Wordpainting for emotional effect!

Last week we took a look at Active Description and 4 Tips on how to wordpaint for emotional effect. 

This week, let’s take a look at incorporating those 4 Tips and Wordsmithing your description.

Once you have all the elements of FOCUS, or your metaphorical word pool, you want to start putting it together.

Obviously, when you are dealing with ACTIVE description, you’ll weave the elements in through the scene as the character moves through it.  It can be a bit more difficult with Static description to keep the story moving. I suggest 2-5 sentences of description if you have to stop the story to snapshot something.  

Now, here’s the trick: You’re creating a feeling with your description – and emotional impact or connection to your reader, so pick wisely every word. Here’s a trick I use: Think of a movie – start wide and then pull in closer, adding texture as you go.

In this scene, I wanted to give a sense of freedom, but also chaos, because Marcos and his brother Dino are late in returning home.

Apparently, the wind cared nothing for cooperation, either, dying to a trickle, leaving the skiff to barely list upon the smooth Ionian Sea. Perhaps it hadn’t helped that the elusive yet delicious barbouni had played the sea nymph, unwilling to be captured in the heat of such a glorious day. The red-mulleted delicacy flopped, angry and zealous, in the live-well of the boat’s stern, the mustard-yellow nets in a tumble at the bow.

Look at the words I use to create the feeling of freedom as well as chaos: Elusive, delicious, glorious, played the sea nymph, flopped, angry, zealous, the nets in a tumble.

In this scene: I wanted to give a sense of recklessness, the party feel of the ‘20s, as well as danger.  Let’s see how I wordpaint to give that feel.

Uncle Jimmy parked his car in a lonely alleyway between two brownstones. They got out and Markos followed him down a stairwell blocked by garbage cans. Uncle Jimmy stopped at a blackened door, knocked.

A panel in the door slid out, and eyes peered through.

“Hornsby,” Jimmy said, quietly.

The panel closed. Silence. Jimmy had removed his driving gloves and now slapped them in his hand.

A lock slid back with a click and the massive door opened.

Music spilled out as Uncle Jimmy hooked Markos’s arm and pulled him inside the basement room. “Welcome to America, boy.”

Green draperies covered the walls, tiny gaslights flickered at each round table inhabited by women with rouged lips, painted eyes, low-cut frameless dresses, some long, others fringed at the knee. They wore the brimless hats and high-heeled shoes he’d seen in storefronts. A blonde by the door, with hair cut to her chin, settled her eyes on him, a cigarette in a long black holder balanced between her fingers. She blew out a smoke ring as he passed by, her eyes trailing him.

Men in crisp suits and wide ties drank glasses of amber liquid.

Uncle Jimmy practically pushed him to the long bar.

“What is this place?


Tony’s—gin room? He’d heard the term, hadn’t really known…

I wanted to give the feeling of danger so I use descriptions like: gaslights flickered, rouged lips, painted eyes, low cut dresses, fringed, brimless, a smoke ring, eyes trailing him….

Now I’m going to stop and “snapshot” someone in the scene with a piece of Static Description.  Notice the words I use to show danger and temptation.

 At a stage at the far end of the room, a blonde sat on a stool, her low-cut red dress a siren in the dark club, crooning out a song with a husky tone that roused to life something inside him. His eyes fixed on her, the feeling growing at the way her gaze latched on him, the smile that crept up her blood-red lips. She turned and began to sing to him.

His entire body glued in place.

Behind her, a musician with man-sized bouzouki plunked out low tones, another played a shiny flute—stepping forward to solo as the woman finished, her final notes hanging in the blue haze of smoke, caressing the crowd.


[Low cut dress, crooning, husky tone, roused to life, latched, crept, blood red lips.]


The key to wordsmithing description for emotional effect is to carefully choose every single word for the nuance, feeling and emotional response, and embed them in your storyworld and description in order to add a mood or attitude to the scene.  And don’t forget perspective – remember, it all starts in the eye of the beholder.


Wordsmithing and Advanced Storyworld is the most powerful way to bring your story to life and build in the emotional connection for your reader.


Have a great writing week!

Go! Write something Brilliant!

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PS:  if you’re interested in taking your writing to a whole new emotional level, consider attending our 2016 Deep Thinker’s Retreat for advanced writers.  Check it out here!   





