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Stirring Higher Emotions

“Pure Joy” Photo by Deborah Downes [1]

What was the most emotional day of your life?  Google for people’s stories and you’ll read a lot that are probably like your own: birth, death, betrayal, trauma, marriage, divorce, miscarriage, failure, second chance, recovery, a dream achieved, a confession of love, getting a helping hand.

Now, those are events.  Let’s look at the emotions they evoke, for these are strong feelings and ones we’d like readers to feel as they read our fiction.  We’re talking about primary emotions, maybe even primal ones: fear, rage, passion, glee, ecstasy, triumph, hope, astonishment, grief, humiliation, awe, joy or love.

You likely are not thinking about mild emotions like apathy, boredom, contentment, doubt, fondness, gloom, grumpiness, liking, melancholy or satisfaction.   Those are real, everyday feelings but not ones that stick with us.  Memorable times are memorable because they’re connected to big feelings; feelings so strong we describe them as experiences.

It would seem then that to give readers emotional experiences we need only work with primary or primal emotions.  Unfortunately, from a craft perspective, there’s a problem: big emotions often fall flat on the page.  Often that’s because they’re familiar, flatly reported or poorly engineered.  Entering a dark basement doesn’t necessarily instill fear.  Send a dozen roses to our doorsteps and you don’t automatically deliver love.

How often has a horror novel made you keep a light on?  How many thrillers have genuinely made you feel paranoid?  Do romances always turn you to mush?  Does reading women’s fiction guarantee, every single time, that you will feel empowered or healed?  I doubt it, though I have no doubt that you have on your shelf classics or favorites that have had those effects on you.

Reading The Spy Who Came In From the Cold gave me the sick feeling that I couldn’t trust anyone.  A totally forgotten category romance by Janet Daily called That Boston Man made me fall in love.  To Kill a Mockingbird still stirs in me hope that goodness and justice will triumph, even though in Harper Lee’s novel they do not.  I know from these and other reading experiences that fiction can stir big emotions.  The question is how.

Emotions have been exhaustively researched, written about, categorized and charted.  For our purposes today we can put them into two simple categories: positive and negative.

Negative emotions are the easiest to access and write about.  Fear and anger are a cinch to switch on.  You can see this, for example, in the prevailing “voice” of our times: the often first-person narrative tone of ironic detachment.  This default voice can be funny and entertaining, but that amusement factor springs from an underlying coolness.  Ironic narration is attention grabbing but not always deeply engaging.  How could it be when it is rooted in pessimism, passivity, distance and distrust?

(Exceptions like snarky  narrator Holden Caulfield are exceptions for a reason, but that is a topic for another post.)

[pullquote]Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use.  Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.[/pullquote]

Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use.  Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it. Perhaps.  I suspect, though, that positive emotions are simply more difficult for us to sustain as human beings, despite being more helpful to us and conducive to happiness.  (Check out Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity for more on that.)

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman quotes Aristotle on the difficulty of positive emotions and emotional mastery: “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.”

Optimism, vision, leadership and persistence are not everyday qualities.  Compassion, empathy and understanding—even of one’s enemies—are rare.  Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa do not happen by all the time.  Not everyone plays in the philharmonic orchestra or makes it to the Olympics, either.  Kicking an addiction or forgiving one’s father can happen in our own experience but when it does it’s a one-time, life-defining change.

“Higher emotions” are called that for a reason.  They elevate and inspire us.  Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of “moral elevation” by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.

While it’s true that the negative emotions associated with betrayal, trauma, tragedy and death are large and memorable, they also die when we do.  Positive emotions—and in particular higher emotions—live beyond us.  The highest emotions become the timeless virtues extolled in every religion and recommended by every great thinker.  They bring us back to The Bible, say, and in the same way they can bring readers back to our fiction when we evoke such emotions.

Thus, if we want to give our readers emotional experiences why settle so small?  Why not plan to stir in readers the highest emotions known?

As I said, the question is how.  Let’s turn this into a technique, starting with the observation that any big emotion does not spring out of nowhere.  It is laid on a foundation of anticipation.  Fear grows.  Hope builds.  Paranoia deepens.  Love dawns.  Healing comes in stages.  To create high emotions in readers requires laying groundwork.

So, try the following.

First, identify a higher emotion you’d like your readers to feel.  Maybe start with a virtue to hold up such as self-control, courage, perseverance, truthfulness, fairness, respect, generosity, forgiveness, service, sacrifice, discernment, integrity, humility, readiness or wisdom, for we can see that it is virtue that provokes in us the highest and most lasting emotions.

Second, assign this virtue—that is, its potential–to a character.  Most effective will be a character whose nature is, or whom you can make, the opposite of this quality.  Think who might most need to learn a lesson, see a truth or change.

Third, prepare the groundwork.  Give your chosen character every reason to be the opposite of what he or she will become.  Reinforce that that opposite way of being actually works and while wrong (to us) is nevertheless the right way to be.  Find a way to show that at the start.  Then build both the necessity of change and good reasons to resist it.  Turn that into three key events.  These are the anticipation phase.

Finally, enact the event that will bring home to your character the better way of being.  Create a way for this character to show us his or her better self.  This is the fulfillment moment, the moment when you will stir higher emotion in your readers—just as other authors have done for you.

I’m not advocating a return to Nineteenth Century morality tales.  I agree with John Gardner in On Moral Fiction that being merely didactic does not fulfill the purpose of narrative art.  Gardner says in essence that stories should not preach but rather test our convictions and through story reach conclusions about what is true in human experience.

I agree and believe that the reason that positive emotions—especially higher emotions—have a more lasting effect on readers than negative ones is that they bring us closer to what we want, need and know to be true.  I wish I felt those high emotions more as I read.  I’ll bet that you do too.  I also know you can create that effect and fulfill that purpose in your work.  It’s just a matter of setting the intention to do so and knowing how.

What emotional experience do you want to create for your readers in your WIP?  How are you going about it?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].