So, just under the wire, here's one of the biggest sets of notes I've taken (though taking a class from Donald Maass is always rich and educational and so, so worth it). SIWC 2015 begins tomorrow (with new Master Classes before the conference proper on Friday). The excitement has been building for weeks. So without further adieu, here is a set of notes that takes what we learned last week from Robert Wiersma about eliciting emotion from the reader, and seriously putting that to work. Enjoy!
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Master Class: The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Have you ever read a novel that hooked you really hard on the first page, or first chapter, and kept you reading, but still didn’t leave you feeling engaged?
It was beautifully written, but left you feeling kinda cold.
What about a mile-a-minute potboiler that you found completely forgettable?
All kinds of fiction can leave us feeling cold and empty inside.
- Can excite our imaginations but fail to engage our hearts
- Authors often trying to motivate protagonists via external plot rather than via circumstances of something that’s locked inside of them
- Emotional landscape that’s obvious and hackneyed. Emotions that are easy to write cause us to feel very little
- Great hooks, premises, well-constructed characters yet still feel unengaged, uninvolved, unemotionally connected. It’s not the story, it’s the way the writers are writing.
- Very readable, but not feeling enough.
- Superbowl: Best commercials by best ad agencies. Terrific masterpieces of advertising. Can have you weeping in 30 secs. Wrings your heart. How can that make us feel more than we feel in 300 pages of manuscript?
- Stories that really moved him – the emotional impact, the way stories affect readers, is a craft. Something we can study, do consciously as we write.
- When you talk to readers about what they really love, the answer that comes back the most is “I love the characters”. This is misleading. What they really mean is not the characters per se, but what they felt as they read those characters. It’s the feelings we have as we encounter those characters that keep us coming back in series. It’s what we feel that makes them memorable. (And there’s research to back this up, too.)
There are four different ways to have stronger emotional effect
1. What it is we report how our characters feel.
2. What a character feels that we do not report to the reader. Feelings that we intuit the car has because of what they do, so we provoke the reader to feel what the character feels
3. The things the reader feels that the characters don’t. Simply story circumstances that cause us to feel
4. Our own emotional journey as authors. You cannot write a story without feeling something about it. As you write, you feel. We’re very wrapped up in our characters experience. But how do we translate what’s going on inside us so we can translate it from our minds to the page to the reader?
There are techniques to create stronger emotional effects so the readers feel engaged (a fancy word for feeling emotional): We want them to feel. That’s the effect that we want to have.
Let’s start at the beginning of your story. Identify where the story really starts. Not necessarily page 1 of your manuscript. What is the inciting incident? What is the agent of change? What first happens in the story to send your protagonist on a new path to discover/avoid/etc something? When is the moment that signifies “Things are going to change. Right now.” This is where change really begins. Inevitable, unstoppable, and things will change until they’re very different and won’t stop ’til then. What is it that begins change? Someone? Something that happens? Something that happens inside? This is the beginning of change.
This apprehension that things are moving in another direction, and protagonist is feeling that things are moving in another direction, summed up. What is the event? What is it that arrives to occasion change?
This thing that arrives/occurs, why does your protagonist care about it? Your protagonist cares. Why?
If you write that “I have to engage because it matters to other people, someone else will be affected” – that’s fine. We care about other things because they matter not only to us but other people. But that’s only the first level of why people care. That’s the external reason that causes your protagonist to care. But why do they care just for their own reasons? That matters to your character so they don’t let themselves down? Why does it matter to them? Or, if nobody else cared, why would your protagonist care despite that?
Poker – people who go all in before the flop turn it to roulette, not strategy – who cares? It’s a small game only for points, a mindless waste of time like solitaire – but he really gets worked up about it. Why does it matter to him? Because it takes the fun out of the game for him. Robs it of the drama, the emotion, the fun of guessing, of paying attention to the betting of the other players, of using your mind. It takes the emotion out of it, makes him not care.
So why does the inciting incident matter to your character? Why does it matter to your protagonist that this agent of change has arrived? What’s the best thing about it? What will it bring your protagonist that they’re lacking? What does your protagonist need that this change brings? What is the thing most fearful about it? What is your protagonist afraid that he or she may have to face? Change is good, but we all resist it. We don’t like new things. But we love new things. But we don’t like new things. Presents, good.