Extreme Wordsmithing Makeover:  4 Tips to writing ACTIVE description

Continuing our Extreme Wordsmithing Makeover series, we spent much of August diving into STATIC description and I taught you a technique called FOCUS, an acronym that reminded us to first put the description through the eyes of the POV character. Then, it gave an overview of the parts of description:  Fact, Observations, Close Up and Symbolism, all gathered together in a snapshot description, something we use to make an impression on the reader.

Today, we’re going to use the same acronym, but we’ll apply it as we move our character throughout the scene, experiencing the storyworld as we interact with the actions of the scene.

What is ACTIVE Description?

Active Description is simply putting the description through the eyes of a character then describing the scene (using all the FOCUS elements and 5 senses) as they move through it. While static description can be used powerfully to snapshot a person, place or thing, active description keeps the story moving and is integrated into the scene. (It’s important to use both in a story!)  Just like static description, active description can add a powerful emotional undercurrent to the scene.

Consider this passage from Sons of Thunder: 

Markos speared the water. The cool lick of it scooped his breath, slicked from his body the heat of the day.

He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor, kicking toward the cave. A deep thrumming rumbled his bones even as he scrabbled over the slippery rock outside the entrance. The jaws raked his skin as he levered himself through a crevice just big enough for a boy of seventeen.


Although it’s an active description, it is meant to create a sense of tension as he pushes himself into the cave.  I could have written it more simply: Fear coiled inside him as he pushed himself into the cave.  But I wanted to description to convey the emotion, and not name it directly.

Here’s another passage from the same book:

She sat at the dressing table. He knew he should turn away, but he couldn’t quite find it in him. Instead, he watched as she curled her hair tight to her face with her fingers, held it there for a moment. She rouged her cheeks, her earlobes. Lined dark kohl on her green eyes. Used her pinky to apply her blood-red lipstick.

Her gaze flickered over to him. “You like watching me get ready?”

He turned away, burying his face in his hands. Her laughter trickled high. “Oh, Markos, you’re such fun!”

His chest burned. “I’ll wait for you out in the hall.” Finding his feet, he pushed away the chair, reaching for the door. But she had crossed the room and now planted her hand over his. He turned even as she slid close, her hand on his chest. He hadn’t noticed how small she was, really, without her costumes, or wrapped in her vamp persona. Now, she seemed almost petite, even…needy. Especially since the tease had left her eyes. Her fragrance wound around him, tugging at him.


The hero is watching a girl getting dressed, and I use the description to heighten the temptation and lure for him.  The subtleties of words like blood-red, his chest burning, her fragrance winding around him, tugging-all words that suggest temptation, or being lured into trouble.

Great wordsmithing is about using every word to its full effect, and creating paragraphs that do double duty—inform as well as add feeling to the scene.  In this way, you’re adding and emotional sense to the story without telling the reader how to feel.


How do you word paint for emotional effect?

Tip #1: Create a Metaphorical word pool. As you write, your words will tend toward specific verbs and nouns.  Taking a step away from these, you’ll find that they might fall in categories of description.

For example, describing the sky, you might say that the clouds swirled against a canvass of blue.  Okay, “swirled” and “canvass” both evoke a sense of “painting.”  You now have your metaphorical category.  Look for other “painting words” as you continue the description – brush, paint, mix, blend, stir.  You can also go further, and take from the mind of the painter, or even use well known painters to bring in emotional metaphor.

Eg:  lavender splotched the canvass of blue, as if the painter, frustrated, took his brush and swept across with angry, thick strokes.


Tips #2: Pick Verbs that convey the FEELING of what you are describing.  Marcos feels like he’s being gulped, or eaten, going into the jaws of the cave, and I wanted to convey a sense of panic as he goes inside.  So I used words of violence:  Speared, rumbled, scrabbled, raked.

If I were describing a giant crater in the earth, one made by a meteor, I might use words like jagged, and ripped, and bruised.

But if I were describing a hole that would become my long desired swimming pool, I’d go with, scooped, or even carved from the earth.  By the way, sometimes, if I’m having trouble finding my metaphorical pool, I just write the description, and see what verbs I naturally use.  From there, I can find the metaphorical pool.  (I.e., in this one, I think if ice cream with the verbs I used for the pool description).


Tip #3: Give your POV character a physical response to the description.  Ie, Marcos is hot, so the water is cool, yet dangerous. He has mixed emotions about being there – so I show that in the verbs I use.

