Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Creating Emotional Resonance

Sarah’s brilliant post on poetry got me thinking, especially her number one reason for blogging about poetry: “All writing seeks to elicit emotions in the reader. Poetry just does it efficiently.”

I agree with her. I think there is a lot that prosers can learn from poetry.

I must confess, I haven’t read a lot of poetry, hardly any since high school, and I’ve never really studied it. Most of the poetry I’ve read didn’t really speak to me. I appreciated the rhythm and figurative language, but for the most part, they did not elicit an emotional response.

But the few that did reach me on an emotional level, I really loved; I mean deeply and passionately, read-over-and-over-again-obsessively loved.

I think poetry more than prose either resonates with you or not. If you study the poem, you can appreciate it on a deeper level, but that won’t necessarily evoke an emotional response to it. We all have unique experiences, and sometimes a poem manages to tap into those experiences and put into words the perfect expression of those thoughts and feelings connected to it. When that happens, it is truly amazing. It shows you the real power of words.

My Experience

When I was young, our local zoo had a cat house. Where all the cats big and small were kept concrete cages with iron bars. Every time I went to the cat house, at least one of those big cats, the panther, tigers, or lions was pacing. And even as a child, I was entranced by power and grace of their strides, but there was something sad in it, that these sleek, formidable creatures had all this pent up primal energy, and their pacing seemed to be the only way to relieve centuries of predatory instinct. It was so sad, so powerful, so stunningly beautiful.

The Poem

Then in high school I was forced to read the poem The Panther by Rainer Maria Rilke, about a panther pacing in cage in a Paris zoo. I was blown away. Rilke described exactly how I had always felt when I watched those big cats at the zoo. He expressed my experience, my emotion in a way that I couldn’t. He gave me the words to describe how I felt. And that was amazing, powerful.

Emotion in Story-telling

Story-telling is all about emotions. A horror story is trying to evoke horror; romance, love; suspense, umm suspense; fantasy, a sense of wonder (sometimes, not always). All try to form an emotional connection between the reader and the main character (although some stories to a lesser extent than others).

If, as a writer, you achieve that emotional response, the reader will not care about whether the story is realistic or if it has any plot holes. They are willing to suspend belief and let the story take them on an emotional ride. If you fail to establish the emotional connection, the story will be torn to shreds by the reader because no story is ever perfect.

The thing is that like poetry, not every story is going to work for every reader. That is why any book no matter how brilliant or well-written can be trashed by a reader who did not buy into it, even the classics. I can tear down a few classics myself because they did not work for me(although no one else may agree with me).

So, yeah, there is a subjective factor in creating emotional resonance with a reader, but that is not all there is to it. There are tricks that can be used to achieve it, and we can find those tricks in poetry.

Creating Emotional Resonance

Before I get into this, I want to say that I think that a lot of this is done intuitively. We don’t have to examine the poem or prose to feel the emotion in it. So most of the time, I think we can naturally add the right emotion to the story, but there are some times when it isn’t quite there, and these are the times to consider these tricks.

So in order to look at how to achieve emotional resonance, let’s examine the poem The Panther.

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars;
and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly--.
An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell

1. Sentence Structure and Rhythm- When this poem is read aloud, you can feel the rhythm in the sentences. It matches that of a pacing panther; slow, smooth, and steady. In the last stanza the rhythm and pacing changes just a little, this adds emphasis and emotion to the last stanza.

Varying sentence structure and rhythm can add emotion to prose as well. Long sentences are more reflective; short sentences are more exciting. Using short sentences in action scenes or long sentences in romantic scenes can help establish the correct emotion.

A sudden change in sentence structure or rhythm can be used for emphasis. If a short sentence is used after a paragraph of longer sentence, that sentence will stand out and will have more power. Make it an emotionally charged sentence, and it will resonate with your reader.

2. Emotionally Charged Words- Look at the word choices in this poem (I know it is a translation. How I’d love to be able to understand the original).

Words that evoke the feelings of being trapped: “cramped,” “bars,” “paralyzed.”

Words that evoke the image of power and beauty: “Powerful soft strides,” “dance,” “tensed, arrested muscles.”

Words that show repetitive motion: “constantly,” “over and over,” “ritual dance.”

Words that imply hope: “curtains of the pupils lift,” “rushes,” “plunges into the heart.” Of course the last three words kills that hope.

The use of emotionally charged words is key to eliciting the right emotions. I know that is kind of obvious. But this is where finding the right word makes all the difference.

