Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Best of Seekerville from the Archives and First Fives Page Critique

Using Sensory/Emotional Triggers to Write

by Tina Radcliffe

In a typical writing day, we have to quickly transition roles in order to utilize our precious writing time.

That means moving from the agony of doing the monthly bills to the ecstasy of an emotionally intimate moment between your protagonists. Or perhaps you must transition from calming a crying two-year old to an intense, high stakes suspense scene. And have you ever had to move from an unfortunate disagreement with someone dear to you, right smack into the light, comedy of your current WIP?

If you constantly put your writing on hold when life interrupts there will be more interruptions than writing. So consider investing a little time to discover the sensory/emotional triggers that move you quickly into another emotional response.

Basic Human Emotions

First, you have to recognize emotions. What are the basic human emotions?

(From Parrott, W. (2001), Emotions in Social Psychology, Psychology Press, Philadelphia)
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Love
  • Sadness
  • Surprise
  • Anger
Those basic emotions can be divided further:

1. Fear
  • Horror: Alarm, shock, fear, fright, horror, terror, panic, hysteria, mortification
  • Nervousness: Anxiety, nervousness, tenseness, uneasiness, apprehension, worry, distress, dread

2. Joy
  • Cheerfulness: Amusement, bliss, cheerfulness, gaiety, glee, jolliness, joviality, joy, delight, enjoyment, gladness, happiness, jubilation, elation, satisfaction, ecstasy, euphoria
  • Zest: Enthusiasm, zeal, zest, excitement, thrill, exhilaration
  • Contentment: Contentment, pleasure
  • Pride: Pride, triumph
  • Optimism: Eagerness, hope, optimism
  • Enthrallment: Enthrallment, rapture
  • Relief:Relief

3. Love
  • Affection: Adoration, affection, love, fondness, liking, attraction, caring, tenderness, compassion, sentimentality
  • Lust: Arousal, desire, lust, passion, infatuation
  • Longing: longing

4. Sadness
  • Sadness: Agony, suffering, hurt, anguish
  • Disappointment: Depression, despair, hopelessness, gloom, glumness, sadness, unhappiness, grief, sorrow, woe, misery, melancholy
  • Shame:Guilt, shame, regret, remorse
  • Neglect: Alienation, isolation, neglect, loneliness, rejection, homesickness, defeat, dejection, insecurity, embarrassment, humiliation, insult
  • Sympathy:Pity, sympathy

5. Surprise
  • Surprise: Amazement, surprise, astonishment

6. Anger:
  • Irritation: Aggravation, irritation, agitation, annoyance, grouchiness, grumpiness
  • Exasperation: Exasperation, frustration
  • Rage: Anger, rage, outrage, fury, wrath, hostility, ferocity, bitterness, hate, loathing, scorn, spite, vengefulness, dislike, resentment
  • Disgust: Disgust, revulsion, contempt
  • Envy:Envy, Jealousy
  • Torment: torment

Triggers to the Basic Emotions

Next you must decide which of the basic emotions you need to elicit and which secondary or tertiary emotions most closely connect you to that trigger. There's no point wasting time on rage if the closest you have ever come is exasperation. Get as close as you can. If you cannot feel the emotional response, neither will your reader.

The triggers are connected to one or more of the five senses: touch, smell, hear, taste, see. Which of these senses works best for you?

For me it happens to be visual, auditory and scent.

Sometimes just closing your eyes and allowing your mind to recapture an event in full sensory display will allow you to trigger the emotional response you need to channel. Other times you must use props (DVDs, CDs, candles, perfume, herbs & seasonings, to trigger your emotional response.)

A word of caution: Don't trigger an emotional response that will is so overwhelmingly powerful you are unable to write, perhaps due to a personal situation you have not resolved or worked through yet, such as extreme sadness, fear, shame or anger.

My Sensory/Emotional Triggers

Here are my methods to elicit sensory/ triggers and their associated emotional responses.
These triggers are highly subjective and while these examples work for me, they may not produce the same, if any response from you. Also note I use DVDs a lot as they are easy to work with while I am writing at the computer or laptop.

  • Fear: To elicit fear, I move to terror and panic. I am able to quickly recall an event in my childhood. The one time I came home from elementary school and the back door was locked. No one was home. There is an empty, almost deathly starkness to an east coast winter. The wind was howling that day, and the sky was overcast. I was cold and panicked thinking my family was missing.