Note the subtle tension in these sentences:  The cool lick (a positive feeling) of it scooped his breath (negative), slicked from his body the heat of the day. (positive)  He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor… (negative).


Tip #4: You could also use a metaphor that captures the physical response, something that would give a similar physical response.  For example, in my pool example, I could say: Staring at the dark expanse, edged with rich, chocolate curls of earth, I tasted the cool water on my lips, sweet and sloppy, drenching me. A shiver of delight shimmed right down to my belly and I could hardly wait to dive in.

Obviously, I’m using the feeling of eating ice cream, and equating it with my dreams of diving into my pool.


Note:  Don’t use TOO many metaphors – one strong one will do.  But find the right one, and use it well.

Next week we’ll put it all together, and wordsmith our descriptions for emotional effect!


Go! Write something brilliant!

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Using Symbolism in your Description!

A Quick and Easy Tool for Writing Description (part 2)


This month we’ve been talking about Extreme Scene Makeover and diving into description.  I introduced the acronym FOCUS, a tool I use to help me write description.  We covered F-O-CU on last week’s post (here).


First step in writing great description is to put it through the POV of your character.  It’s all about how they feel about being there.  We layer in their attitude while they describe the scene.


Once you add in perspective, then you need to dig deep into the description.


Today, let’s talk about the final and most powerful element of FOCUS: Symbolism, and how to use it to connect your reader emotionally to the description (and thus use description as another tool for emotional layering in your scene!)


In your story, you’re actually trying to communicate more than with words – you’re trying to cement a feeling for them.  It’s part of the trick you play on your reader – you subtly embed a feeling, an emotion into the world that will help you build the emotions of the character.


Word pictures are how you’ll communicate the impact the scene has on your character, and thus, your reader.  Here’s another way to look at it:  It’s the way that your character perceives the person, place or thing, summed up in a symbol.


Consider this passage:

The night had turned crisp as he walked home late under the lamplights.  He’d retired the coupe in Uncle Jimmy’s garage two blocks away and carried the coat box under his arm, his collar turned up. Snow, soft, almost ethereal, drifted from the sky, turning to diamonds under the streetlights.


The Close up – (snow under the streetlights) is turned into a word picture that conveyed the POV character’s mood.  He’s happy. He’s giving his girlfriend this expensive coat.  And he feels like a provider.


The word picture conveys the feeling or mood of your character as he relates to the scene.


How do you find it?  How do you build it?

First, look at your descriptive nouns and verbs….they might help you find that symbol.  Snowflakes are easy – they’re white and they dazzle.  So, what else is white and dazzles?  Diamonds.


Once you have the Symbol, how do you apply it?

  1. Direct Association:

Dino stared at the commander, his helmet pushed back to reveal muddy, dark hair, dark blue eyes.  His face bore days of filth, grime embedded in his grizzle, and he reeked of swamp and blood and smoke.  The batter only made him appear a bona fide hero.


This is an easy symbolism – I just say it – he’s a hero.  Sometimes we just say the word picture right out.


  1. Implied: But sometimes, and better, it’s implied. It’s when we go deeper to say, what’s the meaning behind the symbol.  And, can we use it without explaining the meaning?

Consider this scene:  The POV is fleeing from his home, trapped by his past, headed to an unknown future.  In this passage, the symbol, the Albatross  signifies his desire for escape.


Most days, he wrapped himself into his blanket—the knitted wool a mockery against the shearing wind—and traced the mischief of the seabirds. Markos watched as the birds dipped into the troughs between the waves and let themselves be lured to the stern of the boat by children offering biscuits and smoked herring smuggled from the breakfast table. Once he’d spied an albatross, and something about the great width of its wings, riding the gales without effort, lodged a bullet in his throat.


Consider this implied symbol in the passage.  The POV is lying on the sidewalk after just being thrown out of a bar fight that he started. He’s ashamed and wants to just disappear:


He skidded across the sidewalk, rolled, and landed on his face in the blackened snow. Shards of ice cut his skin even as he lay there, breathing in blades of air. Blood ran into his mouth, his lip split. His eye burned, and he couldn’t see out of it. And when he breathed in, his body turned to flame. He rolled over, sprawling on the sidewalk, his pulse slowing enough now to taste his broken parts. Overhead the stars still winked at him, as if saying, yes, Dino, we see you. He raised his arm, his fingers slowly closing over one, the brightest, until finally, he snuffed it out.