When I was struggling with writing romantic scenes I stumbled on a writing advice on Stacia Kane’s blog called “Be a Sex Writing Strumpet.” The whole thing is on her blog, but you can also buy it.

Yes, this book is about writing sex scenes, and no, I’ve never written a sex scene, and I’m not sure I ever will. But the advice Kane gives can be applied to any romantic scene, and really any emotionally charged scene (Warning, her examples are very sexually explicit).

One thing she said was to make a list of words that you find sensual. Now I think this advice can be applied to any emotion.

There are lots of words and phrases that are emotionally charged: ones that evoke fear, horror, happiness, sadness, disgrace, loyalty, jealousy, rage, etc. Brainstorm trying to express these emotions and find the words and phrases that connect you to them. Don’t worry about anyone else. Find the words that work for you. Then use these words and phrases to add those emotions to your scenes.

3. Subtext- There is so much in the poem that isn’t said. Never does it say that the panther feels trapped or disheartened, but it is there. Never are we told that the panther has a glimpse of hope, but it is there. All in the subtext. What is not said is powerful.

The emotions that are shown are more powerful than the emotions that are told. And what isn’t said but is there will be felt more deeply than what is on the page. I know it is tricky, but if you can manage some subtext, it will make your writing more emotional and more compelling.

So there you have it. The tips of writing emotion that I got from one of my all time favorite poems. I’d love to hear any tips you have for creating emotional resonance, so please feel free to share.



  1. MaryAnn, I loved this post. Not only the great suggestions you made (and I heartily recommend Stacia's book, by the way!), but how you connected them to a piece of writing that you love. We can all do that - find what moves us, and then ask why it works.

    I particularly love your suggestion that you find the emotionally charged words that work for YOU. It's so spot-on, because when you find what resonates with you, it'll resonate with the reader. They smell inauthenticity like a panther smells fear ;)

    A lot of people don't love poetry in high school, because they aren't reading the most accessible poets. Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Edna St. Vincent Millay... I didn't read any of my favorites in school. A beautiful and short collection I love is "Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation."

    Great post!

  2. Sarah, thanks for the suggestions. I'm definitely in the mood to read some more poetry, so I'll have to look up those poets and the book. :)

    And I highly recommend Stacia's book too. Like I said in the post, I think her brilliant suggestions are applicable to more than just those steamy scenes.

  3. Do you remember the television show Beauty and the Beast? I never watched it, but when I was in college, a friend of mine gave me a CD with the voice of the Beast reading poetry. The Beast had a velvety smooth voice that sent shivers down my spine, and he was solely responsible for my love of poetry, and especially of certain translations of Rilke. You should look it up. Although the Panther was not one of the poems he read, I hear it in his voice when I read it.

    Emotional resonance and emotionally charged sentences are among my many weaknesses as a writer. This is extremely good advice. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. So, the Beast's name is Ron Perlman, and here's a clip of him saying a Rilke poem called You Darkness:

  5. Lovely post, MaryAnn, and great advice. I for one am useless at writing poetry - though my very first publication was a poem, believe it or not. Haven't written one since. Anyway, I agree that while great ideas might be memorable, great emotion and emotional connection is what keeps me as a reader coming back to a story.

  6. @Melanie-I never watched that version of Beauty and the Beast. I listened to that poem, and it was beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    @Sabrina-I haven't written any poems since high school, and I think they were all pretty bad although I thought that they were brilliant at the time. I don't know. Maybe I'll give it another try.

  7. This is really excellent advice. I've been away from poetry too long, also, but there's so much to be learned from the concise (beautiful) use of words. I think I read someone suggesting a few minutes of poetry before writing to rev up that part of the brain.

    Melanie, was that the show where the 'beast' guy lived underground and beauty was like a detective or something? I very vaguely remember a show like that.

    1. Yes. When I was looking it up on youtube, I was very surprised to see that Beauty was Linda Hamilton when she was younger.

  8. Ron Pearlman is Hell Boy. So... I'm awesome.

    Love this post. I've been thinking about the idea of adding poetry to the prose all week. I started out as a poet, and a songwriter, and there's something about the rhythm and the power of pure emotion in poetry that makes me giddy. So often, the advice given to writers is too logical...too Scully, really, but I love this, this logical way to create emotion. You are really good at dissecting stories, and writing, and figuring out how things work. How it could work better.

    You rock, MaryAnn. Well done.


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