What makes us want to read a story about a young nurse trying to survive the ugly inner workings of an emergency department and her soulmate soldier trying to survive the jungles of Vietnam? Or, for that matter, what makes us want to read anything? According to reviewer Lee Ambrose, it may be something called word painting.
Word painting is the use of strategic words to trigger specific emotional responses in people. Musicians have used this technique for centuries to add meaning and emotion to their music. If a musical score is happy and lite, then they’ll select lyrics to match. They’ll do the same for music that is wistful, sad, angry, excited, hopeful, and so on. Think of the sad lyrics in Elton John’s Candle in the Wind or the happy and exciting lyrics in ABBA’s Dancing Queen. These two songs played back-to-back can put us on an emotional rollercoaster in minutes.
Novelists also use word painting to elicit emotional responses, and they have more tools to use than musicians. For example, they can evoke emotions through their characters’ facial expressions, body language, actions, and interactions. The settings for each scene can also pull the reader into the story.
So, why is word painting so effective in engaging readers? The answer may lie in its ability to stimulate memories that make readers feel a particular way. Maya Angelou once said people forget what you say and do but they never forget the way you make them feel. Readers are no different. What novelists’ characters feel, see, hear, say, and do can often trigger memories and similar emotions in readers that make them want to keep reading.
Consider how and what the following examples of word painting make you feel.
By high summer, any attempt to walk barefooted on the pavement would result in frying-pan burns and blistered feet. Flip-flops would be our only protection and staying in them took skill. If we were not careful, the melting, gooey street tar would suck them right off our feet, leaving us to hopscotch to the nearest tree shade or rain-filled pothole to relieve the burning until the captured flops were recovered.
Did you feel the heat from the tar and the cool relief from the rain-filled pothole?
A raging river thrashed right behind her, melting Nibi’s mountain.
“Nettie! Hold on.” A hazy Andy hovered at the edge of the flowing mud, preparing to come for her.
“Don’t! Stay there!” she yelled. Sliding her hands and feet along the cedar, she inched toward him.
Dropping to his belly, Andy reached for Nettie’s hand just as the earth beneath her dissolved into the raging water. The intense cold shocked her mouth open and panic closed it as gravelly slush surged in. The hysterical, muddy current thrust her downriver at breakneck speed, splaying her arms and legs and twisting the rest of her in different directions. Wave after angry wave broke on top of her. She fought to find air, to keep from being pulled under. Putrid grit filled her nose and stung her eyes. Hard, unrecognizable things slammed into her, ripping clothes and tearing skin, then spinning off into the darkness.
Did you feel Nettie’s panic? Did you experience angst when she missed grabbing Andy’s hand?
In my latest novel, LIFE DUST, young nurse Nettie is being emotionally brutalized by a supervisor she caught in a late-night tryst with a surgeon. In the meantime, her fiancé, Andy, is struggling to survive the sweltering, leech and snake-infested jungles of Vietnam. Consider how and what the following excerpts make you feel:
Nettie took the back stairs from the emergency room to the second floor two at a time. Glancing left and right, she darted across the hall into the pitch-black recovery room. She needed an oxygen regulator fast, and this unit always had plenty. They just didn’t like to share after-hours. Clicking her penlight on, she hurried past rows of stretchers toward the supply closet but froze as startled shadows thrashed in the corner ahead.
“Bloody hell,” hissed a low, male voice.
Eyes wide and heart racing, Nettie released the button on the penlight and backed up. Panicked whispers and whiffs of perfume followed her out the door, the scent a favorite of the hospital’s most contentious evening supervisor, Genevieve Woods.
Did your eyes widen when reading the scene? Did your heart race?
It started drizzling as Andy made rounds on the perimeter one last time. During the day the rain brought some relief from the heat, but at night it promised nothing but misery. Arranging his ruck as a lumpy pillow, he pulled his poncho over his already soaked, dirty uniform, tucked his rifle close to his chest, and tried in vain to get comfortable, the sloppy ground puddling beneath him. Despite exhaustion, Andy’s eyes wouldn’t stay closed. Human forms appeared everywhere in the dripping shadows. His muscles ached and the jungle food he’d choked down for dinner sat in an indigestible lump in his stomach. The surreal noises of the jungle assaulted his ears—siren cicadas, bass-blowing frogs, faaaa-cue geckos, reeee-up birds, screeching crickets the size of his hand, and countless grotesque bugs emanating sounds to match. Even when he managed to push the barrage to the back of his mind, he couldn’t let go of the day. In less than twenty-four hours he’d stepped on a poisonous snake, encountered a man-eating but thankfully uninterested tiger, and nearly lost a man to drowning. How in the world will we survive two weeks of these lethal surprises, much less a whole year?
Did you hear the jungle’s noise? Did you feel the rain and rocky ground? Were you afraid?
The next time you find a book you love, see if you can figure out how the author used word painting to make the story meaningful to you. In doing so, you’ll find out more about the author and yourself.
US residents may enter to win in a signed paperback of Life Dust by answering this question in a Comment below.
In your reading experience, what novel epitomizes word painting the best?
Never underestimate the impact of what we leave behind, the power of life’s dust.
Nettie and Andy have been soul mates since the sandbox days. While planning their wedding, Andy deploys to South Vietnam for a year. Unable to quell her anxiety about Andy, Nettie dives into her work as a nursing intern in the emergency room. She inadvertently walks in on a nursing supervisor and surgeon during a late-night tryst in the shadowy recesses of the hospital. The vengeful lovers initiate a campaign to discredit Nettie and sabotage her internship.
In Southeast Asia, Andy is leading a reconnaissance squad when he receives orders to escort a high-ranking female freedom fighter, Bien, to a clandestine meeting with an enemy officer who wants to defect. Raped, beaten, and left for dead by North Vietnamese soldiers, Bien is suspicious of the enemy officer’s motives. But something tells her he may be the long-lost brother that her attackers conscripted into their army as a child. Andy believes his unit is walking into a trap that could cost him everything.
Struggling to survive in different worlds, Nettie and Andy navigate the best and worst of human nature as they try to find their way back to each other.
Women's Fiction Historical [She Writes Press, On Sale: October 11, 2022, Paperback, ISBN: 9781647420918 / eISBN: 9781647420925]
Pam Webber is author of her bestselling debut Southern novel, The Wiregrass, a Historical Novels Society Editors’ Choice, and Read of the Month at Southern Literary Review. An invited panelist for the 2016 Virginia Festival of the Book, Pam has also published extensively in nursing and is an award-winning educator and family nurse practitioner. She and her husband, Jeff, live in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
7 comments posted.
What a wonderful short course in writing. There are many writers I have read
over the years that have done a good job of word painting. Katie Ruggle comes
to mind as does Linda Broday. There have been some other really good
authors, but these are the two I have most recently read. I worked in Southeast
Asia for 3 years and although I didn't have to deal with what the Gi's did, the
description brings back vivid memories of rainy season.
(Patricia Barraclough 12:48pm November 5)