  • Joy: I move to amusement (actually on the floor laughing) in 0.5 seconds by watching the paintball scene in Failure to Launch.

  • Love: Is this one easy or WHAT? Put in the DVD and fast forward to Anne & Gilbert in Anne of Green Gables.

  • Surprise: This one is much harder but not impossible. The movie, The Forgotten, had so many gasp moments. If I fast forward to the car crash, I once again am surprised.

  • Anger: Probably the most difficult for me of the 'why can't we all play nice' nature. This is as close as I am going to be able to trigger: outrage. (Warning: language alert!)

A final note: Triggers should be just that. Instant. Press that trigger and BAM!! the emotional response is elicited. If you have to work to stir up that response you haven't found your trigger.

And don't forget to be creative.

When I mix up oregano, basil, olive oil, and a pinch of garlic I have just made a small batch of joy, because that mixture makes me think of my Grandma Russo.

Inhaling a lavender candle brings a smile of contentment.

Go ahead and give this exercise a try and then be sure to share your sensory/emotional triggers with Seekerville.

Tina Radcliffe has been scribbling for years. She's sold dozens of short stories to magazines such as the Trues and Woman's World. In 2010 she achieved her goal of selling her novel length fiction to Love Inspired. The Rancher's Reunion was a January 2011 release and Oklahoma Reunion will be on shelves October 2011. In her spare time she continues to plan world domination by perfecting the the top-secret family spaghetti sauce recipe.

This post first appeared in Seekerville April 7, 2009.

Don't forget...

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Here are the rules

Sunday through Saturday you may post
(in the comments of any blog post)
that you want to be considered for the weekly critique drawing.
Or feel free to drop us a note on Facebook.

Critiques are anonymous
and your critiquer will be one of the 15 Seekers.

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attachment. We'd also like to know the subgenre and targeted publisher.

The Seekerville giveaway rules apply and can be found on our blog.

If none of our Seekerville visitors and friends leave a specific
comment regarding the five page critique,
the weekly drawing will not be held- that week only.

We write romance and are happy to critique romance.
We reserve the right to notify writers if we
are unable to critique their writing if for any reason we feel
we are not qualified to provide an objective review.


  1. Here comes da coffee. Belly up.

    To trigger joy I recall humorous things my kids did or said when they were little.

    To trigger sadness all I have to do is think back to the death of my 16 year old sister in a car accident.

    Love can be triggered by a number of memories over the years with my husband and children. So can fear, surprise, and anger.


    Put me in the pot for a 5 page critique.

  2. Hi Tina:

    This is the best list of emotions I’ve encountered. Very useful. I know just where I’ll use it. Thanks.

    I must say that you seem do things differently than I do. It seems you prepare to write like a method actor who gets into the mood first and then acts.

    I do it the opposite way. I like to start in a neutral mood and then rely on my writing to induce the mood I am after. That way I know it is working. If the writing brings me to a given emotional state, then that provides some indication that the same response will happen in a reader.

    For example, if I want the reader to feel a sense of outrage, the emotion being experienced by the heroine, I will have something in the story, (like a clear injustice or abuse of power), happen to the heroine. This should create a feeling of outrage in the reader on the heroine’s behalf.

    I wonder if any other writers do it my way.

    Option 1: get mad first then write a scene in which one of the characters gets mad.

    Option 2: start in a neutral emotional state and write a scene that makes you vicariously mad based on what happened in the story.


    I’d like to try for an anonymous critique. Does this mean the person doing the critique won’t know it’s me? That would be great! : )

  3. This is great, Tina! I have difficulty feeling ANYTHING when I write. I cry at Hallmark commercials though! LOL.

    Helen, I can't imagine losing my sister. I'm so sorry you lost yours.


  4. Tina,

    May and I are available for taste-testing your marvelous sauce! That would elicit joy for sure!

    Right now we are feeling appreciation for this post and some excellent, concrete illustrations on which to build. Thanks!

    Helen - can't imagine about your sister. So sorry.

    Vince - I'm thinking... I do more like you do. :)

    Cheryl - those and some of the Budweiser Clydesdale ones. eeeyep!

