“Emotional craft isn’t a repackaging of old writing bromides. It’s a way of understanding what causes emotional impact on readers and deliberately using those methods. It’s a way to energize your writing with tools that are always available: your own feelings.” ~ from The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass
What makes for a great story, strong prose or strong plot? Both. And then some.
I’ve read stories and books where, once at the end, I feel like I missed something. The imagery is there, the writing impeccable, the plot a real page-turner. But the book as a whole? Maybe I couldn’t put it down, but I probably won’t pick it up again either.
The writer (okay, I’ll say this writer) mistakenly assumes that writing in scene or using colorful details or well-planned white space are all you need to guide the reader along a protagonist’s rise or fall or road to redemption. Those techniques strengthen the story for sure, but as Maass says, “Strong writing doesn’t always produce strong feeling.” And that’s when the reader may lose interest.
So “dig deeper,” we often hear in critique. But what does that really mean? If you’re like me, you need specifics; you need concrete questions; you need relatable explanations.
Donald Maass offers all this and more in his new book on emotional craft, which is structured in a way best described as scaffolding. He begins with what many writers already know: the pros and cons of showing versus telling, the crucial tools of writing (like the art of voice and the importance of details), and aspects of plot–all necessary for a successful story. But then, he asks us to go beyond those essentials and infuse our fiction with an emotional journey that will hook the reader and leave him with a lasting impression.
He asks us to examine how we might surprise the reader. For example, reconsider details and incorporate the ones that carry the most emotional weight. Or, explore a character’s inner condition in more depth and show that through a description of the environment. That one really hit home for me, as I tend to focus on scene and setting to convey the tone of the story but forget about weaving in more pointed words or phrases that subtly reveal the character’s mood, not just what they see. Along with his suggestions, Maass incorporates a list of specific questions that will help writers work through these deeper explorations.
But most importantly, for me anyway, is the way Maass introduces new concepts (or new ways to look at old concepts) by tying them to our own every-day emotional experiences. He says, as humans, we are constantly in a state of change, our feelings are complicated, we reflect then act, act then reflect. These characteristics of humanity can be–and should be–an integral part of our stories. If we’re writing to connect, as so often we are (as so often I am), then why not build from what we and our readers already know, whether the story is fiction or not.
Okay, that last bit about whether we’re tackling fiction or not is something I added, because as with many craft books I’ve read, the learning I take away from these pages on emotional craft has begun to permeate other avenues of my writing. Maass focuses on fiction, specifically novels, and yes, I can see clearly why the novel I’m working on isn’t reading as well as I want (why it feels so sophomoric), but I am also considering his same questions and suggestions in my nonfiction.
I’m writing an essay about my experience swimming in Lake Superior and one on dismantling my mother’s home after she died. There are primary feelings attached to both of these events, but those basic emotions don’t tell the real story. As I look closer at what I’ve written, what manifests as anger may really be a mask for fear; what shows up as grief might later prove to be guilt. Underneath initial reactions to whatever event, there’s likely another more complicated, uncomfortable, revealing feeling.
There’s the crux of your story.
And that’s the key Maass gives us in his book: a better way to writing these more complex, disconcerting emotions that bring a reader closer to the story and kick-start the reader’s desire for self-reflection, so that your work becomes more than just a quick read, a well-written essay, a novel read once and forgotten.
There’s plenty more I could say, but I’ll leave you with a last (and another favorite) quote from the book that does exactly what Maass teaches throughout, one that hits on an emotion many struggling writers already understand, without telling us straight up what we’re reading about…hope:
…we have everything we need to tell stories full of human authenticity and emotional truth. . . . You don’t need more years, manuscripts, acceptance, likes, stars, movie deals, money, or anything else material to be a true novelist. You are that novelist already because you are human.
Buy the book, Check out one of Donald Maass’ upcoming three-day workshops on Emotional Craft. Start a book study with your most trusted writing friends. This paperback on craft is one worth keeping and re-reading.