He doesn’t want heaven looking at him.


Ask:  How can you use symbolism to convey a deeper message?  This is the heart of showing.


If you’d like an in-depth class on description, check out our Storyworld video series!


Go! Write something Brilliant!


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PS—we’re opening our highly acclaimed Online Storycrafter’s Program for new students in early September.  If you’re interested in being notified when the course opens, click HERE.


How to Show and When to Tell

I hope you’re busy writing your amazing works of NaNoWriMo fiction!
I thought, as we dive in, it might help to understand what editors mean by “Show, Don’t Tell.”  Listen, I know it can be confusing.  Especially since there is not only mis-information and bad teaching out there, but also because there IS a time Tell! 
Showing, not Telling is not about describing everything that happens. And Telling has nothing to do with narrative and backstory.  Narrative and backstory (and even action) get a bad rap because often, during narrative, backstory and action, authors drop into “telling” without realizing it.  Describing ACTION by saying “John shot Bill.” is not telling.  It’s action.  But adding:  “John felt sorry when he shot Bill,” would be telling.
See, I know. Confusing. 
Here’s the bottom line:  Showing is about helping the reader experience the emotions of the character. Showing brings us into the mind and heart of the character to understand their emotional journey.
Here’s how:  If you say, ‘She felt grief,’ or even, and this is more common, ‘Grief overtook her’ you are not just telling us what emotion she’s feeling, but you’re pinpointing one emotion your reader must feel with the character. Instead, show us how despair makes her feel through how she acts, what she thinks, what she says and how she sees her world. Let us into your character’s head.
Telling is when you tell someone how to feel. It relates to the emotion to the story, not the narrative, backstory and action.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say your character has just lost her husband. She’s come home from the funeral to the quiet house and gone upstairs to her room.  Here are some options:
You could say: She stood in front of the closet and grieved. However, we feel like an onlooker, a voyeur into her world. We are told how she feels, but don’t experience her grief.
Further from that, but also a telling, is: She stood in front of the closet and felt grief course through her. We’re closer to understanding how she feels, but we’ve still been told exactly the emotion she’s experiencing.
Better is: She stood in front of the closet and wept. Here, we’re closer to experiencing what the character is feeling. We might understand what it feels like to stand there and simply weep.
But what if we took it further. What if we let the reader into the character’s skin to feel the grief?
She stood at the edge of the closet and stared at his polished shoes, at his pressed wool suits, at his crisp silky red ties. A tidy man. Not the kind to wrap his car around a tree. But there, in the back…she pushed aside the shirts and pulled out his letter jacket, the one he’d wrapped around her the night they’d met. She inhaled. Thirty years, and still his scent lingered. Please, let it linger. Please let her rewind, go back to the fight, erase her words. Erase his anger. Without a word, she stepped inside the closet, closed the door behind her, pulled the jacket over her, and wept.
Never once do I say that she is grieving. But I weave it in through her perspective, the five senses and rich details and finally her actions. 
Here’s the part that people confuse. Often I see people over-showing in their effort to not tell.  What happens, then, is they write, “She bent at the knees, lowering herself into the chair,” instead of simply saying, “She sat.”  Don’t laugh – I’ll be you could find this in your early drafts! (I know I can!)  Authors spend precious words showing how a person rises from a chair, or how they get dressed. Don’t do this!  Tell actions that are common to all of us.  She tied her shoe, she made coffee, she answered the phone.  We all get what this looks like.
However, show actions that you want to make impact. If you want answering the phone to have impact, then have her reach for the phone, check the caller id, maybe hover her thumb over the receive button. Then push it before her courage fails.  
Here are the easy rules for Show Don’t Tell:  
Tell us everyday actions, SHOW us the important ones that reveal emotions.
            Show us the emotion, don’t tell us about it.
Are you bogging down your story by showing actions that have no emotional connection to the story?  Here’s a litmus test. Ask: How does the emotion impact your character?  Are you showing this emotion through words, action, though and perspective?
Better yet, take the MBT Challenge: Write the scene without naming the emotion! It’ll make you stretch and help you become a better writer.
Have a great NaNoWriMo week!  Go – write something brilliant!
Susie May
MBT Head Coach