Further Down the Writer’s Path

mfmmoZKWriters often find themselves confronted by the question, “What is emotional truth?” and the further question, “How do I put it on the page?” As someone who has taught and trained writers all over the world – and of course struggled with these questions myself – I find that writers go through predictable stages in their quest to convey authentic emotional meaning in their work.

At first, many writers have no idea that such a thing as emotional truth even exists.  They are focused solely on making the plot work, making the jokes funny, or advancing the action from event to event. At this stage, there is little or no thought to a work’s deeper meaning or deeper human truth.  call this the “run and jump” phase of our writing careers, when all we can really see, and all we can adequately convey, are the mechanical aspects of the work; the mysteries of the human heart yet elude us.

As we mature as writers, we become aware that there’s such a thing as emotional truth, but we have no effective means of transmitting this information from brain to page. Our first efforts in this direction often seem awkward, stilted, and self-conscious. We might try to write, “I love you,” only to recoil in horror at the awful, stilted, clichéd obviousness of that thought. We hate or castigate ourselves for writing so artlessly about subjects so important. We haven’t yet made, at least to our satisfaction, the connection between simple human truths and meaningful, effective, evocative presentation on the page.

But we get better. We do. We grow and develop, deepen our awareness of the emotional truths we wish to convey, and also acquire strategies and tactics for doing so in a satisfying way. We discover tools like text and subtext, and bring our writing to the point where one character may say to another, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” and have it understood to mean, “I yearn for you to the bottom of my soul.” We become writers with sufficient insight to detect emotional truth and sufficient toolcraft to capture and preserve it in words. So we’re home and dry, right?

Maybe not. Maybe we’re still afraid.

In conveying emotional truth on the page, writers must make certain leaps of faith. Sooner or later we have to recognize that writing about emotional things will necessarily expose us to the very feelings we’re trying to express – feelings we might not be entirely comfortable with. To write successfully at this stage, we have to become okay with just feeling what we’re feeling. We also have to be ready to accept judgment from others – family and friends, other writers, the audience at large. We have to be ready to take a stand and say, “This! This is what I believe! This is how I think the human condition works!” That’s a big step. Some writers can’t make it – their story absolutely ends here. For fear of confronting their feelings and for fear of others’ opprobrium, they just never find their way to being honest on the page.

Those who do overcome their fear enter a state of maturity in relation to emotional truth:  They know it’s out there; they desire to express it; they have the means to do so; and they are not afraid. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the ultimate goal of a writer’s life: To know the truth; to speak the truth; and to be not afraid.

So then we can think of a writer’s journey to emotional truth as a road toward deeper understanding, better toolcraft, and freedom from fear. It’s useful to stop and ponder from time to time where we are on this road. I myself am currently exactly here: I have a pretty good hand on interpersonal truth – how people are with one another – and now I’m trying to tackle philosophical truth and spiritual truth. I’m trying to convey my deepest beliefs without sounding like a dork or a preacher or both. It’s not easy, and I’m not entirely unafraid, for who wants to look like a preachy dork? But I’m soldiering on, because it’s my understanding that this is what living the writer’s life is really all about: going deeper; and having gone deeper, going deeper still.

If you want to see where you exactly are on this road, just ask yourself this question: “What deep, dark secret about myself, my beliefs, my understanding, or my experience would I not want anyone to know?” If you find that you can already write about this secret, then you’re already writing within the realm of emotional truth. If you find that you can’t yet write about the whatever-it-is, don’t worry, for the path that’s laid out before you is a well-illuminated and time-tested one: If you keep moving toward emotional truth, trust me, you’ll get there.

Or don’t even trust me; trust yourself. Look back over your shoulder and see the things you used to be scared to write about, but aren’t anymore. There are many. There will be many more. That’s the writer’s life. That’s the journey you’re on.

As an exercise, if you’re game, write a thousand words about that deep, dark whatever-it-is. I think that once you put it on the page, it’ll scare you a lot less than you thought – and help you a lot more than you think.

Me, I’ll be right over here trying not to sound like a preachy dork. How is that going so far?


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    Love this. I find I have the best success in being emotionally truthful when I’m trying to translate something from real life (ie, my life) into fiction. The plot seems to flow naturally based on the emotions I’m wanting to explore. I have a much tougher time getting to real emotions when I start with a purely fictional plot or character situation. The emotion often comes across as fairly flat, and I really have to ask myself, *why* does this character care about the situation they’re in?

    I don’t think I’ve been very successful at it yet. It’s definitely one area where writing is making me dig deeper into empathy.

  2. says

    John, you do not sound like a preachy dork. You sound like a thoughtful one :)
    Good article! I’ve been writing for years, and only a few days ago did I brainstorm an idea for a story involving my deepest darkest secret… And I actually felt comfortable putting it to paper! Couldn’t have done that a year ago. Progress!

