I’m going to tell you something: thoughts are never honest. Emotions are.
I’m wading into tricky waters today. If I’m successful, I will have begun a discussion on a topic that is very dear to one of our own, the esteemed and estimable Donald Maass.
If I’m not so successful, I will have stumbled, fumbled, and bumbled into an area that Don understands far better than I do and will have made a flaming bozo of myself.
Sound like fun?
I’m also going to refer to a talk he gave at ThrillerFest two years ago titled, “Why Your Thriller Isn’t Thrilling.”
In each of these, Don addressed a subject of great importance to him in his evaluation of what matters in fiction: the portrayal and evocation of emotion.
My perspective on this: I have been puzzled by what at times has seemed to be a blurring of the line between emotion and feeling.
As I wrote in The Art of Character:
The difference between emotion and feeling is more one of degree than kind. Feeling is emotion that has been habituated and refined; it is understood and can be used deliberately. I know how I feel about this person and treat her accordingly. Emotion is more raw, unconsidered. It comes to us unbidden, regardless of how familiar it might be. Rage is an emotion. Contempt is a feeling.
[For a more detailed, neurological discussion of this distinction, see “Emotion and Feeling” in Descartes’ Error by Antonio R. Damasio.]
Both emotion and feeling are essential in fiction. But given the distinction between them, rendering them on the page requires different techniques. And that’s where, perhaps, Don and I have differing perspectives.
I encountered this issue while reading Jungian analyst James Hillman, about whom I wrote earlier this year  for WU.
Specifically, I read an essay of his on Jungian typology titled “The Feeling Function,” which opened my eyes to how important feeling is in everyday affairs. (Feeling is one of the four cognitive functions Jung used to describe the human personality, the other three being Thinking, Intuition, and Sensation.)
To place just the right people in just the right seats at a dinner party requires conscious command of feeling.
More dramatically, as Hillman noted, to emphasize good manners in an era of unprecedented anger and violence is to recognize the importance of the feeling function.
To emphasize good manners in an era of unprecedented anger and violence is to recognize the importance of the feeling function.
But what about emotion? As I noted in the excerpt quoted above, emotion comes unbidden—we are helpless before our emotions, but in command of our feelings (at least relatively).
Put differently: once we reflect upon and analyze an emotion, it begins its transformation into a feeling, at which point we can use it consciously to navigate our world and engage with the people in it.
When Don gave his wonderful analysis about how to search out and develop “third level emotions,” it seemed to me to be a methodology for turning emotion into feeling. In one particularly illuminative section, he wrote:
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…. 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.
My problem with this is that I think it fails to distinguish feeling from emotion. Feeling is precisely the cognitive assessment and evaluation of emotion. But that begs the question: How do we convey emotion (rather than feeling) on the page?
Here, it was Don’s ThrillerFest talk (“Why Your Thriller Isn’t Thrilling”) that proved illuminative.
Don made the point that if you want readers to feel terror, you must first give them hope—specifically, hope that whatever terrible thing appears to be looming might be avoided.
If you want readers to feel terror, you must first give them hope.
This means that to some extent surprise and/or reversal is critical to getting the reader to experience a genuine emotion. If we see it coming, or if the emotion is already implicit in the scene, its impact is diminished.
Something must bring the reader to a moment of shock, sharper awareness, or deeper empathy. (In his Take Five Q&A, Don put it this way: “To get readers fully engaged in emotional minutiae requires, again, catching readers by surprise.”)
It’s only after such a moment of shock, reversal, or simple surprise is conveyed that the process of assessment can begin. The scene where this normally takes place is called a sequel scene, and it follows a particularly dramatic or harrowing scene or sequence of scenes. At that point, both the characters and the reader will need time to “catch their breath.” In narrative terms, this means they need to:
- Process the emotional impact of what just happened
- Think through the logic of what just happened—i.e., determine why it happened and what it means (because, most likely, what was expected to happen didn’t).
- Make a plan for how to go forward.
I think Don’s methodology—picking a “third level emotion,” then analyzing it in terms of what it says about self-identity—is a really insightful way to go about processing the emotional impact as outlined in step #1 above.
In an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest, premised on Don’s observations, I paraphrased that methodology as follows:
- Dig Deeper: You need a starting point that is not self-apparent, because nothing shuts off the reader like belaboring the obvious. Instead, go to a third level of emotion in the scene.
- Objectify the emotion: Find a physical analogy for it. (It was as though her shame had created a sunburn on the inside of her skin.)
