Write Better. Right Now.

Emotional Depth 3: Finding Physical Stimulants

Today, we’re finding physical stimulants to finding an emotive response. These are triggers, if you will. Some people feel they need to work in silence, but for me, that’s impossible. I need triggers! There are many different ways to trigger emotion, but most of these involve using your senses — touch, sight, sound, smell — even taste.

One way to handle this is to have a detailed scrapbook. I know many writers who try to find pictures that match their ideas of their hero/heroine, but what about their house/clothing/car? What about pictures of their parents, or siblings, or kids, or their favorite painting, dream car or home (even if they don’t have it yet)? What gross-out thing do they love to eat? Do they have to drink the obligatory “black coffee” or scotch (both totally ick to me!!!) — can’t they like latte or hot chocolate or orange juice? Do they have a favorite hair clip, a ratty old wallet they can’t throw out, an old school blazer or baseball cap that no longer fits, but has compelling meaning to them?

Find pictures of these things! Even if you have to draw one. Putting it up in your study space will be so evocative for your character. That ratty old wallet could pop up at the best possible moment, drawing an emotional “aaahhhh” in your reader that makes a difference. It’s those tiny, meaningful moments that readers don’t forget. And eat/drink what they’re eating/drinking if you can stomach it. Experience what they’re experiencing! Then you get such a vivid word-picture in your mind that it transfers into the book.

I do this as well as more dangerous pastimes — like the time I needed to know how it felt to be smothered with a pillow. I scared the *^&% out of my first critique partner Kate with that one, but man, I got a vivid scene from it: spots swirling in front of my eyes, the feeling of breathing in cotton, the air getting thicker and warmer — okay, you get the picture. The sights and sounds were so compelling I typed it straight into the story, and it made Kate gasp, at least. (And yes, I know I’m nuts!)

Right, now onto to the other senses!

How about finding a scent to match your characters, that evokes a strong emotional response in you? Scent is a powerful and compelling trigger. It relates strongly to memory. For instance (silly, but true), every time I smell our native wattle trees in bloom here, I think “Dead cat”. Now, wattle smells quite pretty — obviously nothing like cat corpses! But apparently when I was 4 (I’m 40 now), I found our cat dead under a wattle tree. I didn’t know this until I mentioned my weird trigger to my mother, and she told me about Blackie.

This should hopefully give you an “ah-hah” moment relating to the “obscene” jasmine scent in my face-slapping paragraph, in the Deep Point of View handout. Have you got a stupid scent moment, triggering memory? Do you hate the smell of roses, say, because your cat/dog died under a rose bush? Do you think of a certain person when you smell fresh bread? Does the scent of leather make you think of a ride you once had in a brand-new car, or a horse that once bucked you to the ground, or a beloved pony?

Did Granny smell of violets, or oatmeal? Does lavender and roses remind you of Great-Aunt Sally’s house, where you had such happy moments patting her dog? (Sorry, folks, that story was my Aunt, and her dog Sally! I can still see her little half-house in the mountains, and she died 25 years ago.) White chocolate always reminds me of my grandmother who died when I was 7. She always rewarded our good deeds with Milky Bars. Nail polish remover always reminds me of my oldest daughter, who constantly uses it.

I’m saying all this for a reason. As a reader, I’m personally tired of reading about black coffee and lobster, Karl Lagerfeld scent and Chanel, etc. For goodness’ sake, I think, get some creativity (okay, it’s obvious I prefer “ordinary people” stories, isn’t it?)! Find unique scents that readers will relate to your story, and only yours.

Songs, too, are vivid, compelling triggers — how many times have you cried to Tell Laura I Love Her or In The Living Years? These are so powerful to me, I can never hear them without choking up. This is to me the quickest trigger to emotion I know.

So, how can you relate all of this to your work in progress?

I can only relate by telling you my story. I tried all these triggers with my last 2 books, and it worked so well I can’t do without it now! For Can You Forget? (a sequel for Who Do You Trust?, and the second book in my Nighthawks series), I used coconut scent (for the love scene of all things), and rose and lavender in the burner, as that was Mary-Anne’s “restful” scent. As for songs, I used Anna and the King’s How Can I Not Love You as the keynote theme of the book, but I also had a complete soundtrack, with songs like Savage Garden’s The Lover After Me, My Heart Will Go On and other songs about forbidden, impossible love to inspire me.

For Who Do You Trust? I had gentler, vanilla-lavender scent, and more hopeful songs, like John Denver’s Annie’s Song and 1927’s If I Could (a big Australian hit — a lovely love song). Even though this is a hard-hitting spy story, it needed songs of hope and gentle scent to remind me of the hero’s ultimate goal.

My point? Use songs and scents as a theme, an anthem for your book — some things that sum up your book in music and scent, two of the most evocative ways to bring your own emotion to the fore. And then use it, transferring that emotion to your book. It works for me, every time!

For Winning Lucy, my gentle romantic comedy, I found an ocean scent, and I used quirky, upbeat music like Alanis Morrisette’s Head Over Feet, Savage Garden’s Chained To You, Shania Twain’s If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask and The Corrs’ Irresistible — but when the sad or emotional moments in the book came, the strongest trigger was Unchained Melody — and that led to a whole new path for the characters and book, making both characters softer, kinder, more emotional — and it made the book a lot better, at least in my (admittedly) prejudiced view.

For my most recent book, a mainstream work, my theme songs are Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley, and the Gladiator and Braveheart soundtracks, and a scent called Moonflower, which brings out sad, evocative emotion and poetic stanza. Because it’s based on the Bible story of Kings David and Solomon, I also have a Bible beside me and works about the Bible at all times, to check my research. I mention this because what I’ve learned brought out so many emotive responses in me, the book changed direction even within the prologue (plus thanks to my agent, who’s working with me on this book).

My point? Whatever works is good enough, and emotive triggers can change, even within a book or a chapter. Eat, drink, inhale and hear your book — YOUR book, THEIR story. Make it unique to you, so it will be unique to the reader. Emotion for comedy is totally different to the emotion for romantic suspense. So are the scents — but I’ll deal with this in greater depth later. But for now, whatever matches the mood of the scene — something to make you feel upbeat and happy, or complex and emotional, even tragic — whatever works.


Try this for yourselves, and see what happens! For example, try to discover the hero/heroine’s scent (and I don’t mean Armani or Karl Lagerfeld!) and the special, unforgettable songs that scream “THIS IS THE ONE!” to you, and use these to write one single scene. Find a scene you’ve done that needs emotive work, close your door, play the music and inhale the scent, and see what comes. You may surprise yourself with the triggered emotional response. And remember for the purposes of this exercise, don’t block a single word. Don’t change anything you write! Don’t worry if it’s too powerful, not powerful enough, silly sounding or anything else. You’ll be surprised how your most provocative work can come from this exercise. It might be perfect, and you just don’t know it yet — and have fun!


Melissa James
Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids -- even the dog sometimes! Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists' articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books -- though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles. Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net

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