• Kendra Bonnett
  • Reach Out and Touch a Reader: Using Emotions in Your Writing
Reach Out and Touch a Reader: Using Emotions in Your Writing
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012

When was the last time a book made you cry? When was the last time life made you cry?

What do the two events have in common? 

It's a scene that touches our heart or raises our sensitivities. A child dies. A elderly woman loses her husband of 50 years. A puppy is hit by a car. You have to be practically numb not to shed a tear. But I'll bet you didn't cry just reading those lines, and I'll explain why in a moment.
It's not just something sad. Scenes of joy evoke equally physical responses. Have you ever seen one of those
YouTube videos when an overseas military mom or dad arrives home unexpectedly and makes a surprise visit to their child's school? Yes I tear up, but all the while I'm smiling. We call these tears of joy. A well-written scene in a book can make us physically smile and our eyes light up while we are reading.

This is the power of emotion. And as writers we have a dozens of emotions to employ and hundreds of words in our vocabulary, both positive and negative, to express our feelings: Adoration, Boredom, Depression, Grief, Guilt, Pride, Rage, Wonder, to name only a few.

Make An Emotional Connection

Here's the thing, you can use the words of emotion. You can say that you were spitting mad, jumping for joy or crying your eyes out. But unless you actually evoke the emotional response in your reader, all you've done in your writing is thrown around a few lazy adjectives and adverbs.

Like most Baby Boomers, I had the traumatic experience of seeing the Disney movie
Old Yellerat a particularly vulnerable age. In fact, I challenge you to ask any Baby Boomer what he or she recalls about that movie. We'll all tell you about the scene when Travis had to go out and shoot his dog--a snarling, foaming-at-the-mouth, saliva-spitting dog that would have attacked him if possible. Old Walt really played us with that one. For, you see, Old Yeller had contracted rabies while battling a rabid wolf to protect his family. He was a noble dog, and his master was forced to shoot him.

I'd seen
Old Yellerat a private showing when I was eight. One of my classmates had a movie studio in her home. Susie invited our whole class to see the movie. Her older brother Jeff, invited his classmates. We were all in private school, and our class comprised about 20 girls; Jeff's about the same number of boys.

When my mother picked me up after the movie, I was crying. I sniffed, mopped my eyes and blew my nose all the way home. In between snuffles, I explained to my mother, brother and sister the terrible tragedy that had befallen Old Yeller. I also kept interrupting my narrative with invective. I was seething with fury for the hateful boys. They hadn't cried. They had laughed while Travis carried out his manly duty. I was too young to understand that the boys were masking their sorrow by laughing. I was on an emotional roller coaster...a trip I recall to this day. 

That's the intensity of emotion we want to bring to our writing. And it all comes down to distance. The reader must feel part of the scene. In the case of
Old Yeller, the writers had made us laugh, scared us when Travis fell into the mess of wild boar and even saddened us a little when Old Rose's calf got rabies and had to be killed. We were caught up in the emotion. We loved Old Yeller and wanted a dog of our own just like him. We were living the scenes right along with the actors. Then the writers took it all away from us.

If your readers feel even the slightest distance from the scene, you won't get the reaction you're looking for.

Distance Makes a Difference

Let me give you another example from my experience. On Easter Sunday I left home to drive to Austin, Texas. My business partner Matilda Butler and I were hosting several workshops at Story Circle Network's Stories From the Heart conference for memoirists and lifewriters. I'd noticed on Friday that one of my cats had a problem. Angus had dried blood on his chin. And while I couldn't find the immediate problem, I'd asked a friend to take him to my vet on Monday.

I'd expected a call to tell me he had an abscess or a bad tooth that needed to be pulled. But when my cell phone rang, my vet gave me the bad news: "I'm terribly sorry, Kendra, but Angus has a tumor under his tongue. And it's a bad one, very aggressive, extremely painful."

I explained that I was in Pennsylvania and didn't expect to be home for at least two weeks. Dr. Rees said, "We can try to keep him going with antibiotics and painkillers, but--" I'd heard enough and was left with a decision Solomon wouldn't have wanted to make: Keep him alive until I returned so I could have closure or put him out of his misery.
You can read the whole story here. I made the difficult choice, knowing I'd never see Angus again. I was sad, but I didn't cry. I rebuked myself for not crying; I loved Angus. I finally decided that my emotional response was just on hold, and that it would all hit me when I got home. But it never happened. I miss that big, scruffy red-haired cat every day. But I've never cried.