Why is this change good? Why is it bad?
Keep working on this moment in the story. Your protagonist cares and we’re starting to define why. But caring itself is a feeling. What is the best thing about it? Does it feel good to care, to be engaged? Is it exhilarating? Is it fresh, different? Create an analogy for this caring. What would it be analogous to? Like unwrapping a present? Talking to the doctor? Or something else?
Your protagonist cares, but what does the fact of caring about this say to the character about him or her self because they care at all?
How does it make the reader care that the protagonist cares?
Or, how is your character alone because he or she cares? Why is this going to isolate, make them a pariah because they care?
Your protagonist cares today about what has arrived, is bringing about change. Why does your protagonist care today more than yesterday? Or more than 10 years from now? What is it about now that makes it so important to your protagonist?
Finally, there’s a reason your protagonist shouldn’t care at all. Other things to worry about, things that matter more.
Now, in a paragraph, take your notes and answers from the above questions and craft it into a passage.
There are inhibitors as we write, about telling too much and having nothing left for the rest of the manuscript? Those are valid fears. Remember, one of the biggest challenges we face is that the readers are not feeling enough. We need them hooked, not engaged, immediately. If you’ve taken the reader inside your character and shown more than you want, then that’s okay. You’re not done wringing out your character.
Scenes (the change)
Scene by scene, step by step. Mostly we write scenes, sequences of collapsed times.
Exercise: Pick a scene that’s not especially dramatic, with emotional explosions, a scene that needs to be there even if not much happens. A “blah” scene.
Focus on that scene. In this scene, at the end, no matter how little happens, something is different. What is different that is true? Something affirmed? Something more puzzling? A shift in pereception? A new worry? Something more to do? What is different at the end of the scene than was true at the beginning?
Whatever it is, is the change. Think about this change and what it means for your pov character. Take a look at this character and the change that is underway in this scene. May be apparent right away, or the character is aware that the change has taken place.
What’s the best thing about it? Why is this good? Why does your protagonist like it? Why is it invigorating, challenging, exciting? Affirming?
You can work on “what is bad” about this change, but that’s what most people think. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what we expect.
What is different? Who will be different? How will the protagonist’s course of action be different than expected? What’s an implication of this change that your character can see? Who else will be affected that nobody will think about? What does your protagonist see before anyone else? How has the big picture shifted just a little because of this change? How has it been reframed, understood in a new way? This change has implications. How does your protagonist feel about those implications? How is it needed? Why?
If it’s a bad change, why is it good? If it’s a good change, why should we be worried?
How will this change affect one other person who is also in this scene? What do they feel? How do they feel it differently? How do they see what just happened? Now, take that perception and give that understanding to your protagonist, so they can see how this has affected that other person. Give your protagonist that perception. Then answer, how does it change your protagonist’s impression of that other character, too? What it is that your protagonist feels about this other person because they have a different reaction?
Something small has shifted here. How has your protagonist feel about himself or herself because of that? What does she or he know about herself or himself that they didn’t know before? How is it good? How is it disturbing? What does it feel like to be newly self-aware in this way, because something has changed and it cascades through your mind and you see yourself differently because of it? How? Is that good or bad?
This scene that we’ve been focusing on here. Is your protagonist or POV character feeling a little more alive in this scene? Are we digging inside this character a bit more? Are we changing this character in a way that feels like more? That’s good. Change affects people. When we see people change, we are moved. Change provokes us, no matter what that change is. Change stirs us up. So when you change your characters, your readers will be stirred. Provoked. They can’t help it.
This is something we can do in every scene. What if you did another draft and did nothing but focus on the change in scenes and how it makes the character different, and also looked at how other characters changed and gave insight to your character about this? What if a small change in circumstance in this plot affects the character deeply? Maybe the 300 pages are getting even deeper.
Something else: Let’s take a different scene. Pick a different scene from somewhere else in the middle of your novel. Write down what it is your pov character feels the most strongly about in this scene? What is the predominant emotion? Are they angry, horrified, overwhelmed, determined?
