My big, fat, emotional SIWC lesson


Silk’s Post #107 — We all know it in our guts. From our first children’s fairy tale on, we know what’s at the heart of a good story. It’s that simple but powerful thing that keeps us spellbound:


Some genres celebrate the spectrum of feelings overtly – romance and horror spring to mind first – but there is no fiction of any kind that does not intentionally tug at the reader’s emotions.

Simply, stories are about – and for – people, and people have feelings. (Okay, some stories are about other anthropomorphized beings from bunny rabbits to ogres to space aliens, but as far as I’m concerned they’re all stand-ins for people). A story without emotional power is a story without a heart. You might get some people to read it, but you probably won’t get anybody to love it.

“Wow, I never really thought about putting emotion into my story on purpose,” said nobody who’s ever tried to write a book.

I mean, isn’t all this obvious? Well, yes, it is. So obvious that it’s awfully easy to assume we know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to writing about emotions. When our characters are sad, they burst into tears. When they’re scared, they burst into a dead run. When they’re joyful, they burst into song.  And so on. So to speak.

Writing one-oh-one. Got it.

But did I really “get it”? Don Maass’s excellent Master Class at the 2014 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, “The Emotional Art of Fiction”, showed me that there’s nothing obvious about emotional writing.

The class began on familiar ground. Lack of genuine emotion in writing leaves readers unengaged, Don said. Check, I said. Knew that. Readers want to go through a powerful emotional experience, Don told us. Yup, I said. Powerful emotional experience. No surprises there. Characters create emotions. If you put it that way, yeah, sure.

And that’s when the submarine started to descend, Captain Maass at the controls. Through a series of participatory exercises, we dived ever deeper into the ocean of human emotions and examined the subtle perspectives, signals and tropes that bring feelings alive on the page. Don’s teaching method is simple and effective. He asks probing questions about our work-in-progress and makes his students write out their answers.

The questions began with the obvious, like: What is the point of change at which my protagonist embarks on a new path – a path that is inevitable and unstoppable until the resolution. Okay, I got that one and managed to scribble it out in the minute or two allowed. Why does my protagonist care about this? was another softball. No problem.

But as we descended into the darker depths of the emotion ocean, to places less illuminated, the questions got harder to answer. What will this change do to reward my protagonist? was followed by What does he fear about it? – and then Could it make him a pariah because he cares about this?

Whoa. A pariah? There’s a question I had not asked myself. But as I thought about it … gee, well, yeah. Damn right. He could definitely become a pariah to a certain segment of the citizenry in the local story world, which, unfortunately for him, happens to be a very well-armed segment.

And there it was. A whole new emotional dimension.

I was so focused on the obvious emotional content – like my protagonist’s doomed attraction to the wrongest woman in the world for him, and the fact that he’s pursuing a professional challenge under tremendous scrutiny and time pressure – that I didn’t even think about the paranoia he should be experiencing because he’s likely pissing off a whole bunch of potentially hostile townsfolk.

By focusing on the obvious – the big and somewhat clichéd feelings – I’d missed a whole secondary layer of emotion. The townsfolk in question are not central to the story, but they’re part of the story world (and did I mention most of them are strapped?). Now I can up the emotional stakes by having my protagonist looking over his shoulder.

This example is just an appetizer. We discussed emotional demarcation points through the story structure, inner and outer journeys and how emotional perspectives shift along the way, and the kind of telling secondary emotions that hint obliquely at bigger hidden feelings. We discussed the revealing emotional dance between characters who have very different feelings about the same thing. And we learned some techniques for infusing characters with emotion by evoking, rather than reporting, what they’re feeling.

We also navigated the emotional pathways of great storytelling. Did Captain Don say this directly, or did the discussion just stimulate my own synapses so I could put it together for myself? I honestly don’t know, but here’s my take-away:

The characters won’t feel what the writer doesn’t feel. And the reader won’t feel what the characters don’t feel. Those are the links in the experiential chain. There’s no shortcut to eliciting deep feelings from the reader. You can’t just tell them how to feel. And you can’t make them feel by just telling them what the characters feel.

My big, fat, emotional conference lesson is that the storyteller’s job is to transmit an authentic, direct emotional experience to the reader – an experience that’s seated in the heart and the limbic brain. The trick is we have to do this using only the indirect tools and craft of language – logical tools that live in the cortex.