- Compare the emotion: Measure the emotion against other occasions when it has arisen. Is it worse this time, better? How? Why?
- Evaluate the emotion: Is it a good or bad? Proper or shameful? Valid or invalid? Right or wrong? What would a more refined, more honest, stronger, wiser person have experienced?
- Justify the emotion: Despite the evaluation just performed, explore why this emotion is the only proper, honest emotion for this character at this moment under these circumstances.
- Examine the impact on sense of self: What does this emotion say about who the character is, her status, the state of her life? Has she stepped up a notch or sunk to a new low? Has she grown or regressed? Does she recognize the emotion as universal, or does it render her painfully unique, alone, even isolated?
If there’s no emotion to begin with, there’s nothing to assess. If you fail to create the opportunity for an emotional experience on the reader’s part, whatever analysis that follows will bear a greater resemblance to navel-gazing blather than the refinement of emotion into feeling.
This is another point where I disagree with Don (I think). If I understand his remarks correctly, readers only feel something in the assessing and evaluating of the text. In his words:
[F]iction writers assume that readers will feel what their characters do. They don’t. Readers instead react: weighing, judging, comparing and creating, moment by moment, their own emotional journey.
Now, again, I may be misunderstanding what Don is trying to get across—but my struggling with it testifies to how important I believe it to be.
I can only speak for myself, but I find the formulation just quoted to be restrictive. One of the most emotional moments in my own reading experience came from a Tobias Wolff story titled “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke.”
It comes when the married Professor Brooke goes home with Ruth, a woman he’s met on an out-of-town trip. Once they’re alone, Ruth says, “I believe in being honest.” Brooke thinks she’s about to tell him about a boyfriend or a fiancé.
Instead she lifted both hands to her hair and lifted it off like a hat. There was no hair underneath it, just a light down like a baby’s.
I have never forgotten that moment, and though I recall experiencing a jumble of emotions at the time (and still do upon rereading it), it wasn’t because of weighing, judging, comparing, or creating. It was from the sudden shock of expecting one thing, then getting quite another—one so touching, revealing, and, yes, “honest,” that the character’s vulnerability is inescapable, and the scene’s indelible emotional impression is made.
However, true to Don’s analysis, the other unforgettable moment from that same story comes at the very end, and it adheres closely to his methodology for assessing emotion:
And Brooke’s wife, unpacking his clothes, smelled perfume on his necktie. Then she went through the laundry hamper and discovered the same heavy scent all over his shirts. There had to be an explanation, but no matter how long she sat on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands and rocked back and forth she could not imagine what it might be. And her husband was so much himself that night, so merry and warm, that she felt unworthy of him. The doubt passed from her mind to her body; it became one of those flutters that stops you cold from time to time for a few years, and then goes away.
What I remember feeling at the time I first read that paragraph was the shock of “stops you cold.” It’s nicely set up by “flutters,” which does not prepare you for what so quickly follows.
But though the paragraph does much of what Don’s methodology proposes—objectifies the emotion (rocking on the side of the bed, head in hands; the passing of her doubt from her mind to her body); compares the emotion to others (she found him so much like himself that night, i.e., no different than on other occasions); evaluates the emotion and examines its impact on identity (she felt unworthy of him); and comments on her life (it comes up every now and then for a few years, then goes away)—that was not what I remembered. I remembered that lancing shock of horrified recognition and fear.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. I realize Don has given much greater and deeper thought into these matters, has researched them thoroughly, and has written what I expect is a must-read book about the issue. I also, to repeat myself, may be misunderstanding what he is trying to say.
But the basic point I’m trying to make is this: Though I agree that there are places in a story or a book where the assessment of emotion allows the reader to think through their own reaction, without a moment on the page to trigger an emotion to assess there’s nothing to sort through. And creating an emotional moment requires a different technique–more dependent on sudden surprise, shock, or reversal–than creating the more reflective deliberation that creates feeling.
I am really looking forward to what Don thinks of what I’ve said, and the discussion that ensues with all your comments. In the meantime:
What particularly memorable moments of emotion or feeling do you recall from your reading?
What moments of emotion or feeling from your own work seemed particularly challenging–or effective?
In either instance–what made them so memorable: the sudden shock of the experience, or the character’s assessment and self-evaluation?
Note to Unboxers: I am beginning a 4-week online course, The Craft of Character, through Litreactor today. We still have a few slots open if you would like to join us. (And by “us” I meant group of dedicated students from around the world.) To learn more or to register, go here .