In so many manuscripts, the predominant emotion is some degree of fear. Worry, concern, apprehension, uncertainty, anxiousness, etc. That’s okay, it’s true, and we want our readers to worry, too. However.
Now write down something else that this POV character also feels while the events are unfolding. Something which they’re not immediately conscious or aware of. If we talked to them later, what else comes up besides the predominant emotion? A feeling of irony, hysteria, amusement (even while bad things are happening)? It’s another level of feeling.
Now, what is yet something else that this character feels as something happens that we could elicit from them later if we had a chance to talk to them about it? What else could they feel? Glad? Relieved? Did they think on their feet and rise to the occasion and that makes them feel better, stronger, more capable? Maybe they don’t feel it right away, but it’s in there. Do they see setbacks as a challenge, a test of resolve they’re determined to pass? What do they prove to others, themselves?
What does your character feel in this scene that’s unique to this character? What do they feel that’s different from what anybody else might feel?
Take this third feeling, and magnify it. Make this small feeling really big. The first thing your character feels. If it’s the first they feel, how do they express it to others? Or how do they show it? What do they do or say that makes it inescapable, unavoidable for us to know that they feel this way? What’s the biggest way to express this?
Create a gigantic metaphor for this feeling. How big is it? How would this be an elephant of a feeling?
Characters’ feelings are underreported. But what would happen if you substituted this feeling and showed no other feelings than this last one? (Aud: Because if it’s a self-centered, selfish, unflattering feeling, then the character would seem unlikeable.)
The characters of Gone Girl are unflattering. Crappy characters. The wife is a self-absorbed New Yorker, and the husband is the worst kind of guy, completely selfish, and their self-absorptions take over and their marriage dissolves. And we can’t take our eyes off them. We get to know them. The characters are not flattering and it didn’t seem to matter. Because everything the author reported was true. These unflattering feelings are ones we recognize and identify with. We’ve all done and felt those things. Their self-awareness is a strength and gives us compassion.
Don’t be afraid to show the reader something negative about the character. Because they care about something else. Once the reader is emotionally hooked, they’ll keep reading.
The more honest, true, and accurate you are, the more you catch the reader by surprised by the true but unexpected emotions you portray, the more you catch the reader by surprise and make them feel what the character feels, because then you’ve made space for the reader to feel the top/primary emotion.
Secondary emotions surprise us, which is why they work. Obvious emotions don’t surprise us, which is why they don’t work.
Of course his guts twisted in fear. It’s a cliché, an emotional cliché, and the reader doesn’t resonate.
e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the part with the woman with the match, backing out of the house. Yes he feels apprehension, disturbed, but he’s excited about burning books. Even when he’s disturbed by it, he’s still excited by the fire at night. Nobody feels tense here, but we do. Not just the fact that a fire is about to start. What makes it work is that Montag is excited. And we’re caught by surprise in this moment, which allows us to feel the terror, revulsion, tension that Bradbury really wanted us to feel. And he notices how someone else is feeling too, with Captain Beatty keeping his dignity by backing out slowly. He doesn’t mind the woman’s about to immolate herself, he can keep his dignity. That’s a lot better than writing that Montag’s guts twisted in fear. It made *our* guts twist in fear instead.
The Principle of Emotional Surprise – it’s an important one. When we write in this way, explore emotions like this, we can start to experience emotions on the page. And we can make mundane things poetic.
Genre writers may feel that evoking feelings cheapens the work. Likewise with very literary writers. Thrillers in particular don’t put a premium on feelings. Action, hook the reader, keep moving, never stop. (Same with romance.) The great series characters are characters we feel a lot more about. Maybe you’re feeling like Hemingway. “Recreate faithfully and accurately the experience you had so that when you do the reader will feel what you felt”. All for showing, not for telling. He didn’t hate emotion, he hated writing emotion. And it worked.
