Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Making readers FEEL emotions. Guest post by author Jean Gill

Welcome to my first guest of 2013, Jean Gill won Paragraphs Of Power in November 2012, I am delighted to have her as my first Guest to kick off 2013.

Making readers feel emotions: Guest Post by Jean Gill.

You want to make your reader feel the emotions in what you’re writing?

The classic mistake – and we’ve all made it! -  is to assume that because you feel emotional about what you’re writing, then so will the reader.  The truth is that it’s not about what you feel; it’s about communicating that feeling. We might not always work the magic but there are some tips that I find helpful.

Compare a) and b)

a)    Janie had loved her mother deeply. Every object in the room made her miss her mother more.

b)   She uncapped her mother’s lipstick. Deep pink, worn unevenly in the three-swipe movement Janie had seen a thousand times in the mirror. As individual as a finger-print. Janie held the lipstick up to her own reflected mouth but her hand shook and refused to destroy her mother’s traces. Careful not to catch the edge, she replaced  the gold cap.

On the sofa two knitting needles were crossed neatly through a ball of wool, politely, like placing knife and fork just so on a plate. Janie didn’t have to pick up the half-knit sleeve to know her mother’s patterning; tension so tight it was if she pulled every unlived dream under her control as her fingers clicked away.

I’m hoping that b) arouses more emotion than a) but I’m guessing b) also raises more questions about what the emotions in it are – good!

Many writers are told ‘Show don’t tell’ but the advice seems to mean different things to different people and can be very fuzzy, so although I think that a) tells and b) shows, I’m going to be more specific.

a)    uses emotion words; ‘loved’, ‘miss’ These area useful short-cut in telling a story but they don’t usually make you feel the emotions mentioned – they quickly give you the information you need to get on to the next part.

That could be exactly what you want to do. But if you want to involve the reader, try these tips for the b) effect.

1) Avoid the emotion words (love/fear/happy/afraid/in love/scared)

2) Cut the cliches – if words come very easily, maybe that’s because they’ve been used a million times. Readers’ imaginations skim over cliches without becoming involved.

3)  Give details and make the details personal. Reach for the shared experience (we can identify with bereavement) through creating a unique moment for an individual (Janie and her mother are unique)

In the context of a longer piece of writing

4) Build towards the emotional scene.

I was thinking about scenes in books I’ve read that have roused real emotion in me and I wondered why. I realised that I’ve felt involved with the characters in every case, (so creating such individuals is part of our job as writers) and sometimes the scene has touched me personally because of my situation (and that is entirely out of the author’s hands!)

So here’s three of my ‘most emotional scenes in fiction’ - what are yours?

1) Baloo and Bagheera vouching for Mowgli in ‘The Jungle Book’ by Rudyard Kipling. I suppose I’d like a bear and a black panther, outsiders like me, to stand up for me in public, in front of the whole wolf pack.

2) Bathsheba fighting to protect the hay in the storm, with Gabriel Oak, in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy. I think there’s something very sexy about a couple working in a physical activity together, particularly when fighting the elements. To me, this is one of the most romantic scenes ever written because the reader knows that Gabriel loves Bathsheba, and the fact her useless husband is in a drunken stupor adds to the undercurrents.

3) the ending of 'Brighton Rock' by Graham Greene. This is the most terrible, heartbreaking, pessimistic scene I’ve ever read and yet it is all in the reader’s imagination. You know that what is about to happen will destroy all Rose’s na├»ve illusions about Pinkie.


Try this activity, on your own or in a writers’ group. Collect some photos/images that show strong emotion and try to communicate in writing the emotions in one image without using any ‘emotion words’.  (If it’s a group activity, you can all work on the same image, or all have different ones) Make up anything you like for the character and the context. This activity raises some very interesting questions!
Jean Gill


  1. Great post, Jean. I think you really explained it brilliantly. I always think it helps to think of the way great film directors portray an emotional scene when no words are spoken between the characters, no declarations of love or sorrow, but the atmosphere is stiff with the unexpressed emotion conveyed by the way the camera focusses down on a hand holding a cup or a discarded letter lying on a bed,or a door that is left banging in the wind. If we can do that as writers, as you suggest, it will touch readers far more than using the words love or grief.

  2. I enjoyed it too, Jean - especially the examples you gave.

    '[she]...refused to destroy her mother’s traces. Careful not to catch the edge, she replaced the gold cap.' This says it all for me; those poignant hours going through the belongings of a recently deceased love-one, when every little thing still holds a memory.

    Yes, I can feel the emotion.

  3. Thank you, Karen Maitland, and the film analogy is very helpful - I'll use that in my writer's workshop! I can get my writers to make the photos come to life and carry on the story.

    And thank you, Karen Charlton - great to have feedback, and even better when it's positive!

  4. Jean, my hat's off to you!
    You take this new term we use today, Emotional Intelligence, to an entirely new and exciting level!
    I especially like your workshop ideas and will try this with some of my students because I believe in this type of work.
    We mai all know what it feels like to see something that "takes our breath (and words away) but to sit with that experience and feeling and then capture it without adjectives, is truly arriving at the essence of its meaning in our lives.
    Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the feedback, Kim - I'm sure your workshops will be rewarding for your students.


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