Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How to Put More Emotion into Your Writing—Guest Post By Joanna Campbell Slan

by Joanna Slan, @JoannaSlan

JE cover with blurbNew York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber has said, “If you don’t cry while you’re writing it, the reader won’t cry while she’s reading it.”

Easier said than done.

Putting emotion into your manuscript takes practice. The act of writing typically starts in the left hemisphere, that part of our brain given to sequencing. Otherwise, what we write would be a jumble of words. However, when arranged logically, words become sentences, sentences make up scenes, and scenes build action. At the peak of several scenes, we reach a climax. But that highpoint doesn’t mean much to the reader unless it evokes intense emotion. For that we need the right hemisphere, the section of the brain where emotions are perceived.

Let’s take a real life example, the mass shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. The facts by themselves have great impact. With them in hand, we understand logically what happened. But when we learn about the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of the people involved, our emotions become fully engaged. Only then can we recognize the full impact of the tragedy.

Most of us have a side of the brain that we favor. We resist switching from one side of our brain to the other because switching takes energy. But as writers that’s exactly what we need to do! Because to offer our readers an engaging experience, we must appeal to both of their hemispheres—and we can only do that by using both of ours.

Writing with Both Sides of Your Brain

To overcome your natural resistance, break the process into two steps, a left brain pass and a right brain pass. First lay down the narrative track, the logical sequence of events, using the left side of the brain. This should cover the basics, the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Once your narrative is in place, commit to a second pass, using the right side of your brain.

When working with the right side of your brain, pay particular attention to these areas:

1. Sensory information—What are your characters smelling, seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching? With your mind’s eye, “look” for color, pattern, texture, flavors, scents, and distinct images, because that is how we process sensory input. When readers experience the world the way your character does, they will find your book more enjoyable.

To activate your senses, consider doing on-site research. To get the details right in my new mystery, DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL, I visited a carriage museum. There I spent time examining the sorts of conveyances used in 1820. After running my hand over the horsehair seats, touching the wood-rimmed wheels, and sniffing the old leather, I used what I learned to write a scene where my protagonist, Jane Eyre Rochester, travels by coach to London.

2. Specifics—Choose detail over generalities. It’s not a dog. It’s a pit bull. Or an Irish wolfhound. Or a Corgi. See how the image changed in your mind as the words went from general to specific? Whenever possible, exchange any vague reference for its exact counterpart.

3. Strong verbs—Vivid verbs add clarity. Try to eliminate any variation of “to be.” That includes was, is, be, been, and so on. (For a terrific refresher course on reducing your use of the “to be” verb construction, go to

During your second pass, imagine yourself in the role of your characters. Ask yourself, “What would I be feeling if this was happening to me?” Don’t be afraid to act out the scene, because that will help you get the physical reactions right. Once while writing a woodland scene in a Kiki Lowenstein book, I reached to my mouth to pluck out a stray twig that wasn’t there. Readers often tell me how realistic that scene is

I’m not surprised. If it’s real to me, I know that it’ll be real to my readers.


small photo for profilesJoanna Campbell Slan has taught writing to corporate executives and at Illinois State University. She’s the author of the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series, which includes PAPER, SCISSORS, DEATH, the Agatha-Award finalist for best first novel. Her newest mystery series debuts with DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL (Berkley Trade/August 7), the first book in The Jane Eyre Chronicles, featuring Jane Eyre as an amateur sleuth. Visit Joanna at