It took me awhile to understand that creating an emotional experience for the reader is really what my job as a writer is about. And that this is what we all are after when we sit down with a book. Sure we want a good story with clever plots turns. We want language we can relish. We want an intellectual challenge or an exploration of a social issue or of a person or world different from our own.
But bottom line to all of that is the hope/expectation that this will take us on an emotional journey. Books that do this are the ones that we recommend to our friends, that our kids ask us to read over and over, that stay with us sometimes for a lifetime.
Recently I picked up The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. He makes the same point. Even better, he talks about how you, the writer, can create an emotional journey. Because, as he notes, not every published novel does that. “The sad truth,” he says, “is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts can do in a three hundred pages.”
So how can we best a Charmin ad? Maass offers some ideas and techniques that I thought would be fun to share over my next couple of blog posts.
I strongly agree with Maass’s first point: the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers: “(Readers) 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.”
But what those feelings are won’t be universally agreed upon, as anyone who has been in a book club can tell you. Everyone is unique. So, Maass suggests that, “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”
Maass says there are three primary paths to creating an emotional response from the reader. Outer Mode: showing. Inner Mode: telling. And something he calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.
So let’s talk about Outer Mode in this post.
Outer Mode is good old showing–showing what the character is feeling through their behavior, dialog and visible responses, rather than the character (or the narrator) telling us what they are feeling.
Most of us pretty much know about telling and showing. It’s the difference between “I was terrified” and “My heart beat a staccato rhythm that said run, run, run, but I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”
Of course, there are a lot of techniques involved in using show or tell well, but the most important trick here, says Maass, is not so much in knowing how to use show. But knowing when to use show. He says showing works best when the character’s feelings are highly painful, including highly painful or difficult for the reader.
I love the example he uses from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Quick’s main character, Pat Peoples, is mentally ill. He’s just been released from a mental health facility to the care of his mother, but he is convinced he will soon be reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki.
When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.
I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures? I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me? I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because its apart time.
We know what’s going on even if Pat doesn’t. We don’t have to be inside Pat’s head to feel emotional about this scene. In fact, it might be too painful to be inside Pat’s poor demented head and his determined belief he and his wife are still a thing. Instead, the reader gets a different experience. Not only do we feel Pat’s sad blindness, we feel his mother’s desperate efforts to spare his feelings. And it’s all made more poignant by the fact that it’s funny in a horrible way.
A key ingredient in effective showing of emotion says Maass is “subtext.” When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but that we can sense. “It’s the unspoken emotional truth. When we discern it, it’s a surprise.” And a pleasure.
Maass says there’s even a way to describe a character’s inner states without actually telling the emotion. It’s still “showing.” Here’s his example from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me.”
That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.
Without even knowing context (this character is a victim of wartime post traumatic stress disorder) we can feel his suffering. Maass says writing with a lot of subtext works especially well for the big feelings—death, deep fear, deep loss, love.
Maass offers a writer’s exercise if you want to bring effective showing into your work. Basically he suggests that you:
– Pick a moment in your story when your main character is moved, unsettled, disturbed. Maybe a moment of choice, of needing something badly, having learned something shocking, feeling overwhelmed. Now write down all the emotions you can think of for this moment—obvious and hidden.
– Now write how your character would behave, act. What’s the biggest, most explosive thing your character could do? What would be symbolic? “Go sideways, underneath or ahead,” Maass advises. “How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect…?”
– Add a detail in the setting that only your main character might notice or notice in a unique way. (I particularly like this technique. It’s very powerful. Not only can the detail be symbolic, but it replicates the odd disassociation we can feel in an emotionally powerful moment. The funeral is NOT the time to notice the dandruff on the corpse’s shoulders, but, of course, you do.)
– Finally, Maass says to delete all the emotions you wrote down in the beginning and let the actions and dialog do the work. Of the emotions you evoke, he asks, “Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you’ve gone too far, but more likely, you haven’t gone far enough.” (The italics are mine, because this is what I have to battle time and time again! I have a fear of getting melodramatic, she said between lips trembling like the young leaves of the aspen.)
In the future, I’ll talk about Maass’s ideas about Inner Mode and Other Mode and other techniques for evoking emotion. As Maass says, “I want to feel more as I read. Don’t you?…I don’t care about what you write, how you write it, your choices in publishing, or what you want out of your career. What I want is to feel deeply as I read your work.”
As a writer that’s exactly what I hope to do. Maass’s book is a good start.