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Friday, February 24, 2012

Evoking Emotions with Letter Choice

There are all sorts of tricks in writing to affect pacing, tension, and emotion, to draw a reader in or provide layers of distance. Today, I’ll offer up one that you can use to facilitate emotion.

Think about the sounds of words, specifically the letters that compose them. In many cases, these actually help promote the meaning of the word in subtle ways. My personal theory is that this is derived from the beginnings of language when we found words to describe what we observed and experienced.

To illustrate this without going into the complexities of vocalizations, let’s look at two simple aspects of sound: hard sounds and soft sounds. Hard sounds are those that have an abrupt stop to them such as t, d, k, and p. Soft sounds can be held and are much the opposite of hard sounds: l, m, n, r, and vowels.

Soft sounds help elicit gentler emotions, more sensual, or literally softer states. Look at the word sensual as an example. Not one hard sound exists in the word. The sounds flow together and incorporate most of the mouth to pronounce. Words composed entirely or mostly of soft sounds will help give your writing feelings such as gentleness, sensuality, tranquility, or affection. Other examples: bathe, caress, luscious, sweet, family.

Hard sounds can help elicit abruptness, immediacy, anger, or disgust. The sound is more jarring and don’t require the vocal chords. Think of words such as barbarian, cut, tiger, clap, or biting.

The length of words and sounds are also important. In English, we don’t think about this very much. I never gave it any thought until I started studying other languages that required a distinction in the length of a sound to provide a clear meaning to a word. Shorter sounds and words help convey swifter intents and longer a more relaxed or ominous mood.

Of course, this does not mean that every word in an action scene will be dripping with hard, short sounds or every word in a scene with a marriage proposal will be elegant, long, and flowing. But it means that if you have a choice of two or three words, it might help to pick the word composed of the sounds and syllables that best reflect the tone and emotion of your scene.

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