I’ve been teaching a new kind of craft lately. It’s emotional craft, the understanding and planning of a novel’s emotional effect on readers. Most authors focus on characters’ emotions, principally the much discussed issue of showing versus telling.
That’s fine but limiting. For readers, most of the emotional experience of a novel doesn’t come from the page but rather from inside themselves. They react to what’s happening, sure, but they also reflect. The events of the story cause them to compare.
We can see this dynamic readily in our own conversations with friends. When someone you know tells you a story about something that happened to them you may ask, “How did that make you feel?” but you are just as likely to say, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of the time when I…”
We connect to fiction by association. We bring our biases, baggage and opinions to what we read. We say things like, “I hated that character”, or “I didn’t buy that character’s choices, I would never do that.” We argue with authors in our heads. We wish for different outcomes. We discuss and judge the stories that we read, placing higher value on stories that stir us up than on stories that soothe us and too easily affirm our feelings.
The goal, then, is not necessarily to get readers to feel more of what characters’ feel but simply to feel more themselves.
Doing that is easier when you, the author, are in more in touch with your own feelings. That may sound obvious. You probably think, no problem, and yet the emotional impact of manuscripts usually is light and frequently is obvious. Most manuscripts cause us to feel little more than we expect to feel. They play it safe not only in plot but in emotional effect.
Better is to stir readers wildly. When readers’ feelings gallop out of control that’s good. They are then deeply engaged. That in turn happens when the author is also deeply engaged, bringing to the process an awareness of his or her own wealth of bias, baggage and opinion; basically, all that is disorganized, disorderly, ill-formed and troublesome inside.
[pullquote]If you empower yourself to be imperfect you become not only more human and authentic but also more effective as a storyteller. That’s because the messy emotional experience that you create in your stories works more on readers’ own emotions.[/pullquote]
In other words if you empower yourself to be imperfect you become not only more human and authentic but also more effective as a storyteller. That’s because the messy emotional experience that you create in your stories works more on readers’ own emotions.
The process of writing fiction itself is a tool to do that. There’s a mother lode of emotional effect to be dug up in your own frustrations, doubts, fears and wondering as you go. Mining that gold, though, often proves difficult. A frequent comment I hear from workshop participants is that emotional work is hard. [Read more…]