  5. I use some types of aromatherapy for sensory triggers. Patchouli makes me think "sexy" (why, I'm not entirely sure) while citrus makes me think of childhood and spring and joyful situations. It's kind of fun to smell some aromatherapy scents and try to figure out what emotions they might evoke, then to use them when I need them for writing.

  6. Helen, that's so sad! I'm so sorry about your sister.

  7. I think I combine Tina's method with Vince's method. I feel the emotion as I'm writing the scene but I sometimes use music to back that up. While writing my mystery, I discovered the emotions came easier while I listened to smooth jazz. I don't even like jazz, but the words flowed while the music played.

    I will print out this list and add it to my notebook. I'm always looking for way to improve.

    I won the critique last week, so can I enter again this week? If so, count me in. I can't wait to get it back!

    Thanks again for the post!

  8. It's a 'good thing' to have a nightmare and then wake up to write a suspense scene.

    And if you're not writing a particular emotion at the time you're experiencing it, you probably have a scene somewhere that can be deepened by the reaction.

    Like right now, I'm wishing I had a scene where they are eating pasta with red sauce because that's all I can think of.

    Vince, I think I do a combination of both: When I'm in the character's head it's easy to feel what they are feeling. But I love to go into the scene already 'feeling it'!

    I listen to a wide variety of instrumentals while writing. Certain movie soundtracks are especially good at provoking emotion for me.

  9. Another fabulous post for my Seekerville notebook. Thanks, Tina! I love the picture of the spaghetti sauce. With that face, it's sure to be a top seller!

  10. Such good advice and examples, Tina! Maybe being more aware of my triggers will help me use those odd bits of writing time I attempt to plug into my days.

  11. Tina, I don't use movies to trigger emotions. I'd probably lose track of time and watch the entire movie. LOL

    I know I'm getting emotion on the page when I'm exhausted after writing a scene. The character and I kind of become one, both getting worked up. Anyone interrupting me might get a blast of whatever I'm feeling. LOL


  12. Popping in just for a minute while I print some MSs off - both mine and others - to do edits to on the road trip!

    Man. Leaving in 5 hours and so much to do /cry/ but had to stop in at least real quick!

    Enter me for the five pages.

    If I cross your mind Monday from about 2-5 ET, would ya say a little prayer? No details, but would appreciate it.

    Also get to have lunch with the wonderful Jordyn Redwood this week! WOOHOO! Anyone else in Denver wanna come pick me up and take me out to lunch one day this week? I have cookies!

    carol at carol moncado dot com

  13. Thanks for the list of emotions - it will be a great resource. I have trouble getting the emotion to be complex enough, and your division of the basic emotions will help!

    BTW - I love reading the Saturday archives. I missed so much before I started coming here regularly, but this helps me catch up with the best of the best!

    Zucchini bread for breakfast - I'm trying to clean out the freezer and I have lots of shredded zucchini in there!

  14. Thanks for the in depth information on emotions. I'll add the url to this post in my newsletter.

  15. You know, I think I've decided I just need to print out Seekerville every day. Start a binder. Then another. And another. It's like classes on writing.

    You ladies rock.

    Every post has so much great information. This one is no exception, Tina.

    I've never really thought about triggers, but I will be...

  16. Hi Tina...thanks for the great post! I have a few triggers:

    I feel happy when I smell peppermint, it reminds me of Christmas and my mom's peppermint cookies.

    I feel fearful when I smell smoke, because of our house fire a few years ago.

    Love is something that I feel when I think memories with my husband and children:)

    Thanks for the other ideas!

  17. I think the problem for me is I have so much going on in my world that transitioning from the real world to the real writing world can be difficult unless I know how to push my own buttons and I have learned how to.

    The only way I personally can channel my characters is to feel the depth of emotion they feel. We can verbalize our sorrow for Helen's loss of her sister, because we do feel very bad about this tragedy.

    However to really get into a scene where my heroine feels the loss of her father, I have to watch a dramatic movie that explicitly brings me back to a personal loss at a very base level and I am remembering again all those very painful things connected with loss. I am able to correctly show my heroine's motivation in the scene.

    Anything else for me is superficial.

  18. Triggering sensory emotions is really finding that trigger that brings you to a very base emotion in a very powerful way.

  19. Great stuff, Tina! This really hammers home why I need to identify the targeted emotion for each scene.

    Option 1 (get mad first) would work better for me if I know that the scene is going to be a knock-down-drag-out fight.