I left Don Maass’s Master Class with a new perspective:

  1. There’s nothing obvious about emotion in writing. It’s as complicated as people are.
  2. Emotional payoff for the reader trumps everything else.
  3. It’s about creating an experience, not delivering information.

These are deep waters. Don’t be satisfied just paddling around on the surface.


10 thoughts on “My big, fat, emotional SIWC lesson

  1. Wow, did I need to read this! My fiction uses myths as a parable of the present, with a first person narrator who is estranged from his mainstream culture. This allows him to see his world differently, so the reader can see the parable. I’ve been adding emotion when I can, but the emotion is often alienation and aloneness. I really have to re-think what I’ve been doing and how I’ve been doing it. Does Maas post his workshops online, or in iTunes podcasts?

    • So glad this connected for you Jerry! Check out the link to Don’s website, which gives his schedule of workshops etc. Also, I can’t recommend his books highly enough. The latest is “The Fire in Fiction” but I think he hinted there may be another in the works, perhaps with a focus on emotion in writing. Don’t know whether he posts workshop content online, but it’s worth asking.

  2. Great post, Silk. I’ve always said that romance and horror are kissing cousins–with he hottest emotions of the genres. You’re the first person I’ve know of to see that relationship. I’m so glad that Don is giving guided instructions to get to deeper layers of emotion. Every single novel (and memoir) I’ve edited in 20+ years has inadequate development of emotions for the POV characters, and least of all depth for the protagonist.

    The one piece I would add to Don’s wisdom–and maybe he covered it–is linking the author’s deepest emotions, complicated and conflictual and unfinished–with their protagonist’s. Once the “docking” has been made, you can “harvest the emotions” you have, and have projected (to some degree) onto your characters. Course you have to lift the veil on your own “stuff,” but once you do, you can grant your characters the agony and ecstasy of life. Make ’em suffer! And soar!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words Elizabeth! You’re so right about the “docking” phenomenon, and Don did talk about getting the writer’s emotion on the page. We’ve all heard “write what you care about” but often it’s in the context of a writer’s inspiration (in a more cerebral sense). The much deeper connection is when you can open a vein and splash your own authentic emotions on the page! It all sounds so simple and obvious, doesn’t it? But doing it is another matter altogether. I’m hoping I’m getting to the stage of practice where I can incorporate these things I’ve been learning intuitively, as I write … and get past that wobbly “learning to ride a bike” stage where I’m having to consciously think about all the things I need to be doing.

  3. Don Maas sounds fascinating in his presentations and I hope to see him some day. One remark on including emotions in writing; I know I’m personally on the right track if I actually experience the emotions as I read the finished product, even though I wrote the story. There are two places I cry everytime in my latest book; one is a traditional Christmas scene, and one is a proposal of marriage. Gets me everytime and I’ve probably reviewed and edited more times than I have fingers and toes.

    • Thanks for your comments Ohio Girl! It sounds to me as if you’ve been terrifically successful at bringing your genuine feelings to your story – what a great thing is it so have your heart on the page! I love to watch people’s faces as they read – it really telegraphs what they’re experiencing. If you can make ’em cry (or laugh!), you’ve really done your job. Good luck and happy writing!

    • Hmmm. Is this a trick question? I think all three are forms of making your thoughts known while pretending to hide them. Kind of passive-aggressive communication. I would say most of these are done for an audience. A snicker can be like a mockery badge – it invites others to join your circle of superiority, the people who “get” the inside joke. A cough can be a warning to someone else to stop talking, or pay attention to something they’re missing (your boss is standing right behind you!) Throat clearing is related, but I think it can carry a greater sense of disapproval (the unspoken objection), or unease (discomfort at the off-colour joke). Or it can be a prelude to saying some uncomfortable thing that the speaker would rather avoid but feels compelled to spill. Did I pass the name-that-signal test?

  4. Another great post, Silk. I (like most people, I think), have a hard time properly including emotions into my story. Oh they’re there, but hidden deep within my own mind. In a perfect world, when someone read my books, there would be a little link into my brain that told them what emotion I was trying to make my character feel. 🙂

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