In drafting your novel, would you leave out dialogue? Would you fail to include action or events? Would you ensure that nothing is described? Would you forego theme, forget mood, ignore time, eschew era, not bother with relationships, or erase any traces of voice?
Of course not.
Why then do so many novelists fail to write about the most fundamental, forward and obvious element of our human experience, emotions?
Now hold on, you may be thinking. My manuscript is chock full of feelings. It’s a tsunami of sensitivity, an earthquake of empathy, doused with desire, replete with responses. In fact, my manuscript causes my heart to ache so acutely that sometimes I must set it down and weep.
Uh-huh. That’s you. As for me, manuscripts too often stir in me little feeling. That’s not because I’m jaded. You aren’t either but when was the last time a novel truly took you for a ride on an emotional roller coaster? And how often do novels genuinely have that effect on you? I’m betting not often. There’s a big difference between what an author feels while writing and what readers feel while reading.
Why is that? Do we change when we become readers? It wouldn’t seem so. After all we are empathetic creatures. We mirror others stances and facial expressions. We can pick up others’ moods even from texts on a phone. We are full of sympathy. We may even collectively be swept up in what psychologists call emotional contagion, which is the mood of a crowd. We even feel our era’s zeitgeist.
Reading fiction is not like living life, though. When we talk with friends in person, for instance, we pick up their cues. Our postures mimic theirs. Our facial expressions reflect theirs. We begin to feel what they feel. In fiction we don’t get those cues, not in the same way, not even if they’re written in.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus is not only a comprehensive survey to character emotions but suggests physical signals to convey each feeling. Adoration, for example, can be shown by releasing an appreciative sigh or laying a hand over the heart. Great. That looks like adoration, sure enough, but if reading such signals do we readers actually feel adoration? Not really. Because we recognize a feeling doesn’t mean that we’re feeling it.
The failure of fiction to excite much feeling in readers happens because of several misconceptions. They are: 1) that what characters feel is what readers will feel, 2) that incidental action is charged with symbolism and major plot changes have earthquake emotional force, 3) that writing about emotions will rob the reader of those feelings (better is evoking reader emotions through showing), and 4) that dwelling on emotions slows narrative pace.
Here’s a truth: We do not feel what characters feel. We feel what we feel. That’s so in life and it’s so in reading fiction. Hearing or reading about an experience can stir us, certainly, but when it does it mostly stirs comparison to our own experience. When a friend relates something that happened and how it felt to them we respond, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean. That’s just like the time when I…”
It’s good that we get what they’re saying but the exchange between that friend and ourselves is not the Vulcan Mind Meld we may imagine it is. That point is not just academic. It fundamentally changes our approach to the emotional content in our novels. The emotional state of readers is not a clone of what’s on the page. What’s on the page only triggers—let’s hope—an emotional effect in them.[pullquote]The goal, then, is not to get readers to feel what characters feel but to get readers to feel something in the first place. When they do they associate what they’ve felt with the story they’re reading. They feel swept up in its currents, as if they themselves are experiencing what’s happening.[/pullquote]
The goal, then, is not to get readers to feel what characters feel but to get readers to feel something in the first place. When they do they associate what they’ve felt with the story they’re reading. They feel swept up in its currents, as if they themselves are experiencing what’s happening. But they’re not. That’s not actually possible.
You can see this easily on Amazon and Goodreads. Readers reading the same 100,000 or so words have many different experiences of those words. They report a great range of feelings sensed while reading what they read. The lesson? Not only can you not get readers to feel what characters feel, you cannot even count on getting them to feel what you, the author, want them to feel.
With me so far? Great. How then do we effectively go about building an emotional roller coaster for readers to ride?
Many authors believe that language or plot alone causes readers to feel deeply. That can be true but ingenious imagery and plot bombs both mostly evoke the same limited response in readers: surprise. Prose and plot can also generate tension, which feels significant but which generates less emotional force than authors believe. Tension grips our attention (at-tension), yes, but it is also only tension.
Incidental action similarly feels emotionally charged to authors but for readers has minimal effect. Suppose that a mother is worn down upon realizing that her child not only doesn’t want to practice piano but will never be a prodigy. The mother sinks into a chair. As the author writing it, this simple action is super-charged with symbolism. It’s utter defeat. This mother is all mothers, facing their children’s limits and their own. For readers, however, this simple action is just six words; words to slog through on the way to something more dramatic, something better.
Speaking of better, showing is better than telling, right? Writing about emotions is artless, many believe. It’s like yelling at readers to feel sad. Does the command feel sad cause us to feel sad? No. This emphasis on artful evocation of feelings has in recent decades brought about both in pulpy commercial fiction and high literary fiction a bare emotional landscape. From Ernest Hemingway to Dashiell Hammett to Cormac McCarthy, “good” fiction is largely emotion-free.
