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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Toy Story

After watching The Lego Movie for the third time recently (bet you thought the post title referred to Pixar’s Toy Story, didn’t you?), I watched the behind-the-scenes documentaries. When someone mentioned that the directors (Phil Lord and Chris Miller) are kids at heart, I couldn’t help relating to the notion of being a kid at heart. This led me to take inventory of the games and toys I have at home. Pardon me while I indulge. I’ll totally understand if you run away to seek more grown-up pursuits. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to return. Look for the bold text.

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Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Um, this is not the signal to return.)

I acquired this tiger at a Girl Scout camp when I was 11. Believe it or not, this is not my oldest toy. But I didn’t feel like digging around in my closet for anything older. Say hi. He won’t bite.

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I have a lot of Nintendo DS games, for example:

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The Sam and Frodo minifigs below were party favors. I’m not sure where Sam’s hair is.

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And I’ve got this pair, which totally inspires me, since I’m a fan of knights and of the hero’s journey.

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I also have a Scaredy Squirrel hand puppet (a character from books by Mélanie Watt), but I wrote a post on it before.

Okay. It’s safe to return from your grown-up pursuits.

Some might look at the above collection and think, Oh man, you need to grow up, especially if they have strong opinions about what adults should or shouldn’t do. I’m tempted to put a link here to an article that has many people outraged since it disparaged some popular young adult novels adults should be ashamed to read (or so we’re told), but I don’t want to give more publicity to that article or to the author of it. I offer no apology for having this stuff, nor am I ashamed of having it. After all, I mainly write for kids and teens. But I don’t have this stuff in the hopes of getting into the mindset of a kid. I have this stuff, because I never put away a sense of childlike wonder. I hope I never do.

But don’t think that a sense of wonder is only appropriate for books for kids. If you’re writing for adults, your sense of wonder needs to be engaged also, in order to keep a reader hooked.

Now, I need you to think back to when you were a kid. Or, try to remember the last conversation you had with a kid. Maybe he or she asked you “Why?” or “What’s that?” a 100 times in the same conversation. And you had to explain everything to the nth degree. Kids are curious. They wonder about everything.

Guess what. Readers are curious too. They especially wonder about the details you might have forgotten to add. My beta readers always challenge me in that department. “Why does she do that?” “How did he get that ability?” “Why are they like that?” They ask good questions, because they’re curious. They remind me to flesh out my characters and provide a fuller back story for them. They also challenge me to keep asking myself questions about everything as I revise, to make sure I cover all the bases. Even if I don’t mention certain facts in the book, I need to be curious enough about my characters to explore all of the “whys” and “whats” of their lives. To use an analogy from The Lego Movie, I’m hope that the feedback I’ve received, plus my own sense of wonder, will work toward my becoming a “master builder”someone who can fit all of the pieces of a story together to make a pleasing whole.

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This is not the pleasing whole to which I refer.

What’s your favorite toy? How does it inspire you? How has your sense of wonder aided you recently?

Phil Lord and Chris Miller photos from Wikipedia.