Tag Archives: emotion

A Picture = A Thousand Words

It may seem clichéd or elementary, but how many times have we heard, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Writers often can’t use pictures in our work; we have to create them with words. In order to do that, we must draw forth a mental image for our readers to better understand what we are trying to say. For me, eliciting emotion is one way to accomplish that goal.

Many years ago, I worked for a company that sold bottled water and rented water coolers to deliver that water to their business clients. The coolers were able to provide cold water and hot water for different beverages and soups. We sales personnel were urged to use certain words that would conjure pictures in the customers’ minds to encourage them to want our products for their business customers. Hot water became “piping hot water” and cold water became “ice cold water.” We were even told to emphasize the “p” in piping and the “c” in ice to make it even easier to imagine.

As writers, we can do basically the same thing. In my book SHE HAD TO KNOW, I describe a castle in Scotland. The building is early-seventeenth-century, sits off the main road on the edge of a cliff overlooking a body of water, is on a moor with trees spotted about, and the castle is often surrounded by fog. I wanted to create an atmosphere of quaintness, mystery, a hauntingly gothic feel rather than just describe it literally.

This is how I created the picture of it:

Off the Corniche Road amidst vast desolate moorland and gnarled groves of trees stood the often fog shrouded Wraithmoor Castle, an early-seventeenth-century Scots Baronial manor house. Perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the Firth of Clyde, it lay dreamlike, as if a product of Morpheus, a few miles south of the village of Ballantrae.

Another example describes a character who is a famous and elegant mystery writer:

With shiny, blue-black chin-length hair and prominent angular nose, she posed a striking but elegant image. One was reminded of a raven seeking sustenance as her black eyes darted from guest to guest while peering over the rim of her brandy snifter.

The third example describes a trip from the Glasgow airport to the castle:

They skirted Ayr and Alloway, the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns, and continued south toward Maybole and Girvan. The road paralleled the Firth of Clyde that flowed to the Atlantic Ocean. High above, sea birds floated on invisible currants like terpsichorean ballerinas, their distant cries—music for the dance.

These examples use emotion to create the mood of the building, person and scenery in my story.

Have you different ways of using words to describe the pictures in your stories? I’d love to hear your methods or examples.

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Embracing Emotion

There is a wide range of basic emotions, including anger, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love, sadness, disgust, joy, surprise, happiness, interest, wonder, sorrow, rage, terror, anxiety, contempt, distress, guilt shame, grief, elation, subjection, pain, pleasure, expectancy, panic.

Then there are a whole slew of secondary emotions such as curiosity, dread, tenseness, uneasiness, worry, alarm, fright, horror, mortification, shock, terror, amusement, ecstasy, bliss, elation, delight, jubilation, enthusiasm, excitement, exhilaration, fondness, attraction, adoration, caring, sentimentality, melancholy, despair, gloom, homesickness, embarrassment, humiliation, bitterness, resentment, loathing, hate.

With such a palette of emotion to choose from, every character should come alive, yet all too often the emotions that drive characters in books are the heavy hitters: fear and anger (thrillers) and lust (romance).

Perhaps this dearth of emotion is a holdover from the strong silent hero, the one who never showed emotion. Now that female characters have largely taken over the role of hero, they seem to be just as devoid of emotion, as if they are male characters disguised as female. I’m not advocating weak and emotional women characters, but still, tears (for example) are a part of human behavior and a way to express emotion. Besides, tears are not about weakness, but about releasing tension, so technically, a character who cries is as strong as a character who picks fights to relieve tension — though perhaps not quite as interesting to today’s readers.

When writers do let their characters get emotional, all too often the sentiment comes across as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with either the character or the story, but simply added to evoke empathy from readers. Yet for these strong feelings to come across as real and for the characters to come alive with grief or elation, hope or bitterness, love or hate, the emotions have to be an integral part of the story. In an emotional state, people often act differently — those falling in love behave irrationally at times (because, after all, love does appear to be an irrational state). Also, in an emotional state, people often see things differently — lovers become finely attuned to the object of their love and to the sight of others in love. A story needs to reflect this change of perspective. What was once important is no longer, for example, the executive who decides to chuck it all when she falls in love. This might be trite, but at least it shows emotion in action.

And emotion is action. By embracing emotion, the character does something, goes through a change, finds a resolution. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is upbeat or downbeat, positive or negative — the effect is the same.

So don’t be afraid of emotion, either yours or your character’s.

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Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fire,  and Daughter Am I.

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