I’ve read a couple of books lately that were totally solid — interesting premise, fun characters, solid plot, a good use of setting. But I didn’t always feel like the characters were responding emotionally to the events on the page. And because they weren’t, neither did I.
Techer and literary agent Don Maass writes a lot about the importance of giving a reader an emotional experience, in both The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction, as well as in his posts on Writer UnBoxed and the in-person and online workshops he gives through Free Expressions. He stresses that the trick is not describing emotion on the page—telling a reader what to feel—but evoking it in the reader.
It’s a big subject, and there are a lot of ways to do it, but I want to share with you a post I wrote a little over a year ago for The Kill Zone blog, on emotional research — on how to better understand experiences we haven’t had, or go deeper into experiences we have had. Emotional research goes a long way toward helping us identify those gestures, thoughts, actions and reactions that truly show a reader what a character is feeling, and evoking her own emotional experience and empathy in the process.
“What advice do you have for beginning and early-stage writers?
I know the frustration which never goes away. You want so much to sit down and get it right. You have to learn to tolerate that frustration. You have to be patient and just keep writing. You’re only going to learn it by doing it and by reading. You read and you write, and you read and you write. That’s the hard part for beginning writers: having to accept that it may be a very long process. Also you have to be willing to expose yourself – to put your true emotions in your work, or it will be flat. It really won’t be something people want to read or find any comfort in reading because it won’t be conveying to them some aspect of the human condition that they’ve experienced but don’t know they’ve experienced until they read it, and then they’ll say, “Oh, I’ve felt that.”
– novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Strout, in The Writer, Aug 2013
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
I’m reflecting this month on the role of emotion in art, primarily on the page. Not portraying characters in the midst of an emotional experience, or not just that, but creating an emotional experience for the reader.
My friend, Rachel “Rusti” Warner, a well-known tonalist painter who lives in our valley, often talks about emotion on the canvas, and quotes her teacher, painter and print-maker Russell Chatham. Art, he said, as opposed to a well-made picture, is able “to bring forth the tears.” Or as she puts it, it should communicate more than an excitement or response to the object.
And on the page, too. As my teacher, Don Maass, writes in The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2016), “Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings. You may curate your characters’ experiences and put them on display, but the exhibit’s meaning is different in thousands of ways for thousands of different museum visitors, your readers. …
When readers feel strongly, their hearts are open. Your stories can not only reach them for a moment, but they can change them forever.”
Bitterroot Winter by Rachel Warner (2017), collection of the author