  3. says

    John- you’re kidding, right. A Preachy Dork, you haven’t even come close to being a pontificator. Dude you’re awesome.

    Fortunately for me this aspect of writing is fairly easy. I’ve lived a life of embarrassing exposure, because of one thing or another. Sometimes I forget about that when I hear that other people have a hard time transcribing certain emotions.

    I’ll definitely practice this exercise John.
    I guess we can’t create tension without feeling any.
    Feeling what we create is a good thing.

  4. says

    An excellent post, John, brimming with wisdom. Even the lightest fiction has truth to offer, if the author has done their job. I will be using your insights as I try to write with more emotional truth in my own work.


  5. says

    I love this – “This! This is what I believe! This is how I think the human condition works!” Taking this leap of faith – putting your thoughts and feelings on the page – is scary, but so worth it. It will make your writing real and relatable.

  6. Scott McGlasson says

    “Would you like a cup of coffee?” and have it understood to mean, “I yearn for you to the bottom of my soul.”>

    Thank you, Eddie Izzard. Although, honestly, the yearning Eddie was talking about didn’t have much to do with the soul…:)


    • Scott McGlasson says

      D’oh! Snark doesn’t work well if you don’t close your html tags properly.

  7. says

    I loved, absolutely loved the flow of the writing. This is what good writing is.

    The thoughts flow from paragraph to paragraph till we reach the conclusion: This above all: to thine own self be true. Because in writing emotional truths into your stories you come face-to-face with your own truths, and the more you acknowledge them the stronger your writing will be.

    Soldier on regardless of your fears and demons, you say, for “this is what living the writer’s life is really all about: going deeper; and having gone deeper, going deeper still.”

    Thank you.

  8. says

    The last couple of days I’ve been thinking about writing into the deep dark secret, the place no one knows. I shrugged it off. Told myself there’s no way I could write THAT.

    Turns out I was a hair’s breadth from laying it all out on the page. Turns out I just needed a little encouragement from a preachy dork:)

    I’m off to write my words, let the secret fly and see what happens. Thanks Jon!

  9. Carmel says

    I know people around me are wondering what in the world is taking me so long to get my novel written. But this is exactly it. It has taken me a good while to discover my truth, and then write it down without caring what other people think. But, oh, what a journey.

    Great topic. Great post.

  10. says


    “What deep, dark secret about myself, my beliefs, my understanding, or my experience would I not want anyone to know?”

    This is the close to the first exercise in my Writing 21st Century Fiction workshops. For a reason. To write fiction with power one must write personally. One must draw from oneself.

    But there’s a problem and you identified it, John: fear. Fear of exposure and rejection are great inhibitors.

    I believe that is why emotions portrayed on the page often do not move us as readers. Writers choose emotions that are obvious, safe and expected…and thus do not pierce through to readers’ hearts. Writers hold themselves–their true selves–back.

    There is, however, a way to reach authentic emotional truth every day and in every scene.

    If you subscribe to the (free!) Writer Unboxed Newsletter, go back to the November 2012 issue. My “21st Century Tip” is about working with secondary emotions.

    In a nutshell: find any story moment, identify the POV character’s dominant emotion–and then detail two emotional layers underneath that. One of those is in almost all cases a more powerful emotion to portray on the page. It’s also generally something closer to what the author truly feels.

    To put it differently, a “secondary” emotion is often the one an author is hiding from.

    I maintain that fear is, in fact, a tool. It’s an arrow pointing to what really needs to be expressed. If you’re afraid to go there, go there. It’s where you need to be if you want to write with high impact.

    Nice one, John. Keep ’em coming.

  11. says

    Excellent post. I’ve found in my writing process that often the emotional depth of the characters does not reveal itself until the second or third draft. The first draft is one of self-discovery and identifying what the story is really about. Subsequent drafts allow the writer to plumb the depths of their characters’ emotions. It’s very hard to get deep into the emotions in the first draft. This is such an important topic. Thanks for a thoughtful discussion of it.

  12. says

    Ah, but what if the exposure you fear is not exposure of yourself but exposure of others? And is it good enough to write the deep dark secret in private, or must you put it out there publicly? Not disputing, just wondering.

    • Carmel says

      I think it’s important to protect others while you write your own truth. Best to enlighten, not scourge.

      • says

        Carmel, I couldn’t agree with you more. As a personal choice, I seek for my writing to enlighten and not to scourge. When I teach this point, I take pains to point out two very “selfish” reasons for doing so. First, since we writers are all our first and most faithful readers, we will certainly feel better if our writing speaks to us in a positive way. Second, by writing “to the positive side of the human equation,” we naturally make common cause with like-minded people, and those people are both better for us and more fun to be around. Hollywood formalizes this relationship with the nostrum, “In Hollywood, mensches work with mensches and a-holes work with a-holes.”

