Mass4Did you watch this year’s Super Bowl broadcast?

The demolition of the Denver Broncos by the Seattle Seahawks was a masterpiece of ferocious defense.  Denver’s golden boy quarterback Peyton Manning set a Super Bowl record for completed passes (34 of 49) but even with the help of receiver Demaryius Thomas (who himself caught a record 13 passes for 118 yards in gains) Manning could not, but once, break through Seattle’s arm-locked defensive line.

For you, what were the most exciting moments in the game?

Most of the suspense and drama were in the first half.  Three times Seattle’s quarterback Russell Wilson drove the team close to the end zone without success, until finally a penalty against Denver edged them near enough for a one-yard run that even a baby could have made.  Wilson’s 18 of 25 passes and 206 yards were decent but the truly thrilling moments were an interception and touchdown run by Seattle’s Malcolm Smith, and then third quarter kickoff return by Seattle’s Percy Harvin.  A guy who’d played in only two games all season ran 87 yards for a touchdown that made Denver look like a high school team.

Good game, even if after a while the outcome felt like a foregone conclusion.

So here’s a question for you.  The game provided plenty of drama.  Up to a point, anyway, it kept us interested, even entertained.  But what was it in the overall broadcast that most moved your heart, the football game or the TV commercials?

Oh, the commercials!  Remember the sad puppy in the Budweiser ad?  Or the cancer survivor and her husband in the Chevy ad?  How about Ellen Degeneres as Red Riding Hood dancing with wolves and bears?  So fun!  And, aw, the kid of the mixed race couple negotiating with her dad for a puppy?  (Score points for Cheerios.)  Or the Honda hugfest?

The three-hour game gave us drama, but what tugged at our hearts and filled us with joy were thirty second commercials.  Think about it.  Can a half-a-minute TV ads really move us more profoundly than a football Game of Thrones? 

Here’s some bad news: It’s similar for manuscripts.  Many TV commercials can move our hearts more in thirty seconds than many manuscripts do in three-hundred pages.  You know that’s true.  It’s true of many published novels too.  We have an issue here.  Advancing plot and moving hearts are not the same thing.  While it is of course essential for story to unfold, it’s just as important for readers’ emotions to be stirred.

One does not automatically result in the other.  Naturally, emotional churning is not story.  But neither is plot guaranteed to stir us up, even though your own story may stir up you.  Deeply felt (by you) and deeply moving (to me) are two different things.

So, how can we be sure that our stories move our readers’ hearts?  It’s a big topic but for today let’s focus on a few principles.  Frist, what stirs our hearts isn’t the grand sweep of a plot but the piercing effect of moments along the way.  Second, what causes moments to pierce through to our hearts is either something that happens that causes us to feel deeply, or a deep feeling that’s made fresh in its telling.

Emotional situations and heart words can help us out but emotional effect is more in how you play it than in what you present.  Let’s try a couple of things to illustrate:

From your story, choose (or create) one of these moments: an affirmation of friendship, a loss of support, a farewell, a small sacrifice, a big rejection, crossing a border (actual or symbolic), a birth, a death, a union, a fatal diagnosis, a clean bill of health, a crime, a tragic failure, an unexpected success, a beautiful gift given or received.  Without looking back at your manuscript, write this moment again using “showing” only.  Use shameless drama, symbols, subtext or restraint to sink the experience home.  Do not tell us what any character feels.

From your story, choose (this is easy) any moment that’s not inherently dramatic.  Freeze the story.  Peer inside your POV character.  What big thing is this character feeling but not saying?  What’s his or her secret desire, fury, fear or hope?  Write it out in outsized terms.  Make it epic emotion.  Now riff on it.  Create an analogy.  How does it feel to feel this emotion?  How is feeling this feeling permanently changing this character or revealing to him or her something about himself or herself that is ugly, empowering or bewildering?  Without looking back at your manuscript, write out the internal moment, “telling” only.

Big external moments can be effective when underplayed.  Small internal moments can come alive when magnified.  The important thing here is to pay attention to the emotional gasoline in a scene.  Are you setting it on fire?  Certain events in a story are sure-fire emotional dynamite but if they occur but a few times your story will be like football: back and forth, up and down the field with moderate suspense and only moderate heart.

On the other hand, every play on the field—or, I should say, every scene in your novel—can be wrung for its maximum inherent emotion, if you play it right.

How do you create not just plot drama but emotional impact in readers?  Is it something you’re working on in your current scene?


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.