Plot vs. Heart

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.


  1. says

    An apt analogy, though I’m not a football fan. Thanks for the wonderful prompts this morning, Don. I’ll be using them as I sit down with my WIP.

    • says


      Would you like to know a secret? I didn’t watch the Super Bowl. Nor the commercials. I haven’t owned a TV for 14 years.

      Perhaps I convinced you that I’m a typical guy with a football lobe in my brain? If so, then I successfully used another fiction technique: details culled from research.

      That said, let me know how the prompts work out for you. How was DFW for you? For me, crazy busy and calorific.

      • says

        You said it! Calorific indeed. I haven’t eaten pasta in months and managed to order the largest bowl I’ve ever seen. They make portions BIG in Texas, just like the sky.

        I own a TV, but have no cable or stations so yeah…I’m kind of with you on that one. An occasional Netflix binge about once per year is the only television I watch. I’m a “screen time” nazi with my kids as well.

        Your workshop was fabulous, as always, and was my favorite part of the conference, (outside of the panel I sat on with some really great ladies). It sparked a lot of inspiration for the new book I’m plotting. So thank you for that! It was great to meet you in person. I’m looking forward to seeing more from you here at WU, and, perhaps, in November. :)

  2. says

    I too fail at football analogies, Don. I never get that stuff, all those guys banging into one anther to get the ball through the hoop. (Oops, that’s basketball.). Sorry. :) Anyway, for me, emotional impact seems to come from the characters themselves as they speak and interact on the page. I have to be inside a scene with them to feel their feelings. It’s weird because as they feel it (show it to me), I discover the depth of it on the page. It’s a thorny process because it requires rewriting that scene several times to get there, kind of like an unraveling; but that is part of the fun of it. So, you’re saying ‘freeze the story’ and approach it with questions? Okay, I’m game.

    • says


      Let me know how it goes. You might find a shortcut to the effects you want us to feel, or you may find that your way is best after all. The important thing is that we feel.

  3. says

    I like to follow the technique you mention – “Big external moments can be effective when underplayed. Small internal moments can come alive when magnified. ” I think you’ve referred to this as writing cold or writing hot in your books, and it really stuck.

    Your point is so true to all us writers, especially the problem of when a manuscript is, as you put it, “Deeply felt (by you) and deeply moving (to me) are two different things.” That why, even though I finished writing my novel at the beginning of this year, I’ve decided to spend the rest of 2014 year meticulously going through every scene and making sure it has impact. If it doesn’t, then either it goes, or it gets an overhaul.

    Hiring an editor has helped too – it is a good way to avoid getting trapped in my own ideals, thus tweaking a scene so it’s more what I want, but not what the story needs to grip the reader by the throat. A manuscript is a game of football without commercials, so we can’t afford a single page of back-and-forth humdrum. That’s tough work, but it goes with the turf.

    • says


      Glad your goal is to grip the reader by the throat. You can hug the reader, too, or shame them or lift them or…you get the idea. What we feel matters, but more important is that when reading we feel in the first place.

  4. says

    I superimposed your football scenario onto just plain life and it holds up wonderfully. The big extravaganza moments (weddings, graduations) have all the pomp and color, but the small moments pack the emotional wallop. My father and brother-in-law had been estranged for years, but my Dad was asked to give away bro-in-laws eldest at her wedding, as her b-i-l is in the later stages of Ms. The actual ceremony was lovely, but the bigger moment came when my Dad stood up at the reception and thanked my bro-in-law for allowing him the honor. You could have heard a mouse sneeze. The moment lasted all of a minute, but it lives with me still. Thank you for the reminder.

    • says


      What a great story. Weddings are layered with feelings. Why on such a joyous day do we always cry? Happiness releases sorrow, eh? I love the vows but the memory candles always get me.

      Your dad’s moment of forgiveness and thanks is powerful. You tell it simply but I feel like I was there.

  5. says

    Great post today. Putting the words into exercises brought it alive for me. Perfect timing as a follow-up to Patti Lee Gauch’s presentation at the PA SCBWI last weekend. :)

  6. says

    “It all depends on your audience,” said the Seattle girl waiting for such a game since Jim Zorn and Steve Largent. Ellen, you say? There were puppies? From my point of view, I could hear fireworks going off in the yard. We were all too excited with that game to even touch our nachos. We didn’t even mind when the dog devoured our Little Smokies.