    Knowing what emotion I'm shooting for in a scene can help me from writing lackluster scenes or hopping down a bunny trail!

  20. Oh...and I ease into a scene more like Vince said, but I LIKE the idea of doing it the other way more often.

    And Tina's post is just the ticket to figuring out how to do that!

  21. Hi Tina:

    This morning I’m reading original reviews of the novel, Dracula, and I’ve come across this quote which has bearing on today’s discussion:

    "It is said of Mrs. Radcliffe that when writing her now almost forgotten romances she shut herself up in absolute seclusion, and fed upon raw beef, in order to give her work the desired atmosphere of gloom, tragedy and terror. If one had no assurance to the contrary one might well supposed that a similar method and regimen had been adopted by Mr. Bram Stoker while writing his new novel “Dracula.”"
    (The Daily Mail, 1 June 1897)*

    Do you think you should add ‘eating raw beef’ as an emotional trigger?

    I should add that my system is very much geared to my writing which is almost always comedy and satire. I try to start off writing like a critical audience that is determined not to laugh at anything I say and then I try to write things that make me laugh in spite of myself. If I can get myself laughing, I really think the material is good.

    In any event, I think it beats eating raw beef. : )


    *Thanks to Amber S. for directing me to original reviews of Dracula.

  22. We could all jaunt off to the closest Bath & Body shop in St. Loo and do a scent test on the candles and lotions.

    The clerks would think we were crazy.

    Oh well.

    What's new?

  23. Excellent post! So glad you shared it again, Tina.

    Camy, I think patchouli is sexy as well. And citrus cheers me up, too. I'm big into fragrances!

  24. Jillian! What a great idea! I often print off blog posts and they end up in my piles. I need to start a notebook! :)

  25. Tina, movies really do help me get in touch with emotion. After a really powerful movie, I always think of ideas for my stories. And I'm always inspired to write.

  26. Tina, this is an awesome post and something I had to deal with just this week.

    Personally I was dealing with a lot of emotions, all negative. As it happened my characters are at a pretty negative place, too. But it became complicated when they transitioned from their situation and I was stuck in mine. I had to channel memories of better times and read a couple books to get back into the romance mood.

    Please put me in for the 5 page critique.


  27. VINCE!!!

    You never fail to crack me up.

    I think I should print up your comments and put them in a folder for a sensory emotional trigger.

    Raw beef? ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww.

  28. See, Kirsten, that is exactly what I mean.

    I write mostly light comedy...and truly, that paint ball scene in Failure to Launch with Zooey Deschanel and Sarah Jessica Parker, just has me rolling. Every time.

  29. OMG!


    It just occurred to me that your name is Radcliffe . I just noticed it. That had no part in my using this Dracula quote.

    Please note that ‘romance’ back then did not mean what ‘romance’ means today. Back then a book like the “Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which a young man loves an older women and when she does not return his love, he kills himself. This is considered by many to be the first romance novel.

    I hope this quote puts the comments about Mrs. Radcliffe’s romances in context.



  30. I commented this week, but forgot to say I'd like t be inluded in the first five page critique! :-) Thanks!

    ~ Katy

  31. I thought you inserted the Radcliffe.

    Wow, how Freudian is THAT??

  32. I have to agree, Tina, that paint ball scene gets me every time, too! I've seen Failure to Launch so many times I'll work through other scenes, but I have to stop whatever I'm doing and watch that scene every time.


  33. I love what you said Tina about if we let life get in our way, we'll never get any writing done. So true! I'm learning that lesson now. :) Thanks for sharing the post, I would sure like to be considered for a critique. :)

  34. Pam! You've stumbled onto a gold mine idea! I wonder if Billy would believe that I HAVE to go get a new bottle of lotion at Bath and Body Works FOR RESEARCH purposes of course. LOLOL!

    Hmmm....wonder if that would fly. LOLOL.


  35. LOL, Vince! The raw beef might taste OK with Tina's marinara sauce.

  36. What about family photos?

    Of course you'd have to have them sorted...

    Pictures of your sister's ex-husband might elicit anger.

    Pictures of your children as babies soft, tender feelings.

  37. This is an interesting post. I've heard of listening to music while writing, but I hadn't heard of watching movies to induce certain sentiments. I wrote a short story years ago where I listened to a soundtrack the whole way through. As I was writing, the mood of the story changed according to each melody. It could quickly change from tears to something lighter.

