This is the third and final part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This third part will explore chapters “The emotional plot” and “The reader’s emotional journey”. I skipped the last chapter, “The writer’s emotional journey”, because I didn’t have a lot of notes about it. You can find the first part and the second part on this blog.
The emotional plot
It’s common to motivate characters with public stakes (“if I don’t do X, Y will happen”). Those are fine, but personal stakes (from inner need and yearning) are more powerful. The rest of the chapter details methods for building emotional plots.
Tips on p. 90 (in short: find something warm and human your character cares about, and open the story with that feeling. Now find something curious, puzzling, or weird, and highlight it, but without giving away too much about it).
Why readers really fall in love with protagonists
Longing and inner yearning are more powerful than need.
The emotional midpoint
The midpoint is when the protagonist is utterly alone with themselves, defined only by hope or dread. It’s a second when the story is suspended, unable to go backward and about to plunge forward into the unknown: the character being face-to-face with fear, failure, a dilemma, or death; a moment of truth when a secret is revealed, the protagonist is shamed, or their actions are shown to have terrible consequences. Whatever its purpose, it’s important to mark it and make space for the reader to experience it. Tips on p. 99 (in short: write about how the protagonist viewed themselves before this point, and what about that view is no longer true; think about what your protagonist can see that couldn’t before, what can no longer be seen in the distance behind, what is coming, and what is never again to be).
Failure and defeat
In crisis, the past is erased and the future is a void. It’s the end of identity. Tips on p. 104 (in short: think about what makes the failure excruciating, and work backwards setting it up so it hurts more: who is counting on the protagonists, who is let down, etc).
Catalyst and catharsis
Tips on p. 108 (in short: what frustrates your protagonist? Find three new ways to increase the need and one way to punish your protagonist for having that need. Also think about in which ways can they act out, and what they can destroy in a fit of rage over this. Now, what can they do or say that they couldn’t before? Show it).
Scenes in which nothing happens
Tips on p. 111 (in short: identify your protagonist’s greatest inner need, that would be there regardless of the plot, and write a short paragraph or sentence explaining it; then, pick a scene in the middle of your story, and rewrite it using the short paragraph as a start; when you’re done, delete the first paragraph: is the inner need and the feeling still evident?)
Emotional goals in scenes
Tips on p. 115 (in short: look at the scene you’re writing right now. Who is the POV character? Identify the scene goal [what the character has to do, get, seek, or avoid], and then shift focus to the emotional goal: what in this scene is pulling the character closer of farther from the emotional goal? How does this character attempt to reach the emotional goal in spite of what’s happening? Write a passage that shows all this).
Emotional breakthroughs: getting real
Getting real is what happens when the scene’s subtext bursts through. Sudden shift in tone, unexpected openness, show of force, begging for compassion, etc. This shows that we’re in the middle of a struggle that has nothing to do with the plot. Tips on p. 118. In short: try to be a NYC cop, Mother Teresa, Oscar Wilde, or the Oracle of Delphi for one of your characters. Does the result help you pierce through the fog and the artifice? If so, use it.
Plotting the non-plot-driven novel
There’s nothing wrong with writing about the human condition with stuck characters, but these are hard to write as they can easily become passive. The recommended approach is to play off your reader’s feeling of impatience, expressed through unspoken questions like “why can’t the protagonist just get what he wants? why can’t she simply talk it out? why can’t he just walk away or quit? why can’t she simply change?” Tips on p. 123 (in short: work with the four questions).
In these kind of stories it’s important that the reader doesn’t feel lost, and can keep a mental map of where the story is. Tips on p. 127.
The true ending
The job is not finished at “Happily Ever After”: everyone else in the protagonist’s world has to be ok, too. The highest human good is not gaining happiness, but giving back.
The reader’s emotional journey
Tears, rage, and terror are big, but notice that when they occur thy are preceded by something. They come about when conditions are right. They also carry with them attendant feelings. Big emotional experiences are engineered by circumstances.
- Forgiveness: The act of forgiveness is a fundamental change that occurs, most important, in the one who must forgive.
- Sacrifice: It can be big or small: what makes the sacrifice moving is not its size but how much it is needed.
- Betrayal: It isn’t the act of betrayal that’s so bad, but who does it, and how.
- Moral dilemma: They work best when the stakes are both high and personal.
- Death: Sadness in itself is not a feeling that we want, but sorrow is. The former is a door closed; the latter is a door open to something good that we don’t want to give up. To make death poignant, make life beautiful.
Extra tips on p. 144.
They are more than flags, eagles, roses, rings, or rain. You can make symbols out of anything. Tips on p. 150.
Story worlds we don’t want to leave
The buildup of tension and its release is one of the big ways that a big story becomes big. Even better is when the tension comes from something good that we hope will happen, rather than from fear that something bad will happen. Thus the first task when creating a world is to create hope. The stronger the hope, and the more we fear is won’t be fulfilled, the greater will be the emotional release when things turn out ok.
Making the world a better place for others may inspire admiration, but what grabs us is a hope that for something that we want for ourselves. World peace vs. getting a smile from the beauty that serves at the coffee shop.
Hostile environments don’t make us want to stay. That goes for a story’s moral values as well. In that place, goodness reigns… or will reign again, once the protagonist wins.
Tips on p. 154 (in short: think about how your protagonist feels about the world, about where they find comfort or goodness or refuge [if it’s a hostile place], and what warms your protagonist inside. Find a way for the readers to feel that pleasure, comfort, security, or delight right away).
Change is the goal of every character and the true ending of every story. We want to know that despite the difficulty we can all change. Tips on p. 163 (in short: start from the new self, and work backwards: how’s the old self, what sparks the need for change, add some mentor and devil, find when must change happen, and find the most dramatic way for your protagonist to become their new self).
Seasons of the self
We go through transitions, and the self-awareness of who I was and who I am becoming now is very significant, maybe more so than what the characters do. Tips on p. 167 (in short: figure out the periods of the characters’s life, and which events started the transitions; figure out which phase the character is leaving behind at the beginning of the story, and what phase they’re heading towards; somewhere in the middle, change is being forced on the character: what makes the protagonist aware, what is good about changing, and why does your protagonist want to stay the same?)
Protagonists and other characters always change one another. Tips on p. 171 (in short: look at your current scene and figure out who wins and who loses in an interaction; then, figure out how your POV character is changed by that interaction; make a chart with characters and how they influence each other’s view of self, the other, the problems in the plot, people in general, etc).
Feelings without names
Unique feelings are situation-specific. They flare and then perish quickly, but leave a trace. The smaller and more specific the imagery, the more universal and expansive the unspoken feelings of the POV character. Small visual details turn into big invisible feelings.
I thought the book was quite interesting, and it made me think of, or realise, many things about fiction and writing. I had mixed feelings about the insistence on happy endings and good characters when I read it, but I guess there’s something to it.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed the summary!