That’s too bad. Literary greats like Hardy, Wharton, Forsyth, Lawrence and many others knew that writing about emotions is as necessary and narrative as writing about anything else. They also understood how to do so artfully. Here’s a passage from the opening of a novel published in 1895, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, in which young Jude Fawley considers his rural existence:
Jude went out, and, feeling more than ever his existence to be an undemanded one, he lay down upon his back on a heap of litter near the pig-sty. The fog had by this time become more translucent, and the position of the sun could be seen through it. He pulled his straw hat over his face, and peered through the interstices of the plaiting at the white brightness, vaguely reflecting. Growing up brought responsibilities, he found. Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought. Nature’s logic was too horrid for him to care for. That mercy towards one set of creatures was cruelty towards another sickened his sense of harmony. As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the centre of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering, he perceived. All around you there seemed to be something glaring, garish, rattling, and the noises and glares hit upon the little cell called your life, and shook it, and warped it.
If he could only prevent himself growing up! He did not want to be a man.
Okay, Hardy’s prose today feels a bit turgid but he here conveys a boy’s self-reflection in a moment that we even now can easily recognize. If he could only prevent himself growing up! We’ve all felt that. And that’s the point. Even at the remove of one hundred and twenty years, Hardy gives us a chance to recall our own creeping dread at the approach of adulthood. Who wants to live with grown up responsibilities and suffer life’s ambiguities? Cripe, I hardly want to do so now and I’m long past the point of no return![pullquote]Emotions are as fit a subject in fiction as plot, place and personal journey. Indeed, what is a personal journey if not the string and sum of emotional reflection and ever changing understanding of self?[/pullquote]
Emotions are as fit a subject in fiction as plot, place and personal journey. Indeed, what is a personal journey if not the string and sum of emotional reflection and ever changing understanding of self?
If you ask me this—How was your day?—I’ll probably, on most days, say good. But what was good? Was it my productivity? Was it my progress toward personal goals? No. What I mean by good is that I felt good, especially about myself. I was happy, or at least content. That’s how we measure our progress and, over time, our growth. Our journeys are not our resumes or biographies or a timeline of major life events. They are how we have felt and what we think about that.
Which brings me to a key point: Research into emotional functioning has shown that feeling and cognition happen together. There is some disagreement about which happens first and how they mesh, but it’s clear that part and parcel of emotion is the assessment of it. In the passage above, is Jude Fawley thinking or feeling? It’s hard to separate them. On the page, writing about feelings entails not only the feelings but assessing them, which is to say observing them and their effects, judging them and discerning their meaning.
Thinking about feelings on the page accomplishes two things. First, it objectifies emotions, removing them from the reader to both make them bearable and to turn them into a kind of question: Do you feel anything like this? Second, by being longer than a single word or sentence, the examination of an emotion literally creates time and space for readers to process their own feelings, often unconsciously but sometimes with vivid awareness.
How much time do they need for that? About a paragraph’s worth, which is why Hardy’s passage above and thousands upon thousands of similar passages since are longer than the rules would seem to allow. The emotional craft of fiction is in essence not force feeding emotions to readers but clearing a patch of garden for them to grow their own.
Thomas Hardy understood something else that many artful authors have also figured out since: To get readers to feel something, and to think about it, requires a starting point that is not obvious. Obvious character emotions shut readers off. They’re too common. Their effect is dull. Spring an emotional surprise on a reader, though, and the reader’s brain lights up (quite literally) and the reader hears the question and begins a kind of inner dialogue.
So let’s turn these thoughts into a technique. It starts with taking a moment in a character’s journey, going down three emotional levels, and then examining that level in ways that objectify, judge and find meaning in what is felt.
Start by picking any moment in your story when your protagonist (or any other character) feels something strongly. What is that feeling? Write it down. Now, pause at that moment. Ask, what else does this character feel simultaneously? Write that down. Next ask, what else does my character feel at this moment? That third level emotion is our focus.
Examine that third-level emotion. Ask, what is it like to feel this feeling? Create an analogy for it. How is this iteration of this feeling different from feeling it at any other time? Also, is it good or bad to be feeling this? What might (or should) this character be feeling instead? What would a finer human being feel? What would a more honest one feel? Regardless, why is this feeling the right and only one for this character right now?
Finally, what does having this third-level feeling tell this character about self? What does it say about his or her condition? Has this character sunk or risen? Has this character grown or regressed? What’s the truth in it? How is this feeling beautifully universal or painfully unique? Is feeling this feeling to dwell in heaven or burn in hell?
Having gathered some thinking about this feeling, weave your notes into a paragraph of passage that captures this character’s emotional condition at this moment. Take a look at what you’ve written. What do you think?
In workshops, many participants following the steps above find that they’ve created a passage that’s highly effective. It is also counter-intuitive. Dwelling on emotions is supposed to be wallowing, a drag on pace, the stuff you cut and yet, paradoxically, done this way it works. Why? Because it catches the reader by surprise and then creates space and time for the reader to feel something of their own. In a minute or less a garden of feeling springs up.
Is writing about feelings in your fiction comfortable or uncomfortable for you? Is it better to tell or show? If you write emotions do you select them or go with your characters’ impulses? Are emotions incidental to story or the essence of it?