Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 1)

March Dystropia Madnessby Jen Bailey

As writers who are true to our characters, we allow them to express themselves as they are able. We typically rely on actions, dialogue, physical reactions, and thoughts to do this, but what’s a writer to do when the character in question is emotionally detached, that is, unaware of his or her emotions?

Writing emotionally unaware characters can be challenging because they are unable to communicate their feelings about what would normally be viewed as emotionally-charged incidents. This kind of detachment can be all-encompassing (e.g. a result of psychological trauma: abuse, neglect, abandonment), or transient (e.g. hearing very jarring news). The character may also have a highly intellectual and logical personality and not be attuned to their own emotion. No matter what the source of detachment, if not handled carefully, there is a great chance of losing your reader if they can’t become, or stay, emotionally engaged in your story.

In part one of this blog post, I’ll discuss a couple of ways in which you can engage your reader’s heart all while staying true to your emotionally detached character. Using examples from the novel Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, I’ll show you how you can evoke the emotion your character cannot express through the use of sound-related poetic language.

Poetic Tool #1: Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoetic words sound like their meanings and call to mind images and/or feelings for the reader. The use of these words is powerful but limited, as they can only be used to describe sounds. Here are some examples of onomatopoetic words – pay attention to what they evoke in you as you read them:  ring, hiss, clatter, bang, grunt, slam, and snap.

In Quaking, Matt, an emotionally detached character, is taunted by a bully she nicknamed “Rat.” Erskine describes Matt’s encounter with the Rat as follows:

“I smell his smoke. His sneer and hiss are quiet but still forceful. ‘You’re dead…Quaker!’” (Erskine 217, emphasis added).

The words sneer and hiss are onomatopoetic. They imitate the dark, sinister sound of Rat’s voice for the reader. The reader thus feels Matt’s emotion, even though she cannot express it.

Poetic Tool #2: Phonetic Intensives

Arp and Johnson define phonetic intensives as words “whose sound … to some degree connects to their meaning.”   Here are some examples:

Phonic Intensives

It is important to note that while these phonetic intensives can contribute to meaning, they are not in themselves prescriptive of meaning. For example, many words that begin with the ‘fl’ sound can be associated with moving light, but there are many others that have nothing at all to do with that association: think flower, flounder, flask, flamingo. Phonetic intensives must be used judiciously.

Let’s look at an example where they are used well:

I am cold all over. He knows. I am dead. It is really over. (Erskine 217)

The long o sound creates a feeling of a moan coming from Matt and to the ear of the reader. It is like a lament and can place the reader with Matt, evoking the sorrow and melancholy Matt is not expressing in this scene.

While the use of onomatopoeia and phonetic intensives is somewhat limited, the sound-related poetic tools I will be discussing in part 2 can be more carefully crafted to obtain your desired effect and keep your reader engaged.

Stay tuned!

Jen Bailey Author PhotoJen Bailey lives in Ottawa, Ontario and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves playing around with rhythm and sound in her writing. Should you like that kind of thing too, she recommends you read Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, and any poetry you can get your hands on.

Follow her musings on writers’ craft and the writing life at writefiercely.wordpress.com

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

Arp, Thomas R. and Greg Johnson. Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. 11th ed. Boston, Mass.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005. Print.
Erskine, Kathryn. Quaking. New York: Philomel Books, 2007. Print.

12 thoughts on “Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 1)

  1. oh my gosh…so happy Melanie reblogged this. You gave me goosebumps! I have been struggling for years with a particular character trying to figure out how to show her bottled up emotions that world does not see. Tried having her show it all it a journal she writes, but that felt too obvious that that is what I was doing and it didn’t feel natural to the story. You’ve given me something to work with..thanks!

    • Oh I’m so happy to hear this! I have a ton more I could share about rhythm, and about other sound-related poetic tools (euphony and cacophony, specifically)! I have found these tools to be so helpful for avoiding “obvious” or heavy-handed writing. Check in now and then at writefiercely.wordpress.com 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Write Fiercely and commented:
    Here is the first of 2 blog posts I wrote for Ingrid’s March Dystropian Madness series. These posts are based on material from my January 2013 graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Enjoy!

  3. Pingback: A Poet? | Kathyerskine's Blog

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