Silk’s Post #107 — We all know it in our guts. From our first children’s fairy tale on, we know what’s at the heart of a good story. It’s that simple but powerful thing that keeps us spellbound:
Some genres celebrate the spectrum of feelings overtly – romance and horror spring to mind first – but there is no fiction of any kind that does not intentionally tug at the reader’s emotions.
Simply, stories are about – and for – people, and people have feelings. (Okay, some stories are about other anthropomorphized beings from bunny rabbits to ogres to space aliens, but as far as I’m concerned they’re all stand-ins for people). A story without emotional power is a story without a heart. You might get some people to read it, but you probably won’t get anybody to love it.
“Wow, I never really thought about putting emotion into my story on purpose,” said nobody who’s ever tried to write a book.
I mean, isn’t all this obvious? Well, yes, it is. So obvious that it’s awfully easy to assume we know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to writing about emotions. When our characters are sad, they burst into tears. When they’re scared, they burst into a dead run. When they’re joyful, they burst into song. And so on. So to speak.
Writing one-oh-one. Got it.
But did I really “get it”? Don Maass’s excellent Master Class at the 2014 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, “The Emotional Art of Fiction”, showed me that there’s nothing obvious about emotional writing.
The class began on familiar ground. Lack of genuine emotion in writing leaves readers unengaged, Don said. Check, I said. Knew that. Readers want to go through a powerful emotional experience, Don told us. Yup, I said. Powerful emotional experience. No surprises there. Characters create emotions. If you put it that way, yeah, sure.
And that’s when the submarine started to descend, Captain Maass at the controls. Through a series of participatory exercises, we dived ever deeper into the ocean of human emotions and examined the subtle perspectives, signals and tropes that bring feelings alive on the page. Don’s teaching method is simple and effective. He asks probing questions about our work-in-progress and makes his students write out their answers.
The questions began with the obvious, like: What is the point of change at which my protagonist embarks on a new path – a path that is inevitable and unstoppable until the resolution. Okay, I got that one and managed to scribble it out in the minute or two allowed. Why does my protagonist care about this? was another softball. No problem.
But as we descended into the darker depths of the emotion ocean, to places less illuminated, the questions got harder to answer. What will this change do to reward my protagonist? was followed by What does he fear about it? – and then Could it make him a pariah because he cares about this?
Whoa. A pariah? There’s a question I had not asked myself. But as I thought about it … gee, well, yeah. Damn right. He could definitely become a pariah to a certain segment of the citizenry in the local story world, which, unfortunately for him, happens to be a very well-armed segment.
And there it was. A whole new emotional dimension.
I was so focused on the obvious emotional content – like my protagonist’s doomed attraction to the wrongest woman in the world for him, and the fact that he’s pursuing a professional challenge under tremendous scrutiny and time pressure – that I didn’t even think about the paranoia he should be experiencing because he’s likely pissing off a whole bunch of potentially hostile townsfolk.
By focusing on the obvious – the big and somewhat clichéd feelings – I’d missed a whole secondary layer of emotion. The townsfolk in question are not central to the story, but they’re part of the story world (and did I mention most of them are strapped?). Now I can up the emotional stakes by having my protagonist looking over his shoulder.
This example is just an appetizer. We discussed emotional demarcation points through the story structure, inner and outer journeys and how emotional perspectives shift along the way, and the kind of telling secondary emotions that hint obliquely at bigger hidden feelings. We discussed the revealing emotional dance between characters who have very different feelings about the same thing. And we learned some techniques for infusing characters with emotion by evoking, rather than reporting, what they’re feeling.
We also navigated the emotional pathways of great storytelling. Did Captain Don say this directly, or did the discussion just stimulate my own synapses so I could put it together for myself? I honestly don’t know, but here’s my take-away:
The characters won’t feel what the writer doesn’t feel. And the reader won’t feel what the characters don’t feel. Those are the links in the experiential chain. There’s no shortcut to eliciting deep feelings from the reader. You can’t just tell them how to feel. And you can’t make them feel by just telling them what the characters feel.
My big, fat, emotional conference lesson is that the storyteller’s job is to transmit an authentic, direct emotional experience to the reader – an experience that’s seated in the heart and the limbic brain. The trick is we have to do this using only the indirect tools and craft of language – logical tools that live in the cortex.
I left Don Maass’s Master Class with a new perspective:
- There’s nothing obvious about emotion in writing. It’s as complicated as people are.
- Emotional payoff for the reader trumps everything else.
- It’s about creating an experience, not delivering information.
These are deep waters. Don’t be satisfied just paddling around on the surface.