    • says


      Ah, I didn’t consider that this post might not work for WU folks in the Seattle area! For you the game was an emotional volcano. Understood.

      New Yorkers by and large only had money invested in the outcome.

  7. says

    Like you, I lost interest before the game was over. But I do my best to not watch commercials–I don’t want to be “moved” to open my wallet.
    But I understand what you mean in terms of the grand sweep of a story’s plot, versus what you call piercing moments. For such moments to register, though, crucial setup needs to take place. If I can’t effectively and economically develop in readers a sense of identification with my characters, what happens to those characters isn’t going to generate feeling. Or even a fist-bump. And the kicker (sorry, couldn’t help myself) is managing this “economically.” That’s the great challenge: to keep plot/action energetic, while at the same time leading readers to become invested in characters who are, in fact, nothing but printer’s ink or electrons.

  8. says

    Wow, Don. Posts like this make terribly self-aware. As I look back, I’m not sure why, but I’d always assumed readers would interpret the complexities of feeling my characters were undergoing during the play-by-play up and down the field. It’s taken years of deciphering readers’ feedback to begin to grasp. And yet that natural inclination doesn’t explain why I’d always presumed I needed to bludgeon readers with emotional description during the touchdown runs and fourth down sacks, does it?

    Ah, the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne. Thanks for the apt illustration of the need to continue to seek to reverse those impulses.

  9. says

    Epic battles may stir the soul, but it’s the smallest, most intimate moments that set a hand to each side of our heart. The Super Bowl’s epic blowout was interesting, but the Peyton Manning moment of the season for me came when he stepped onto the Indianapolis field during the regular season. Before cheering fans he raised a hand biding his thanks, his taunt features unwavering. I’m not an Indianapolis fan, nor am I a Denver fan, but my lower lip trembled. In an instant the football records and great plays were forgotten and the moment became one man nearing retirement standing before the people who long believed in him. More important, they hadn’t forgotten.

  10. says

    I’m so glad you addressed this! Strangely, emotion can become almost a dirty word for many writers. It gains a negative connotation (“emotional manipulation” or “playing on someone’s emotions”), and is often sort of scoffed at as cheating — especially within the literary fiction realm. But I’ve never understood that. What is life if not the experiencing of emotions? We don’t remember graduations and weddings and deaths because of the events themselves; we remember them because of what we felt during them. I would almost go so far to say the presence of emotion (characters experiencing vs. doing) is the difference between plot and story. Great post, great reminder. Off to play with my assignment!

  11. says

    My dear Mr. Maass, I find the idea of plot VERSUS heart, and all other such stark oppositions, a bit of a distraction. The two ought always to be conjoined, lest writers get the idea that all they have to do is “bleed on the page” and all will be well. For that is what heart without a plot does: it bleeds and leaves a mess and soon you’ll have the Dept. of Health calling you (or Boris Karloff). That’s why God put the heart within the body: the skeleton is structure, and the muscleature is plot.

    So yes, a heartless plot will not move us. But a plotless heart will send us screaming from the room. Imagine not thirty seconds, but two hours of Ellen Degeners and dancing bears. Nuff said.

    • says

      My dear Mr. Bell,

      *Shudder* Yes, a horrible vision. I would not watch the trailer, let alone two hours.

      What I do notice, though, is that many manuscripts don’t greatly move me. Some presume that plot is sufficient. Others add “told” emotion but it’s often purple and obvious, and therefore ineffective. Hence my little home remedies today.

      But generally, yes, I do agree that skeleton and heart are one body and ought to work together to punch our lights out…er, or, you know what I mean.

  12. says

    It’s okay, Don. I never watch sports either and my TV leads a lonely existence.

    You got me thinking on this one. I’m editing my first draft and at the point where my protag realizes he’s been betrayed by the woman he’d planned to marry. Now that you mention it, I did sort of skim through those internal feelings, wishing to get on with the chase. Now I think I’ll back up and give him a few paragraphs to really ingest that betrayal. He’s got a few moments in the stairwell and he’s out of breath, so it should fit right in.