    Music definitely elicits emotions of its own. So, I guess I wonder if you can be writing a scene and just feel things according to that scene? Do you know what I mean? Do you have to have something to push your buttons BEFORE writing a certain scene, or can you write with the emotional setting you already have within the story?


  38. LOL, Anne. I agree. Brown onions and beef in a tablespoon EVOO. Add to sauce. Spoon over pasta

  39. LOVED Tina's book, Rancher's Reunion!!! Great job, Tina!


  40. Thanks Tina - - another GREAT post (and another keeper too!). ~ Being somewhat of an "emotional" person anyway, it's fairly easy for me to feel emotions when I'm writing. Especially if there's a sad situation involving either a very young child or an elderly person--I can actually get tears as I'm typing*sigh*. ~ Had to chuckle at your jar of sauce--I'm cooking spaghetti right now! :)
    Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo

  41. Great post!
    I know that I really struggle with writing when I am completely bored, emotion is what drives me. If someone were to read anything I wrote they would know exactly how I was feeling by the tone of the scene.

  42. Hi Anne:

    I love your tag line:

    “Witty Provocative Historical Romances”.

    I just wonder, “What counts as provocative in Regency romances?”

    Can you have a Regency that deals only with the commoners with the ton only in the background? Can you go outside the historical Regency year span?

    I think Regency is one of the hardest subgenres to write. But I love a good one.


  43. I am a rather stoical person, (okay unless the estrogen is peaking) so triggers are very important to me.

    I mean once you've lived through US ARMY boot camp and years as a nurse, you learn to tuck emotions away so triggering them is very important.

  44. What's for dinner Patty Jo?

    Did you send me that Pecan Praline Coffee Cake recipe yer? I was serious. I mentioned it in the book I am working on.

  45. Good job, Faye. Emotion on every page. ..or as Vince calls them

    Rewards Per Page.

  46. Hi Tina:

    I’m clueless and you’re Freudian. I was following a blog about “Dracula” on “Seasons of Humility” when this quote came up! The same day it turns out to be an ideal quote for a Seeker theme.

    What are the odds? You could never get away with this in fiction. : )


  47. Hi Cheryl:

    You wrote:

    "I wonder if Billy would believe that I HAVE to go get a new bottle of lotion at Bath and Body Works FOR RESEARCH purposes of course. LOLOL!"

    I don’t know about this but I do know it would be a perfect gift idea! Men are always needing ideas for gifts. I’d want to know! And if it would help my wife in her job, my, that’s a ‘two-fer”!

    Tell the man!





  49. I'm eating the delicious zucchini bread (thank you, Jan!!!) and mulling this...

    I pretty much use memories of one sort or another. Happy, tragic, sad, longing... and I try to "character act" (in my head) the person feeling the emotion and it's never right the first or second time. Too wordy, too elongated, the timing is off. But it gets better if I go back several times.

    Deb Marvin, supper's in an hour. You've got just enough time to drive this way. It will be worth your while, chica!

  50. Lorna, I love the sensory association. And that's such a perfect thing to use in your writing!!!

    Forgive me a moment while I go steal that idea.... (ruthy exiting room quietly...)

  51. Vince, what a terrible romance novel. I hate the whole death thing. I'm such a wuss. I want everything tied up in a neat, pink bow.

    With sprinkles and glitter.

    But I love that quote about Mrs. Radcliffe.... And I've seen our Teeeeena a few times (remember, Italian????) where throwing her raw meat might have been appropriate.



    But I send her chocolate instead because then she doesn't even hardly KNOW I'm placating her.

    Until now. When I just told her.


  52. Vince, AYE, AYE, Captain! I'll let you know how it turns out. LOL!



    Helen, when you said to "put you in the pot" for a five page critique, I envisioned the coffee pot. LOL! I think of you as our official Seekerville coffee barista beauty.

    Thanks also everyone for coming out to support us on Barbara Vey's blog this week! You all rocked!


  53. I've tried a few emotional trigers like this, but I've never thought about the logic of having set emotional triggers due to the interruptions of life. It's a great idea.

    Always up for a critique.

  54. Tina, when you speak...or write, I listen...or read!

    Great post!


  55. Cheryl:

    I may have to try a bath in the coffee pot.