November 11, 2022

Word Painting: Coaxing Readers into a Story

 Pam Webber

Imagine a story about a young nurse trying to survive the ugly inner workings of a busy Northern Virginia emergency room intertwined with a story about a soldier trying to survive reconnaissance patrols in the jungles of Vietnam. Blending stories with such diverse settings can be challenging; however, a writing technique called word painting can help blend them beautifully.

Word painting is the use of precise words and phrases to evoke a particular emotion. Composers have used this process for centuries to add meaning and emotion to their music. For example, if the lyrics are happy, the music will be light and upbeat. If the lyrics are melancholy, the music will be slow and descending.

The same approach applies to selecting words designed to elicit a particular emotion in a reader. If your characters are sad, you want your readers to cry. If the characters are happy, you want readers laughing out loud, and if the characters are afraid, you want readers’ hearts racing. Word painting is not always easy. It requires you to interview every word on the page. Is it the best word to use? Does it elicit the desired emotion? Will it resonate with readers in my target audience?

In my upcoming book, Life Dust, the first chapter has a young nurse, Nettie, saying goodbye to her soul mate, Andy, as he leaves for Vietnam. I want the reader to feel the sadness and loss.

Andy held her close as if trying to imprint the feel of her deep in his memory.

She held onto his hand as he stood. “Come back to me.”

“Count on it.” He put two fingers to his lips and blew her a kiss as he walked away.

Nettie held the air kiss until she couldn’t see him anymore, her heart breaking. Numb, she laid down on the soft quilt. Since childhood, Andy had been there, her rock, her port in every storm, and she’d been there for him. Now, she couldn’t help him, and he couldn’t help her. Loss, loneliness, and the insanity of war pulled her into an exhausted sleep.

In the following scene, I want the reader to feel pain and angst.

Fuzzy, dust filled light filtering through the slatted ceiling made Andy squint. His right shoulder throbbed as if it were going to explode, and he could barely feel his right hand. His neck and back ached from being propped against what felt like burlap sacks. Grateful not to be dead, he tried to clear his head. Who had captured him? The NVA, the VC? The phrase “KIAs don’t talk, POWs do” floated through his foggy thoughts. He had to protect the mission. Could he do what he had to do?

In the following example, I want the reader to feel empathy for Nettie and her friend who is dying.

“I’ve put you through a lot these last months, Nettie,” Mr. Pepper whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I wanted to be here. I still do.”

“I’m so grateful our paths crossed.” He gave her a weak smile. “This time, I’m ready.” He turned half-mast eyes to the path, still looking for someone who wasn’t coming.

There was nothing to say as his last flicker of hope went out.

He grimaced as another surge of pain coursed through his chest. “Nettie, the ring.”

Look at the examples again and see which words and phrases elicited the most emotion. Try rewriting the dialogue using different word painting.

Hopefully, these examples have increased your awareness of word painting as a strategic technique for engaging readers.

I’d love to talk with you about your approach, so message me at


Pam Webber is the bestselling author of The Wiregrass and Moon Water. These
award-winning novels were selected as an Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society
and as a Read of the Month by Southern Literary Review. Pam’s third novel, Life Dust,
was published October 11, 2022, by She Writes Press.
Pam is a nurse practitioner, who was originally published as a nursing textbook
author before she began writing novels. She and her husband live in the Northern
Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Connect with Pam at


  1. Thanks Susan! Always a pleasure to work with you and SWM. Happy Holidays!

  2. Another skill that Pam brings to her work is writing through the lens of her professional expertise (beyond her writing expertise). Even an author's knowledge of a profession through her family's entrepreneurial efforts gives the reader an inside track to that profession. Makes me wonder if I'll one day write a piece about life with a family whose wealth came from fluid power, and their leveraging of that niche in many industries along the Gulf Coast.
    Word painting with pumps, rams, and hoists!