Writing Prompt #6: Dorothy Parker and Writing About Emotions

Matilda Butler, SheWrites Guest Editor and Co-Founder Women's Memoirs


Writing Prompt #6, Dorothy Parker and Descriptions of Emotions

Emotions. Whether associated with traumatic events such as the death of a parent or friend or ordinary activities such as getting a phone call from a good friend with the news that her son is engaged, our bodies are processing emotions all day long. Yet when it comes to writing, many people get so involved in recording the facts or revealing the storyline in an interesting way, that the basic emotional undertone is ignored. But nothing really happens without emotions, which is why working feelings, moods and emotional behavior into our stories is critical. It’s hard for readers to become engaged in our stories if we don’t expose our emotions or the emotions of the characters in our fiction. And even then, we are only half way to our goal. We need to touch the emotions of our readers. Then we have our characters and our readers interacting on a basic level.

We know that emotions:

  • Are the expression of our internal feelings;
  • Affect our social interactions; 
  • Manifest themselves in our external behaviors; and
  • Change our internal body states, such as blood pressure.


Dorothy Parker Expresses Emotions and SheWrites Experiments

Dorothy Parker provides us with an intriguing description of love. "Love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it and it darts away." As writers, we all know the mantra "Show, don't tell." What does that mean when we want to convey emotional states?

It means we need to be the master of crafting our sentences so that the reader can see and feel the emotion, not just be told. Let's take this Parker quote. Assume Julie, a woman in your story, decides to leave San Francisco to take a job in New York City. This is an important career move. Her male friend wants her to stay but thinks, Love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it and it darts away. Instead of begging her to stay and demanding that she turn down the job, he hugs her and says he knows this is a big opportunity for her and that he'll see what he can do to visit as often as possible. He thoughts and his actions, assuming the previous part of the story has conveyed their love for each other, show the reader his emotional state.


SheWrites Writes: More Dorothy Parker-Inspired Writing Prompts

Before getting into the two writing prompts, it may help you to know a little more about emotions. Aristotle was one of the earliest philosophers to describe emotions. He believed there were seven pairs that defined the range of emotional response:

  • Mildness/Anger
  • Love/Hatred
  • Confidence/Fear
  • Shamelessness/Shame
  • Benevolence/Pity
  • Indignation/Envy
  • Emulation/Contempt

His work influenced the writers of his day and his influence continued for centuries to come. His work unleashed much discussion and writing about emotions and theories as to the source of our emotions. Today through the research of Candace Pert and others, we begin to understand how our body stores emotions and their effects on us. Awareness of research on emotions enables us to more effectively use them in our writing.

Writing Prompt #1: Think of a scene or chapter you are working on. What is the emotional temperature? How have you shown it?

Writing Prompt #2: Name the main emotion of the protagonist in the scene. Then write three ways that the reader will understand this emotion. Is the emotion well motivated? In other words, will the reader believe you? For example, if the protagonist seems happy, do you think your reader will find it believable if he suddenly lashes out when someone cuts him off in traffic. If, however, you've shown that his day has been filled with frustration at work that culminated in his hours being cut back, then it makes sense that he'd honk madly at the offensive driver and even try to ram his bumper. Emotions change our behaviors. 



PS  Kendra Bonnet and I devote a chapter to understanding and using the emotions in our new book: Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. We share secrets that put you in total control of your writing process and incorporate the best of social science research to help you write with intense purpose…and have fun in the process.



 I'll be back tomorrow with a few final quotes from Dorothy Parker. Hope to see you then.



Matilda Butler is the award-winning author of several books including her co-authored memoir:

Rosie's Daughters: The "First Woman To" Generation Tells Its Story 

and the soon-to-be released: 

Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep,

both co-written with her business partner, Kendra Bonnett. Butler and Bonnett are the co-founders of Women's Memoirs, a website with tips and advice for writers. CLICK HERE for free ebooks for women interested in writing their memoirs as well as free videos based on advice from such well-known authors as: Annie Dillard, Ernest Hemingway, William Zinssser, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Berg, Elmore Leonard, Rita Mae Brown, Natalie Goldberg, David McCullough, and others.


For information on our contests, go to: http://womensmemoirs.com/contests/  NOTE: The next contest deadline is July 1. You still have time to enter. It's a fun contest focused on food and memories. The winning entries will become a published ebook.


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Comment by Matilda Butler on June 18, 2012 at 9:56am

Hi Edith: Glad to see you here. Thanks for checking out my posts. I agree, the dream is the perfect sentence that intrigues. All we can do is to keep trying.


Comment by Matilda Butler on June 18, 2012 at 9:54am

Hi Daphne: 

The emotions are a significant part of our lives, changing throughout the day. Aristotle was one of the earliest philosophers to describe emotions believing there were 7 pairs: mildness/anger, love/hatred, confidence/fear, shamelessness/shame, benevolence/pity, indignation/envy, emulation/contempt. Today we have an extensive vocabulary of emotions.

We devote an entire chapter to emotions in our book Writing Alchemy. We have our pre-order special price ongoing through June 25. If you are interested in exploring this concept in depth, the book may be of interest to you. You can click on the book link in the blog post above to find out more.

Comment by Edith O Nuallain on June 16, 2012 at 6:24am

It's this notion of learning to craft a sentence that intrigues, to refine it so much that it positively gleams with lyricism and meaning, to discover the only word that could possibly have been chosen...ah the dream! I have loved your series this week. Looking forward to more! :-) x

Comment by Daphne Q on June 15, 2012 at 6:51pm

More good advice... fits in well with what I'm trying to write tonight!


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