But dry, undernourished manuscripts that don’t talk about feelings can cause us not to feel anything. And editors/agents can say, “Take out that emotional experience, it’s antithetical to plot”. So why did it work for Hemingway but not for others? Because Hemingway was able to make us feel things that other writers can’t because he was playing a trick on us. The difference is that the scene has strong feeling inherent in it anyway. “Hills Like White Elephants” is about two people sitting in a café talking and nothing happens at all. Except that these two characters talk around what they’re talking about. They avoid talking about what they’re talking about. “It’s a very simple procedure, really” and she dodges it. He doesn’t have to report the feelings much because everyone is going to have an opinion about abortion. They weren’t talking about something banal. And in “Now I Lay Me” he starts a story with a character sleeping, dreaming, thinking about the silkworms eating, thinking and remembering how a war explosion has affected him and that makes us feel something. Because he’s writing about near-death experiences and being afraid to die. Death evokes emotions. When you write about big stuff the emotions are present already. And with “I listened to the silkworms eating” we’re already creeped out.
Try this: Choose a moment in your story when your protagonist faces a difficult choice or needs something very badly or has a shock, an unwelcome realization of sometime, suffers a grievous setback or affects someone else grievously. A dramatic turning event in the story. Let’s go there. Now put this moment in the story into mind. Think about the ways when this moment your protagonist is conflicted. E.g. Hemingway: he needs to sleep, can’t go to sleep. As we find ourselves in this moment, where are we? One or two details unique to this setting. Something different about it. (e.g. silkworms). What’s different in your story? What’s happening that we can see? What do other characters say? Make what is done a little bigger, make what is said a little stronger. How can what is spoken at this moment be shouted? How can a gesture turn into an action? What can your character physically do that we can see that would be symbolic? What might your character do that would deny what he or she feels? Does the character force him or her self to do this? Instead of what they should do, what does this character do differently? How do they substitute one emotion for another (i.e. run away) in this moment? Even if it’s just counting the exits, showing that they want to run away, but they don’t.
Now what is it that your character actually feels? (e.g. “I was afraid of going to sleep.”) Write it down. And then cross it out. You are forbidden from writing that in this scene. You must make me feel that with everything else in this scene. Can you do that?
Work on the circumstances of the scene, the gestures, the denial, etc, until it’s perfectly obvious what they feel until it’s perfectly obvious what they’re feeling even if we don’t state it outright.
e.g. Counting the exits shows the desire to escape, without saying it.
How do we make it stronger still?
Suppose you had to show in one gesture what it is the character feels but you can’t tell the reader directly, exactly what it is. How will we know that they feel this way? The obvious would be blatant statements.
This works because this is a pivotal moment. Dramatic situations with emotions inherently attached to them. Ordinary stuff does not necessarily provoke emotion in the reader. Dramatic does. By using emotions that are ripe in the situation, without stating it, and focusing on that, you can have more emotional effect. Not just, “they’re running running running” and we should feel “fear, fear, fear”.
Keep digging. Find something that works. By exploring what else they feel, and how it’s different. The reason emotions feel cheap is because they’re cheap emotions. When we surprise readers, even the most common, run away thriller scenario can be enhanced by attaching unexpected feelings.
Communicating Dry Information
Dry information (e.g. in science, historical, important details in science fiction and fantasy) that you have to explain to the reader in the context of the story for the story to make sense – dull stuff. Dry stuff. How do you get it across without slowing things down?
Well, what info do you need to get across? Pick one thing. Whose POV are we going to be in when this info ahs to be delivered? Who is the vehicle when the info is given to the reader? Now, your character has knowledge the reader doesn’t. But let’s take a look at your character. Who knows something the reader needs to know. What matters is this:
- This information that they have, that we need to understand. How does your character feel about it?
- What is good and satisfying about it? What does your character say to himself or herself thinking about it? How does your character feel when they are doing this action? How can the reader relate to those feelings? (e.g a doctor that wants to help a patient with various symptoms who won’t tell her what’s going on because it’s clear that the patient was trying to decide whether or not to trust her – we see the doctor’s concern that something else is going on. So we can relate to the doctor.) SO. What is it in this information that concerns or worries your character? What is ambiguous, potentially dangerous? What suggests we should be afraid of it? What new possibilities have arisen now that we have this new information? What will it mean in the future? What does this information mean? What implications of this information are exciting, concerning? What will the character have to do differently because of this information? In what way is this information a metaphor for something else? What does it cause your character to think differently about something else?
