Veteran literary agent and expert fiction instructor Donald Maass shows you how to use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers. Topics covered include: emotional modes of writing beyond showing versus telling your story’s emotional world moral stakes connecting the inner and outer journeys plot as emotional opportunities invoking higher emotions, symbols, and emotional language cascading change story as emotional mirror positive spirit and magnanimous writing the hidden current that makes stories move Readers can simply read a novel…or they can experience it. The Emotional Craft of Fiction shows you how to make that happen.
The prompts were thought-provoking for me, even if some worked better than others.
The excerpts he selected as examples weren’t super helpful and I skipped a lot of them. It would have been more useful to diagram or annotate a scene so we knew what we should be noticing as we read. Some didn’t show much emotion to my eye 🤷♀️
Some things will be more challenging to apply to romance, with a double POV. It would have been helpful to consider multi-protagonist stories.
Notes and Quotes
“Fiction writers are asking the wrong question. Showing and telling are fine as far as they go, but the emotional experience of readers has little to do with 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?”
“You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.”
When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it.
Three paths to a reader’s emotional response
- [R]eport what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too. This is inner mode, the telling of emotions.
- [P]rovoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. This is outer mode, the showing of emotions.
- [C]ause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel. This is other mode, an emotional dialogue between author and reader.
Outer Mode: Showing
When outward actions stir us, it’s not the actions we read that have stirred us but that we have stirred ourselves.
“Action is an opportunity for us to feel something, not a cause of feeling something.” “When showing has an impact it is because the action is freighted with feelings in the first place.”
“Showing is all that’s needed here. That’s important to remember if your characters are dark, tormented, suffering, or insane. The painful emotional lives of such characters need to become tolerable for readers… To put it simply, when character emotions are highly painful, pull back.”
Inner Mode: Telling
Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.
“What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived”
“Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath… Our feelings are also communal. We pick up on others… Our feelings are also dynamic. They change. They can reverse in an instant.”
The feelings that writers first choose to write are often obvious, easy, and safe. These are the feelings writers believe they ought to use… They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels…
Instead, try going sideways with an unexpected emotion. (Example: Fahrenheit 451, excitement about burning a house rather than horror at someone refusing to leave)
Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious.
“Readers expect their experience, naturally enough, to be a positive one. Positive means feeling enjoyment, suspense, amusement, and the satisfaction of what psychologists call belief affirmation—stories turning out as readers believe they should.”
“Authors want to challenge readers. Research shows that readers want this, too.”
“Entertainment gives consumers feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.” “Entertainment works best when it presents consumers with novelty, challenge, and aesthetic value, which in turn cause cognitive evaluation…thinking, guessing, questioning, and comparing what is happening to one’s own experience.”
readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story, but about themselves.
“The emotional wallop of a story is created by its totality. Readers experience that wallop when they must not just form an opinion about a story, but when they must study, question, and form an opinion about themselves.”
Bring heart and hope to the story
“Hope is the current running through fiction that we love.”
“Heart is a quality inherent not in a manuscript but in its author. It is not a skill but a spirit.”
Fiction can do things that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level, stirs minds and hearts, and brings about change in a way that few other art forms can manage. Why, then, is there a pervasive anguish in the community? Why do fiction writers fear that no one reads anymore? Why do they wring their hands over discoverability?
The author’s role
I believe, though, that there is a deeper reason for the disconnect between writers’ lives and the stories they tell. Many fiction writers do not feel worthy of their calling.
The spirit that you bring to your writing desk either infects your pages or enlivens them. Your story events either oppress or excite.
In some ways the most important work you do in writing your novel is the work you do on yourself.