Chemistry: A Primer
A Session with Marcia Gloster
According to Webster’s dictionary, Chemistry is first described as science that deals with the composition, structure, and properties of substances and with the transformations that they undergo. The description immediately following reads, “The complex emotional or psychological interaction between two people.”
So be it. Here, on one hand, you have the science of chemistry grounded in base reality and, on the other, a feeling, actually a response to another person that is amorphous, often fleeting and difficult to describe. It’s intangible, unexpected, and may occur as if in a flash, one that has the power to change one’s life in an instant. Or, it may come upon one slowly. Perhaps there’s someone you’ve met, someone who you find pleasant, even attractive, but you don’t get that immediate jolt, that spark. And yet over time you develop an empathy, a rapport, and one day you suddenly see that person in a new and surprising light. That is connection, chemistry. Also, let’s not forget pheromones. They play into our chemistry and, although scientists tell us they understand how they function in insects and animals, they’re not quite so sure how they work in humans. And yet they exist and are said to be an essential component of attraction.
As Dr. John Demartini, a specialist in human behavior, states, “Chemistry gives off doses of dopamine (a hormone that mimics the effects of cocaine) resulting in phenomena such as energy boosts, appetite suppression, heart palpitations, accelerated breathing, hyperactivity and insomnia. Romantics say, ‘I love him/her so much I can’t eat, sleep or think straight.’ That’s the dope talking. And dopamine triggers testosterone, which means sex drive goes up, and soon enough you’re making love like bunnies.”
A desirable and dramatic phenomenon, as we are all aware.
That said, and defined, the question becomes how to actually show how chemistry, and thus attraction, affects your characters. It’s easy to write that “Ted noticed a girl talking with friends. Thinking she was beautiful (alluring, sexy, with big brown eyes or soft, kissable lips, etc.), he made his way across the crowded room, determined to meet her.” Meanwhile, “Stacy looked up, making sudden eye contact with an attractive man. With a small, shy smile she watched as he crossed the room to her.”
Here, we’re telling of a unique moment, one fraught with tension, expectation, anticipation—all aspects of human chemistry. Those next few seconds may become a unique, even life-changing, occurrence in the life of one or both characters; characters you’ve created, given a personality, and made relatable to your reader. In that context, telling that Ted thinks she’s beautiful and that Stacy is attracted is not quite enough. What, behind her shy smile, is really happening?
This is where you have the opportunity to delve into your character’s innermost self by showing the reader the emotional as well as the physical manifestations of a dramatic, intense moment. A moment of deep, inexplicable connection that without warning spurs rapid changes within our bodies. How do we describe the chemistry of attraction?
Look at Stacy: what are the words to express and illustrate what she is really experiencing? Is she merely attracted or is there something more? Seeing Ted approach, perhaps she unexpectedly feels butterflies in her stomach then, a bit flustered, she takes a deep breath of anticipation and puts her hand to her chest to calm her rapidly beating heart. That may be a bit over the top–but you get the idea. We are now feeling her response as well as seeing it. On Ted’s part, perhaps he feels a rush of adrenaline, even arousal which makes him adopt a swagger of confidence.
Whatever persona we’ve given Stacy we now have a new set of parameters. She’s not just “attracted;” this may actually be her “moment” for the ages; one she may have longed for or dreamed of. Whatever it is, it’s one she’s not likely to forget, and it’s up to you as a writer to make her– and the reader– experience it. As we are all aware, “chemistry” is sudden, powerful, and elicits unexpected responses.
As an example, here’s a passage from my book, “31 Days, A Memoir of Seduction.” It’s the first time I lay eyes on Bill:
We retraced our steps through the courtyard back to the stairs. On the first floor landing, a small hand-lettered sign pointed down a short corridor to the English studio. Just ahead in an arched stone doorway, I saw a man talking with a couple of students. As we approached, he turned to us and introduced himself. “I’m Bill Thomson, the instructor in this studio.”
We introduced ourselves, and he glanced briefly at Kate, shaking her hand. As he turned, about to shake my hand, his eyes met mine for a fraction of a second. I felt a sudden, powerful sensation wash over me as my mind went blank. I saw him in a flash of white light and knew that image would be engraved in my memory forever. As we both looked away I blinked, my mind awakened by the image. I reminded myself to breathe. Whatever that was, I knew it wasn’t a good thing. Stay away from this man, I warned myself; he’s much older and there’s something dangerous about him. He’s not to be played with. Do not even think about going anywhere near him.
I saw him glance back at me as he turned to talk to another student. Realizing he was standing practically under a spotlight, I shook my head thinking that was the light I had seen. But it had been more than that. Something had happened that I had never experienced before, something primal, deep, and unknown that had both excited and frightened me.
He wasn’t much taller than I. Thick dark hair fell over his forehead, long and slightly curling at the back of his neck. His long bushy sideburns were brushed with gray. He had thin, unsmiling lips and an aquiline nose, but the drama of his face came from his eyes, which were an unusual and intense light hazel. I didn’t think he was particularly handsome, but he radiated sensuality…
Later when I told Kate about my reaction to Bill Thomson, she looked at me, her eyes wide in disbelief. “He must be forty, twice your age,” she said incredulously. “He’s old.”
Obviously, no chemistry on Kate’s part! And yet for me it was a moment frozen in time. An immediate, unexpected and intense response flowing throughout my body and my mind combining shock, sensation, and sexual tension– along with the visceral feeling that this man was dangerous. All in a split second. That’s the essential chemistry of attraction.