    • says


      Great, just be sure not to delve into emotions that are obvious and inherent in being betrayed. Tell us what he feels at this moment but didn’t *expect* to feel.

  13. says

    You lost me at “Football” lol

    I, for one, am glad that there is at least one more person in the world who doesn’t watch football.

    You did do something interesting though: you utilized an idea/ topic (football) to create an immediate potential bond with a wider audience.

    I’ll have to try your tips — at least for me, I feel like they need a bit of really thoughtful execution to see if it works.

    But getting writing advice (for FREE!!!) from industry ppl is always a great thing.


    • says


      May the emotional moments you need soar forty yards in the air and float gently into your outstretched hands, even as you are running down the field.

      Yeah, I don’t watch sports either, really, but for some reason today the metaphor has sacked me behind the ten yard line.

  14. says

    Thank you for the excellent (and in my case, well-timed) post. I’m in the first draft of my current manuscript and trying not to edit as I go along. I’ve been feeling like my story is blah and wasn’t really sure why, until I read your post. I think, because I’m first drafting I’m writing the football game, but I can definitely use this post to go back and add the commercials. And now I can write the first draft without being worried about what I’m missing because I have a plan to fix it. So thanks!

  15. says

    – How do you create not just plot drama but emotional impact in readers?

    I’m not quite sure. I love exploring emotions, so maybe that has something to do with it. All my alpha and beta readers say that my novel touched them on an emotional level and some reported I made them cry. But while writing it, one of my priorities was avoiding melodrama by writing with “restraint” (not too florid) and by being as specific as I could instead of vague and abstract. That’s part of the advice from my former writing instructor, but he also said: “Despite all I might say about restraint, you have to risk being sentimental or melodramatic; otherwise, you risk being boring and emotionally flat.”
    My POV character was quite emotional though, and it sort of came naturally. I’m now writing a new novel with two POV characters who are each other’s opposites in many ways. One of them is unstable, the other one’s an example of emotional balance, at least that’s what she likes to believe, and she’s a bit harder to write, whereas I’m having an easy time with the unstable character.

    – Is it something you’re working on in your current scene?

    Maybe, a kind of complicated father/son moment. I might postpone it. Just about to go back to it and decide what happens.

  16. Mary Anne says

    Dear Donald,

    Unlike most of the people here, I am a football fan and watched the Superbowl with interest. I was not particularly interested in watching the commercials.

    I’m not sure if there is something wrong with me, but whatever it is, it translates into a lack of emotional depth in my writing. A number of fine authors have tried to critique my writing, with the result of doing nothing more than insulting it.

    What you have done here is offer a concrete description of what you can do to increase emotion in writing. I would like to see an illustration — a paragraph without emotion and the same paragraph with emotion. I would like to see an example of a small moment and one of a large one. Is that too much to ask?

    It is the only way I can learn.

    Thank you for your insights.

  17. says

    I work in a senior living center with Alzheimer’s residents, and quite often the days are long and exhausting. However, on any given day there are those 30 second moments where a connection is made: a smile, a hug, a hand grasped, trust earned, and those are the times—even if ever-so-subtle—that fuel my heart with love for my job. It’s like the 1% of inspiration that carries me through the 99% of perspiration. ;-)

    Another thought-provoking post. Thank you, Don. I’m going to try some of your suggestions with my WIP.

  18. says

    The football analogy made me laugh to myself as I read this. Previously today, there was a math problem in my Algebra textbook that concerned football, and I was trying to convince my mom that I didn’t need to do the problem since I didn’t understand football–and, in my opinion, would never need to. And then I find that one of my favorite writing instructors is using football as a metaphor for my favorite endeavor: writing.

    Looks like I’ve got some math homework to do. Thanks for this thought provoking post!

  19. Priya Gill says

    Excellent post Don.

    Even though I am late in commenting (yesterday was just one of those days) but I read the post early AM and it played in my head all day (and maybe thru the night) First thing this AM (which is my writing time) I rewrote the first crossover scene from my book (death of a friend) and made it all show. Wow! It was hard and yet what a difference.

    Now to work on the “internal moment”.

    But wanted to thank u before I slay that beast.

    Great post, Especially for someone who is uninterested in football and doesn’t own a TV :-)