Make ’Em Feel Something

A book I’ve been slowly going through these days is a writer’s craft book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. If you know anything about Donald Maass, you know that he’s a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts. He’s also written other craft books.

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Over the years I also have reviewed for publishers and other venues more manuscripts than I can count. But sometimes I found myself puzzling over why a manuscript didn’t work for me. Right off the bat, Maass’s book gave me insight with this quote:

When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it. (Maass 4)

Many times, I did not feel anything while reading a manuscript. Even stellar writing, Maass mentions, can be a turnoff if a reader does not feel anything while reading a story. So the point of Maass’s book is to help writers create the kind of stories that cause readers to experience the journey—not just read about it. In other words, the kind of stories that make readers feel something.

Part of that experience is fostered through helping to immerse a reader in a character’s emotional journey. Have you ever had a hard time writing an emotional scene? I have. Usually while drafting, I only scratch the surface, especially if a character feels a complex array of emotions. Consider how you felt on an extremely emotional day.

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So, writing emotional content does not come naturally to me. But Maass cautioned

While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t natural and easy. (74)

I want to get better at writing emotional scenes. This means I might have to rewrite a scene over and over until I break through the wall of resistance within myself.

Something else that inspired me to get better at writing emotional content is a quote from another book I’m reading. In one of the forewords to The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie, written by Tracey Miller-Zarneke, director Chris McKay and producers Dan Lin, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller wrote

When assembling these [LEGO] movies from the beginning, we always start with an emotional question to explore over the course of the story.

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They actually asked more than one question to shape their main character’s emotional arc. One of these questions was a what-if question. (I won’t share those questions, since doing so would involve a spoiler.) Sure, the filmmakers want to entertain people with their production. But also they want people to feel what the character feels along the way. This inspires me to carefully consider the what-if questions that are the basis for my character’s emotional journey.

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How do you feel when you have to write scenes with high emotional content? Is it easy for you? Hard? If the latter, what do you do to press onward?

If you don’t write stories, consider the last book you read that really moved you. Why do you think it did?

Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.

Miller-Zarneke, Tracey. The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie. New York: DK/Penguin-Random House, 2017.

The LEGO® Batman Movie poster from xemeston.ir. Emotions image from taringa.net.

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36 thoughts on “Make ’Em Feel Something

  1. I love that quote about readers remembering what they felt! Earlier this year, I was talking to Laura about a book I had loved when I read it a couple of years ago, BONE GAP by Laura Ruby, and I found that my memory of the plot was hazy, but I knew exactly where I was when I read it and exactly how it felt to read. A great tip about writing the stuff that isn’t easy for you, too. Sounds like a valuable craft book–thanks for sharing!

    • Laurie, it really is a great craft book. I can’t say I read many craft books. This one grabbed my attention, because it is so practical. I love the exercises Maass has in each chapter. So I highly recommend it.

      I know what you mean about Bone Gap. I remember how I felt reading that book. 🙂

  2. I always figure emotional stuff is necessary for a story. I remember reading a lot of riveting and emotional scenes, so they seemed essential. Anger and heartbreak were the ones that got a lot of attention though. I think it’s easier for us to remember the harsher connections since they do make us uncomfortable.

    One thing I want to point out that I’m learning over the years: The reader also has to be open to the emotions. I’ve had scenes where some people were affected and others simply went through it like rolling boulders. So I believe there are readers who enjoy reading, but don’t get emotionally connected for one reason or another. For example, they might see that there’s a high body count in the story and getting attached to a character seems too risky.

    • I can’t help thinking of Game of Thrones, with its high character death count. Yes, readers have to be open to the type of story with this type of content. For example, I know a lot of people who like The Notebook and other books like that with heartbreaking, love-through-the-ages emotional content. I’m not the kind of reader those books were written for (though I do love romance in fiction). But I want to genuinely feel something when I read a book.

      • Game of Thrones is what I was thinking of. I’ve heard people say that they enjoy it, but remain emotionally distant to avoid heartbreak. The Walking Dead gets like that too for some people. Pulling out genuine feeling is definitely a two-way street. Readers might even need personal experience or context to feel an emotion.

      • I stopped reading the series because characters I liked died. Plus, at the time I read the first two books, the books were slow in coming. So I moved on. It takes too much emotional energy to keep investing in characters who die off.

      • I’ve heard that complaint before. Seems GoT has a big issue with release dates. Has the new one come out yet? I kept seeing it at the top of the Amazon lists last year.

      • I’m not sure he’s even finished writing it. There is speculation that it might release next year on his 70th birthday.

  3. “While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t natural and easy.” This is so true, otherwise we’ll never grow as writers. Personally, I find emotional scenes easier to write, but I have been told to “tone it down a bit,”

    • I wish I could write those scenes more easily, Jill. I’m glad they come naturally for you. It makes sense, with the books you write. I’m still too much of a juvenile when it comes to writing emotional content.

  4. As a reader rather than a writer, I think what I’m looking for is emotional truth. So it can be quite understated, like Colm Toibin, and move me much more than some angst-ridden grieving mother-turned-vigilante whose emotions I don’t believe in however well written on the face of it. But I also like books that don’t move me particularly, if they either entertain or inform me – I’m currently loving Ian Rankin’s latest though the major emotion in it is humour, but with enough other stuff to hold the story together and make it feel real. Honestly, I think sometimes there’s too much description of emotions in books – the plot and characterisation should mean the reader knows and empathises with what the character’s feeling without it having to be too spelled out… but, as we always say, every reader is different.

