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.
Hard? What’s hard about feeling? It sounds odd yet a number of writers report that when they dig into their characters’ emotions, or their own, they quickly feel blocked. They don’t know how to access deeper layers or are afraid of choosing “wrong” emotions.
I get that. Fortunately, there’s help for breaking emotional blocks. That help is one’s own characters. The method is to flip the usual dynamic of writing on its head. Instead of asking characters what they feel, instead get them to ask, in a sense, what you feel.
Here’s the method:
After you have accumulated at least some portion of your novel, imagine that you are alone with your protagonist in a quiet, windowless room. You sit facing each other in comfortable chairs. There’s plenty of time. The mood is relaxed. You are not defensive. You are thrilled to have this chance to talk with your protagonist, and your protagonist is grateful to talk with you.
Ask your protagonist to tell you something about yourself that’s true. What does he or she say?
Ask your protagonist, if you could do anything you wanted to in this story what would it be? What are you dying to do that I’m not letting you? What’s your most wicked impulse? What’s your best idea? What would make you happy to do?
Ask your protagonist, what are you most afraid that I am going to put you through? How are you afraid you will suffer? What are you afraid you will lose? Are you afraid I will humiliate you? How? What’s your worst nightmare? What’s the worst way to fail? Whom are you most afraid to let down?
Ask your protagonist, what am I not seeing about someone else in this story? Who has a secret? Whose motives and objectives aren’t what I think? Who is secretly working against you? Who, by contrast, is better than they appear? What does any other character want to do that they’re not getting a chance to do now?
Ask your protagonist, what do you want to say out loud that you haven’t said? Whom do you want to tell off? To whom do you want to confess, I love you? Whom do you want to hurt? Whom do you want to seduce, or be seduced by? Whom do you want to help who you cannot help now? Whom do you want to forgive?
Ask your protagonist, what’s this story really about—to you? What am I not seeing? What message have I missed?
The aim here is to access the unused potential in your story, to get beyond what is safe and stir up what will stir your readers in ways you cannot, and do not need to, control. Allow your protagonist to help you discover what is dangerous in your story and then use it. As you do your comfort zone as a writer will grow. So will the emotional effect of your fiction.
Writing fiction is emotional work. What do you find difficult about that work and how do you push yourself through?