Many years before, when I put down an ancient gray cat named Samantha, I cradled her in my arms as my physician father administered first the sleeping formula and then the drugs that would stop her heart and lungs. By the time I laid Samantha in a small grave I'd dug by the base of some stately pines in our yard, her scraggly gray fur was soaked with my tears. I was a mess. But I couldn't cry for Angus.

The difference was distance. I had felt Samantha's warm body in my arms. I saw the consequences of my decision to put her down. I knew she was in pain and happy that I could give her peace, but I'd lost my cat. It was immediate and gut-wrenching. But I didn't feel Angus' warmth. I didn't look into his big yellow eyes. I never heard him stop breathing. I only knew that I'd ended his suffering. He's buried by a small apple tree in my yard. I've visited the spot. Patted the bare soil that covers him. But I haven't cried.

Control the Emotions in Your Writing

Yesterday I wrote about character development and how Matilda and I have been using social science research to delve deeper into personality, behavior and motivation and create more penetrating, multi-dimensional characters in our writing. We have done the same with emotions, and you'll find all the tools you need in to understand a person's emotions in our new book
Writing Alchemy: How To Write Fast and Deep.

I hope you'll share some of your experiences with emotions--both in your life and in your writing--with the women here on She Writes. Drop us a comment.




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  • Kendra Bonnett

    Hi Heather. Thank you for sharing this bit of emotional writing. You say that you're a novice writer; I'd say that you are coming along very nicely. You did exactly as you planned...you showed the scene and didn't tell. And yes, you're right to try to write this as the seven-year-old you. 

  • Heather Marsten

    I appreciated this article.  It's something I'm learning to do as a novice writer. Currently I'm writing a memoir of healing from abuse - writing in first person.  It presents challenges to show the feelings, not tell, but also in the voice of a seven year old.  I just finished editing a scene of my father's first "visit" to my bedroom - showing the hurt.  The man was so abusive that I was terrified and he told me that if I told anyone what he did he'd kill me.  I was under no illusion that it was an idle threat he had already tried a few times.  In the scene I edited I had to show the passage of time until I could get up to wash the effects of his visit off of me, and at the same time try to deal with the emotions.  He had told me I was so stupid, dumb and ugly that no man would ever want to marry me so he was going to teach me how to put out.  I was seven at the time.  I hope I got the emotions of the after effects of his visit good.  You said to share so here's a bit of the passage:

    I can’t go to the bathroom to wash the ick off. What if he wakes up and finds me walking around? I know. I’ll put my hand over the side so gook doesn’t get on my sheets.

    With my clean hand, I pull up the covers and straighten my twisted pajamas. They used to be my favorite, pink with tiny purple flowers. I don’t like them anymore.

    Two cuckoos.

    Wish I could turn on a light and read. I trace the diamond-shaped ridges on my bedspread with my clean index finger, pulling out threads one-by-one from the tufts, a little here, a little there so Mommy won’t notice.

    Three cuckoos. Morning is far away.

    I bite the fingernails on my clean hand. They’re so short there isn’t much to chew. My mind is one big ache. I take a breath and pull a strand of my hair. I don’t want to cry. Pull a hair. Take a deep breath. Pull a hair. The ache doesn’t go away.

    Do I tell Mommy?

    When Mommy gets drunk, she might tattle.

    Maybe, if she knew, she’d stop him.

    No, she’s afraid of him, too.

    I feel as if his hands are still pinching me.

    Am I stupid, dumb and ugly? 

    Four cuckoos. The gook is dry and cracks when I close my dirty hand.

    Finally it’s five o’clock and they get up. 

    I pretend to be asleep, but peek between my lashes.

    Daddy walks to the bathroom in his underwear. He looks into my room. A shiver runs up my spine.

    They talk in the kitchen while Mommy helps Daddy get ready for work.  

    I’m not telling.  

    Six cuckoos.

    The back door slams and he drives off.

    I’m safe.

    I lie still for a while, in case he comes back, and then go to the bathroom to wash my hand. I want the gook off, now. I can’t wait until seven when I get up for school. 

    Using a scalding hot washcloth I scrub all the parts of my body he touched. I look in the mirror and try to make my face seem “normal” so Mommy can’t see something is wrong, then head to the kitchen.

    “I heard him in your room last night,” she says as soon as I get to the doorway.  “Tell me what he did.”

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Hi Sherrey. Nice to hear from you. I'm glad this helped. I confess that I struggled with this for awhile until I connected with my emotions about Angus. Then I recalled that most traumatic of Baby Boomer experiences--the Old Yeller shooting scene--and I knew exactly what I wanted to say. Writing this clarified a few things for me too.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Kendra, really enjoyed today's post.  Sometimes emotions are hard to bring to the page knowing you, the writer, need to help your reader "feel" those emotions.  This helped!