The Elements of Awe

PhotobucketWho spreads stories and why? Sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania have been studying data provided by The New York Times showing which of the paper’s articles are the most often e-mailed.

Their conclusions have some relevance for fiction writers because they reveal what it is about stories that probably generate word of mouth. This month and next I’m going to discuss these elements and show how you can apply them in your novels.

The first element is one that will be obvious to most of us, so let’s cover it right away. Positive articles are e-mailed more often than negative ones. What does that mean for novelists? It means that excitement is more likely to be stirred by characters with positive qualities and by stories with happy endings.

No big surprise, like I said. If your characters are dark, miserable and self-loathing you can’t expect readers to be enthusiastic. Qualities of strength, especially when we see them right away, inspire readers to care. Downer endings also narrow a novel’s appeal. But you already knew that, right?

The next element identified by researchers is a little harder to appropriate. More frequently e-mailed stories tend to be emotional.

Stop. I know exactly what you’re thinking. All riiight! My novel-in-progress is highly emotional! Best-seller list here I come!

Not so fast. Every author thinks his or her novel is packed with emotion. Naturally they do. As they write, they feel tons of emotion. But that is not to stay that those emotions are getting through to readers, or in ways that move readers deeply.

What’s the strongest emotion that your protagonist feels: anger, disgust, shame, betrayal, terror, frustration, elation, arousal, love? Yawn. Sorry, not feeling it.

Here’s the point: You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because they feel it. Only when that emotion is provoked through the circumstances of the story will your reader feel what you want them to.

Describing grief is fine but not as effective as your protagonist saying goodbye to her dying mother…and even that is not as good as saying goodbye after a rich experience of mother-daughter love…and even that is not as good as if that love was hard won. Welcome home is another heart grabber but only when it seems like it will never happen.

In other words, emotions aren’t gold. A story situation that provokes strong emotions is.

So, now to the practical application: What is the strongest emotion you want your reader to feel? Search and delete that word everywhere it occurs in your manuscript. Now, how will you provoke that emotion through action alone? Got it? Good. Next write down three ways to heighten that action. (Remember that underplaying can also heighten.) When you’ve built a story situation that will force the emotion you want-make it happen.

Next month I’ll delve into the element that makes characters fascinating and also creates a sense of awe as your story is read.

P.S. If you’d like to read the Times article in which the research is discussed, check it out here.

Donald Maass Literary Agency
121 West 27th Street, Suite 801
New York, NY 10001 USA

Photo courtesy Flickr’s lrargerich


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


  1. Anne says

    Brilliant! Particularly the last paragraph’s “practical application.” I’m on it!

  2. says

    Excellent post!

    “Search and delete that word everywhere it occurs in your manuscript.”

    Someone suggested this to me a few months back, and it really does help. I do it a scene at a time, choose the main thing the character is feeling in that scene, and “write around” the emotion. It works when you need to describe pain as well. How many different ways can you say something hurts without using the word “pain”?

    “Qualities of strength, especially when we see them right away, inspire readers to care.”

    The phrase “save the cat” comes to mind. I think the key is making it subtle. No character is perfect (that would be boring), but the characters we care about no matter how messed up they are, are the ones that have some kind of redeemable quality from the beginning. Even if the character doesn’t realize it herself, the reader does.
    .-= Lydia Sharp´s last blog ..The Benefits of Writing Short Fiction =-.

  3. says

    Your Breakout books sit next to me, much worn from their use. Thank you for the practical advice here, as well. It’s easy to say “show, don’t tell,” but there are so many ways to do so, from description to actual plot and situations. Thank you for helping us see ways outside of the norm to apply this to our own stories.
    .-= Kristie Cook´s last blog ..Winners & Birthdays!! =-.

  4. says

    “How will you provoke that emotion through action alone?”

    Good stuff–now I need to apply it! Just read THE FIRE IN FICTION by Mr. Maass, which I highly recommend. Many more gems of wisdome to be found there + practical strategies for daily practice.

  5. says

    “If your characters are dark, miserable and self-loathing you can’t expect readers to be enthusiastic.”

    My first thought when I read that was, “Then why is Wuthering Heights one of the greatest stories of all time?”

    Then I read the rest. Now I have to re-read all my favorite books, and my own stories, to see if they fit in this frame.

    .-= Jay´s last blog ..The Redheaded Stepchild of Creativity =-.

  6. Noel says

    Wondering if there’s a typo in this sentence:

    “Here’s the point: You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because they feel it.”

    Was “they” meant to be “you?”

    P.S. I forwarded that article to several friends because of the bottom-line message. The “if it bleeds it leads” news philosophy that must be a hundred years old is so numbing that after a while we just sigh, say to ourselves, “yeah, the world sucks. Aliens really should land and take over.”

  7. says


    Well the sentence should have read, “You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because you say that your protagonist feels it.”

    But that’s kind of a tongue twister. Anyway, you get the point.

  8. says

    There has never been a post of yours, Donald, that I haven’t taken to heart and thought deeply about. The Show not Tell dictum is one of the hard ones and if we are able to get that right, the novel seems to finally get legs of its own.

    Two colleagues and I are currently working on back-story blogs for a ‘virtual’ Masked Ball and we have very little space, let alone time, to create our characters. The Show not Tell rule must be our guide to get the characters down pat in as little time as possible. It’s an exercise in writing with instinct and such good practice for the future, if we can pull it off!

    Thanks so much for the time you take to explain . . .

  9. says

    I wholeheartedly agree that emotion is the thing that makes a person love and respond to a story. I am a sucker for this! However, I really love a story where emotions are repressed, just begging to be let out. It allows me to imagine as I am experiencing the story–being shown and not being told.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Sleep on it… =-.

  10. says

    Excellent article and very practical. Nice to read something from the author of my favourite writing book. I’m looking forward to the next article in the series.
    .-= Brenda Sedore´s last blog ..A Quickie =-.



  1. […] Maass, at Writer Unboxed, has written a great series over that last few weeks. The Elements of Awe I, The Elements of Awe II, and The Elements of Awe III. After reading all three segments, I actually […]