Friday, September 25, 2009

To give your writing emotional power, use an emotional hook

As you know, emotional power can create an unforgettable passage: an unforgettable scene in a movie, play or novel; an unforgettable paragraph in an essay; or an unforgettable climax of a speech. Emotional power enables you to make your point clearly and concisely.

There are several ways to load your writing with emotional power; one of the easier ways is to use an emotional hook.


For example, do you remember these words?

“I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

The words are from a scene in the movie On the Waterfront (1954). The speaker is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, right), a longshoreman and ex-boxer. He is speaking to his older brother Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger, left), a gangster.

By today’s standards, the scene is technically primitive. No color. No special effects. No quadraphonic sound. Until the end of the scene, no action – just two men talking in the back seat of a car.

But the scene is unforgettable, because it connects to a powerful emotion in the minds of the viewers: pity for someone who knows he has missed his main chance in life.

Great playwrights, novelists, essayists and speechwriters do the same. They connect their themes to powerful emotions that are already stored in the memories of their readers or audiences.

Here are three examples from famous speeches in English.


William Jennings Bryan, 1896: “We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You will not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’ ”

  • Theme: A gold standard would impoverish Midwestern farmers.
  • Emotion: Christians' reverence for Christ’s suffering.
  • Hook: A crown of thorns and a cross, symbols of Christ’s suffering.


Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963: “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

  • Theme: Racial equality is essential to a great nation.
  • Emotion: Patriotic feelings evoked by the song “America.”
  • Hook: The last six words of the song.


Ronald Reagan, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

  • Theme: The Soviet Union must permit emigration.
  • Emotion: Painful memories of the closing of the Soviet border.
  • Hook: The Berlin Wall, symbol of the closed border.

The Takeaway: Use an emotional hook to make your writing unforgettable. Hook your theme to a strong emotion that is already stored in the memories of your readers, listeners or viewers.


  1. Thanks, Joe, for writing this blog. I am adding the url to my writing class website.


  2. -MJ:

    I am pleased to hear that. Best wishes to you and your students.