    • Humor is a way of feeling something. I love Terry Pratchett’s books, because they make me laugh out loud. But I also love the fact that he includes understated moments full of of emotional truth. Like you, I’m a fan of emotional truth. I love the book Persuasion so much, because the romance is low-key, but still powerful (at least to me).

  5. I love this post, Linda. Thank you for the reminder to keep attuned to the emotional experience of the story. I do feel pain while writing heavy emotional scenes and I’ll find myself finding anything to do to avoid them. But I’m told by my readers (like you!) that when I go “there,” it’s pays off. I will definitely check out that craft book! In other news, am I the last person to read Bone Gap? I hadn’t even heard of it before two months ago. Now it’s one of my faves 🙂

    • I highly recommend Maass’s book. I’m usually not one to tell people to read craft books. But this one I really, really recommend.

      Sharon had mentioned Bone Gap to me last year. Didn’t it win some sort of award?

  6. I’m also slowly making my way through The Emotional Craft of Fiction. I’ve also enjoyed a couple other books by Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.

    Evoking emotions in a reader is a tricky thing. As Maass points out: “Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.” Here are some other passages I underlined–(I mark my books up a lot.) “Big feeling like dread, terror, joy, or love can be evoked in readers, but not by force. They are most effectively evoked by trickery.” “…creating big feelings in readers requires laying a foundation on top of which readers build their own towering experience.”

    When I finish the book, I’m sure I’ll go back over it again and again.

    • I also read Writing the Breakout Novel. That’s when I’d first heard of Maass. You’re right, Nicki. It is tricky. I know for myself that when I don’t feel anything at all, that’s a signal that a story does not excite me. Therefore, I don’t want to continue reading it. If I feel engaged, I’ll keep reading.

      Maass’s emotions book is so full of good, practical advice!

  7. Interesting post, L. Marie, and your comments/conversations were enlightening for me, especially since I’m a reader rather than a writer.
    I am toward the end of The Snow Child, which I am finding I am invested in, but, the book that truly moved in ways I would not have expected was a memoir I read this year, “Where the Water Meets the Sand”. It is about the author’s loss of her husband in the Viet Nam war, with no body to bury, and her brave battle with mental illness. It touched me on many levels, but, where the most impact was at my own release of tears over that war.

    • Wow. That sounds like a beautiful story, Penny. I like Maass’s book, because he mentions second- and third-level emotions, which aren’t always big emotions but are emotions nonetheless. A story can move us in ways we don’t at first think about. I love the fact that this story moved you deeply.

  8. I have to look for this book. I liked his other books, and emotional connection is probably the thing I most struggle with. I’ve been using a poem in my teaching, Martín Espada’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” even though I can’t read that poem myself without crying. (I play a video of Espada reading it.) But everywhere I’ve used it, people remember it, and that’s what I want to achieve in my own writing.

    • Lyn, I highly recommend this book. I might have to host a giveaway of it just to get it into someone’s hands. Remember how at VCFA John Gardner’s book was the one everyone kept talking about? Well, this is the one I’m pushing now!

  9. Great post. I have to agree with Maas. What’s the point of writing fiction if we can’t transport our readers to our (imaginary) worlds and feeling (using any of our senses), is the way to do it.

    I read that the right stories causes our brains to light up with cortisol, which focuses our attention, and oxytocin, which causes us to care and connect. I’m a student, always trying to better my craft. I really believe words are containers and we can pour anything in them. It isn’t too difficult for me because I write short pieces. Longer pieces may be more challenging.

  10. Getting in the emotional headspace to write and emotional scene is hard. I took a workshop in grad school where we did acting exercises to try to get into a different emotional zone which I found really helpful. I definitely want to check out this book!

  11. This is so true: “Even stellar writing, Maass mentions, can be a turnoff if a reader does not feel anything while reading a story.” Sometimes it’s simply how a story made me feel, regardless of the resolution, that makes me remember the book. In fact, I think that’s why I don’t mind spoilers because, for me, it’s the journey that’s important. Even if I know how a book is going to end, I’ll read it (or listen to it) because I want to experience the emotional journey. Of course, when a character dies at the end and I’ve been on this emotional journey with him, then I’ll actually feel depressed for awhile, kind of a dangerous thing 😉 Writing emotional scenes is difficult because it is so easy to go overboard and be melodramatic (unless your character happens to be a melodramatic personality). That’s when I try to apply the adage, “Less is more” 🙂

    • I’ve felt depressed at the death of a character. But there are some tragedies, for some reason, that I enjoy, and return to, because of the heroism. They make me want to be a better person.

      I have stopped reading some literary best-sellers because I didn’t feel anything. The writing was beautiful, but the story did not move me.

      • What is the point if the story does not move you? There has to be humanity in the writing, not just words. But that’s the chance we take with literary fiction, because it is so difficult to categorize.

      • It’s interesting how people can have such differing experiences. So many people recommended some bestselling books to me that I couldn’t finish reading. The people who recommended them loved them. I never got into them.

      • I hear that! I’m writing fewer for the same reason. Nothing like being the only one out of a hundred that didn’t like a book 😉

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