In Stacy’s case, her reactions would vary depending on her personality, her immediate environment and the characters you’ve placed around her. Put yourself in her or Ted’s situation. Think how you might react, or have reacted, to a sudden and unexpected glance from another individual. Was the moment a shock or merely a pleasant, welcome surprise? Was it startling, and unsettling, as if you didn’t quite know what to make of it? Or was it highly charged, generating a surge of adrenaline that not only created sexual desire but made your eyes fly open and your heart palpitate? Whatever you say about it, you need to push the moment, to make the reader feel, see and relate to it.
In 31 Days chemistry carries the entire story, in part due to the complexity of attraction between the two main figures as well as the knowledge that there is a deadline, a limited time to be together before they each go their separate ways, perhaps forever. For me, there was also the knowledge that I wasn’t the only girl in Bill’s life:
Strangely enough, when he talked to me about my paintings, he was focused and serious, the watercolor in front of me taking precedence over everything else. But gradually I would become aware of a subtle shift as he reverted to his more seductive self. I wasn’t the only one; I had noticed his subtle transformation from instructor to flirt with many of the other girls as well. They always ended up giggling and fluttering their eyes. I sighed inwardly, the flirting I could handle; I actually did my best to ignore it. But it was his sudden, unexpected glances I didn’t quite comprehend and that electrified my whole being. I reminded myself to stay away from him.
Chemistry, attraction. It’s not just a one-time response. You still need to maintain the tension and the momentum. Is your character available to the other, emotionally, physically? Does one desire more than the other, or want what she or he can’t have? Show us how your character feels about it. For example, say Ted has asked Stacy for a date. That night she’s not quite sure what to expect. Yet when she opens the door to Ted those butterflies take off again and when he gives her a kiss, she, feeling his desire, is suddenly breathless.
In the following section from 31 Days, Bill tries to explain the attraction between them–as well as the caveats that go along with it.
“I want to talk to you, Marcia,” he said softly. “This is difficult for me. You know I’m married, although my wife is in London and we’ve agreed to be apart for the summer. I also must tell you there’s a woman I love. But I’ve thought about you, and I don’t want to give this up, whatever this is, and I don’t want to give it a name. I do want to spend time with you, but I must ask you not to become possessive; let me lead. And please don’t question me. There are some things I can’t explain to you. I know you may not like it, but it’s the only way this can work. I’m drawn to you, but I can’t get any more involved. Also, the summer will be over soon and you know as well as I that there’s no future for us. You’ll go back to New York to your life and I’ll return to London, to mine. And who knows if we’ll ever see each other again.”
I stared back at him in stunned silence. All I could think of was that he wasn’t breaking up with me. I thanked God or fate or whatever was out there for that. But was it fate that brought us together? Were we somehow supposed to meet here and have this powerful attraction? And with all of his restrictions, not to mention a wife, a mistress, and a time limit? Is this a cosmic joke? And how and why do I suddenly fit into this equation?
Not knowing how to respond to such an offer, I reminded myself to breathe and played with my wine glass. I looked down at the street where normal people were supposedly having normal conversations. I was way out of my league here. Taking a deep breath, I looked at him. “Bill, I know you’re married, but if you’re in love with someone else, why would you want me?”
“There’s something I feel between us. It’s not only sex; it’s more than that. There’s something I can’t define and I can’t ignore. That’s all I can tell you.”
Perhaps he should have just said it was chemistry, plain and simple; a unique connection that one is fortunate to experience in one’s travels through life. It’s a moment in time that may go fabulously well or become a disaster.
There are many manifestations of how chemistry plays out. How your characters connect and evolve is up to you. Is their connection immediate or does it happen over time? Does it happen at the same moment or does one “get” it before the other? As a writer it’s important that you experience the instincts and emotions in order to translate the connection, that special spark. It’s also essential to paint the picture that illustrates their physical reactions to that spark.
Chemistry is something deep and instinctive; often in the realm of the abstract, something one doesn’t understand–not at the moment or perhaps never at all, although most people over time try to define it. Why does it happen with one person and not another? Why quickly or slowly? It’s up to you as the writer to decide how your characters react and create the reality that makes them unique and relatable; to resonate not only with one another but with your reader as well.
Exercise 1 Create a list of as many responses as you can, both mental and physical, to the emotional and psychological connection that chemistry generates. What are the words you would use to describe an impactful and unforgettable instant in your character’s lives, as well as what might evolve from it?
Exercise 2 Thinking of writing a story in which chemistry plays a part? First decide if it’s going to be one in which your characters’ experience it at once, as if in a flash, or become aware of it slowly over time. If it’s immediate, how do they express it? If slowly, what are the elements that create the realization and set it in motion? Consider creating two characters, either new ones or perhaps ones you have written about before and place them in a situation where they will experience that intense moment of connection, of chemistry. Remember, it’s important to introduce at least one of them to us, your reader, first so we know who he (or she) is and how he thinks. (You can get into the head of the other character later on.) All of that will determine how they each relate to what is unfolding around them. Describe in as much detail as you can what one or both are thinking, their first unexpected responses and as well as their physical reactions.
About the Author…
Born in Los Angeles, Marcia Gloster has lived the majority of her life in New York City, during which she built a career as an award-winning art director and book designer. She is a member of the National Association of Women Artists in New York City and Studio Montclair in New Jersey and has exhibited her paintings in New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Her first book, 31 Days, is an intimate and remarkably honest memoir. http://www.marciagloster.com