        When I’m guiding a sitcom staff of new writers, I remind them that when their egos are exposed, they’re like dogs in submission position, bellies bared, fearing to get kicked, hoping to get scratched. In my writing rooms it’s a standard rule, “Don’t kick, scratch.”

        Thanks to you, Carmel, and to everyone who has chimed in on this. Sprightly insights, and well thought out. -jv

  13. says

    Bravo John. I love this post.

    “Going deeper; and having gone deeper, going deeper still.” This is what I learned to do as a stage actress.

    I thought my understanding of vulnerability would naturally appear on the page when I wrote. I was wrong. On the stage I can reveal all the vulnerable goo because I am not myself. I inhabit another person’s skin and words, and by doing so I free My Self from “criticism.”

    On the page, even though I am still dealing with a character different than me, they are more me than a stage character because My words define them rather than the playwright’s. This is where the resistance or fear rises.

    Fortunately, awareness is the first step towards change, and the “desire to change” follows and prods. It’s all process and an amazing adventure—no matter how long it takes.

    Thanks for sharing, John.

  14. says

    What I love most about this post is that the writer who usually goes for the funny, or for blunt statements about being a pro, wrote about emotional truth and writerly fears of exposure. Which makes me listen more. And ensures that you don’t come off as a preachy dork. So was it your deep dark secret (at least as far as writerly advice goes) that you want to go for deep truth?

  15. says

    Yes, my best writing does come from deep within, but it is hard to be so exposed. And yet, this is why I read — to see into the soul of another — so why shouldn’t I expect anything less of myself?

    • Sevigne says

      “And yet, this is why I read — to see into the soul of another — so why shouldn’t I expect anything less of myself?”

      And, also, that our characters can be our mirrors…to see into the souls of our characters is to see, with depth, the myriad facets of our own.

  16. says

    Maybe it sounds a bit overblown, but I think writing only becomes art when the author is fully honest in what he writes. That also concerns acting, sculpting, and whatnot. After all, art is an exquisite form of emotional expression, and it’s a shame when the artists wastes an opportunity to tell the truth about him/herself.

  17. says

    I felt badly that I missed this post yesterday. I saw the title as I was boarding a plane and knew I would love it. Yet I knew I wouldn’t have time or opportunity to respond.

    Still, it was great to read it this morning and to see all the thoughtful responses that followed.

    I still have a path to travel on this, a thought shared by many other apparently ;). But I did make a leap of understanding while drafting my first novel. It helps me, and might help others, so I wanted to share it.

    One morning I was drafting a scene that reveals a buried fault line in a character. In the scene my lovely character, a mother and wife, becomes aware of the silence in her house, brought on by her ill husband upstairs and her teen boys having vanished on their own activities for the day.

    She kind of snaps for a moment, a reaction to a deep fear, the fear we all carry – that we’ll be alone someday, utterly alone.

    What I – as the author – realized while writing the scene is that I was describing a scene that plays out everyday, in ways large and small, all around the glove. That moment when a person realizes a loved one isn’t going to make it, or finds they’re already gone. And for the first time as a writer, I recognized a responsibility that if I were going do justice to that scene – that universal emotion – I needed to imagine it from her perspective but also to feel it inside myself, to be there in the room with her and let myself feel the same pain. It was the only way to get close to the reality of how the scene might play out, how she’d react. Otherwise, anything I wrote would be a caricature of the experience, rather than the truth I wanted so desperately to capture.

    Maybe others have long known that, and I admittedly have miles to go on my own craft. But that realization changed the way I wrote, both on that scene and any scene of great emotion afterward. It was a big step for me in recognizing my responsibility to good writing, and why it’s important.

    Thanks for giving me an opportunity to share my experience. I hope it might help someone else find their way of getting to the heart of the matter, the truth in their writings.

    • says

      “Otherwise, anything I wrote would be a caricature of the experience, rather than the truth I wanted so desperately to capture.”

      I have always described this feeling as THE BOTTOM ACHE, a pain so real and palpable that I, as the writer, try to convey. I feel like if I get just a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of the real feeling, just a sliver of the bottom ache, then I’m doing my job as a writer.

      It is, by far, the hardest part. -jv

  18. says

    This is simply the best thing I’ve read all week. Thank you! It’s going in my Evernote file plus Twitter and LinkedIn. Thanks for such a thoughtful and true article.



  1. […] To lift your own work up to the highest level of storytelling quality, simply go deeper, ever deeper, into your characters’ inner conflict. The greater their war within, the richer and more emotionally satisfying your story will be. This, of course, requires that you have both an understanding of, and commitment to, emotional truth. For more on that subject, I invite you to revisit my post on that subject from last month, Further Down the Writer’s Path. […]