- What makes information (data), historical, worldbuilding, technical, scientific, anything that is dry or factual, just pure data, and will lie flat and dull on the page until it means something to the character. Until the character has something to feel about it. How the character questions or worries or becomes excited about it.
- Dan Brown’s The DaVinci code – fully a third of the book was dry information, so how did Dan Brown get all of this info across to the reader without boring the reader? Because he gives each of the three main characters an area of expertise, and the others think they know more than the other two. And they debate it. There’s a power struggle going on between the three characters, all trying to top each other, doubting what the others say, calling it into question and raising additional issues and they all have different opinions. And they’re constantly debating it. \
- Attach feelings to information, and that information becomes engaging to read. Because they we feel things about the characters, especially how they react to information. If info or learning info stirs the character up, that gets us interested.
- Remember: outer journey (events of story, plot, things we can see) vs. inner journey (how the characters undergo change or transformation, grow or fall apart) – the long inner change unfolding. Get them working together. Fasten them together so they form a strong hold like structure in a building. Feelings, emotion, meaning are the way to do that.
- Take any event, and focus on how that event affects the character’s inner personal journey.
- Also, you can externalize feelings to an event. You can attach that emotion (internal) to something else. Attach that feeling to an event. (In a saga, carrying a struggle or need forward.) Find big meaning in small events and dig out overlooked things that are highly meaningful from large events. Even doing the dishes can be profound, if you work with emotions.
The Reader’s Emotional Arc
We can also provoke emotions not part of the character’s experience, that only the reader feels. What is the reader’s emotional arc? What are they experiencing as they read the story?
Mostly, authors want the reader to feel what the protagonist feels. But that’s not the only journey the reader can go on. You can actually manipulate the reader to feeling things they might not want to feel otherwise.
Pick another important character in your story. Or your novel’s general setting. Take a look at this character or setting. At four points in the story (beginning, major middle turning point, climax, end) and at each four points don’t look at what’s happening in the story but what our reader feels about this character or setting. What is it that you want the reader to feel?
What is our first impression? What would you like the reader’s impression to be? When they first see this, what would you like the reader to feel?
Now, your target is what the reader is going to feel. You can either create one detail to feel what you want them to feel, or you can give this feeling to your protagonist.
Middle turning point: How does this change? How do you want your reader to feel? How is this more complicated, dangerous, intriguing, beautiful than we thought at first? What hidden side will we have seen by this time?
1. Give this new, nuanced, different perception by showing what the reader says or does, or by noticing something different, or give this to your protagonist to convey
2. This new perception – in what way is this new perception completely wrong? What have we missed? What don’t we know yet? What is even more deeply hidden? What is an even bigger surpise about this person or place? What will we reveal, for good or ill? What is a secret about this person or place that we don’t know yet? What are you hiding from the reader? What would this person or place like to hide? What would be too embarrassing to reveal?
3. You can change your reader’s opinion one more time – by the time the climax comes around, tell the reader what to really think about this character or place. Until.
4. What do you want your reader to feel about this person or place at the end of the story? What new way can we understand this story? Can your protagonist see that this place is neither good or bad is just the same? What’s one unchanging feature that your character can come to appreciate by the end of the story? Can a good place become ordinary? A bad place become just a place? Same with character. How can we appreciate them in a nuanced, balanced manner by the end of the story?
Have you been able to change your reader’s opinion four times? If so, you’re manipulating the reader. But you’re causing them to feel differently. Most importantly, you’re causing them to feel. And that’s what matters.
One more thing – and this radical proposition – It doesn’t matter what your story is about. It doesn’t matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what kind of characters you’ve chosen. It doesn’t matter what style you write in, a quiet writer, a dramatic writer, objectively or with a lot of voice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a lot to say or hardly anything at all. What matters is how much your reader feels, regardless of what you’re writing or the style. What matters is they go through a strong experience, have a lot of feelings. Readers will be stirred and will remember. A television commercial can do this. So can your story.