other Characters
Another approach is to describe how one character’s breath affects another character. You might focus on how another person’s breath affects your narrator: “The scent of her perfume filled my nostrils as she approached me, and a hot breath came from her lips as she spoke.”
You could also write about how your narrator’s breath affects another character, “His eyes widened as he smelled the alcohol on my breath. When I sighed, he froze and stared at me. My sighs quickened as I watched him for a reaction that didn’t come.”
Some more examples:
- The warmth of her breath sent shivers up and down my spine.
- His words hit me like blows to the stomach, each one robbing me of breath.
- A breath of warm air tickled the back of my neck, making me tense in anticipation before relaxing again with a sigh.
Let It Out Slowly
Once you take a deep breath, how should you exhale it? Here are a few ways:
- Through the mouth. This could be an expression of relief, frustration, or exasperation. It could also show that the person is trying to maintain control. A controlled breath can be indicated by exhaling through pursed lips like a whistle.
- Through the nose. This is often described as a snort of derision or disbelief and is used to show that your person finds something ridiculous or silly.
- The actual sound of breathing can also be described as a sigh, laugh, sob, groan, gasp, sharp breath, or even a scream or laugh (we’ll get to that later).
Where the Breath Happens
It’s most natural to inhale through your mouth. If your character needs a deep, restorative breath or a soothing sigh, mouth breathing will probably suffice.
If you want to fine-tune your character’s breathing, you can have them breathe in or out through their nose. Nasal breathing can bring smells into the character’s awareness and draw attention to sensory details in the text.
Exhaling through the nose lends a sense of sophistication and refinement to characters who otherwise lack such qualities (e.g., snobby professors and refined criminals).
Pursed Lip Breathing
Pursed lip breathing is an interesting technique because it evokes certain emotions such as frustration, anger, annoyance, and sadness…
When you’re forced to breathe this way, certain emotions are naturally evoked, making your text more organic without having to tell you exactly what’s happening on an emotional level in every scene.
Breathing Is Automatic and Easy to Forget About, but It’s Important to Life and Your Writing
Breathing is a reflex action that’s automatically controlled by the central nervous system. That means you don’t have to consciously think or make an effort to perform it. It’s basically as important to life as water and food.
On average, a person breathes in and out between 12 and 20 times a minute when at rest. Whether you’re running, sleeping, or sitting down to read this article, your body is constantly taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.
Respiration is a reflex that’s constantly going on in the background, keeping us alive as we go about our daily activities – it’s easy to forget about it and only notice it when something goes wrong.
Breathing can be considered an involuntary activity, meaning it happens without us having to make the conscious decision to breathe.
However, since breathing has both a voluntary and an involuntary component (you’ve to decide when to speak or sing), there are some ways your character can control breathing.
It’s Used as a Literary Device in Fiction
As you may recall, literary devices are the tools fiction writers use to create meaning, emotion, and imagery.
- Similes and metaphors.
- Onomatopoeia and alliteration.
- Personification is also included. Personification involves ascribing human characteristics to an object or idea.
Authors may use a short breath to show tension or nervousness: “She could barely catch her breath.” The author uses this phrase to convey how tense and frightened the character is.
A long breath can also be used to express relaxation: “Her breathing was slow and deep.” In this case, it’s not so important what the character is feeling, but where their thoughts are.
When someone says that their heart is beating or pounding in their chest, we understand that he or she’s nervous or excited about something. If a character in your story breathes loudly, it means he or she’s worried or anxious-or that he or she may even be looking forward to something.
Reveal a Lot About Their Emotional State, Physical Condition, Health Status, and More
You can use breathing in any piece of writing that features a character. For example, if you are writing a novel, short story, or play, you could consider showing the reader how a character is feeling by describing their breathing.
This will not only tell the reader what your character is experiencing but also reveal different things about their emotional state, physical condition, and health.
Your character may experience several different reactions throughout your writing and the quality of their breathing will change depending on these experiences.
- “The nurse held the stethoscope to his chest and listened carefully as he breathed in and out.”
- “The man had been following her for blocks now, and she could feel his breath on the back of her neck.”
Of course, you can use breathing as more than just an indicator of emotion and health. It’s a great metaphor for lots of things: life or death situations, taking on too much work at once, or even being afraid to take chances on love.
- Think about the bigger picture. Should you describe your character’s breathing at all? Will it help the reader know what your character is feeling?
- Consider how much information to give the reader. Do you want to give more information or less?
- Decide which perspective to use (first person, second person, or third person) and decide whether to use multiple perspectives in one piece of writing.
Showing how a character reacts can be very useful for readers as well as for showing a sense of time and place. In creative writing, this often means describing a moment that shows us something about a character like her nerves, her anxiety, or her excitement.
Describing Breathing Creatively
A compelling description in your story can be the difference between an otherwise forgettable scene and an engaging one.
The best way to do this is to keep a few things in mind.
- When characters breathe in creative writing, try to avoid using “breathe” repeatedly by simply replacing it with synonyms like “gasp.” Start by opening a thesaurus
- Use action verbs to make your character’s breathing sound more like a natural part of their surroundings.
- Use descriptive adjectives to describe the feeling of exhaling. Describe the rate and rhythm of the breathing. For example, someone might be “panting” or taking “shallow breaths.”
- Don’t be afraid to use metaphor or simile when describing breathing in creative writing-it will add life and color! You could also use similes to create an analogy, like comparing someone’s breath to steam on a cold morning. You could also compare it to waves lapping on the beach or butterflies fluttering. But keep it within the realms of your genre and context!
- The more creative you are with your description of breathing, the more effective your writing will be at bringing your reader into the scene!
Make Readers Feel What Your Characters Are Feeling
I hope some of these suggestions will help you add excitement to your description of breathing and make readers feel what your characters are feeling.
In general, it should be used to draw attention to a character’s emotional state or when the character is excited or stressed. It’s one of those writing skills worth developing.
A few more options include:
- Describe how far apart breathing becomes. When people are nervous, their heart races and they take rapid breaths. This is a simple way to show that a person is anxious without having to write out their inner thoughts.
- Does someone’s age affect their breath? An older person might become short of breath with strenuous activity, whereas a younger person could be fine with the same amount of exertion.
- Don’t forget body language combined with breathing as a way to depict character or situation.
- How about using other senses in combination with breathing? If someone has just eaten spicy food and needs water, describe how every time they try to breathe, the scent of hot peppers wafts into their nose.
Breathing Sounds and Words for Creative Writing