Book summary: The Emotional Craft of Fiction (II)

This is the second 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 second part will explore chapters “The emotional craft of fiction”, “Inner vs. Outer”, “The emotional world”, and “Emotions, meaning, and arc”. You can find the first part on this blog.

The emotional craft of fiction

How can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own? Readers may believe they’re living a story along with its characters. Actually, they are having their own experience that is occasioned by what’s on the page. This experience can be elicited by a number of story elements (plot, setting, theme, mood, dialogue… and what characters feel).

Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way the readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook or outrage. They formulate their own.

Emotional impact is not an extra: it’s a fundamental to a novel’s purpose and structure as its plot.

Inner vs. outer

There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers: inner mode (telling of emotions), outer mode (showing of emotions), and other mode (making readers feel something the characters do not feel; it’s an emotional dialogue between the author and the reader). All three are valid, but they can all fail to work.

  • Outer mode: tips on p. 16 (in short: write feelings for a character in a scene, including obvious and non-obvious ones, then imagine how the character could act out, exploring different possibilities, then delete the feelings and leave the reactions).
  • Inner mode: writing what the character feels should be a shortcut to make the reader feel that way, but it’s actually the opposite. You have to play with unexpected feelings, thinking about the layers of feelings for a given situation. Example on p. 21 using analogy, alternatives, moral judgment, and justification. Tips on p. 22 (in short: think about what a character feels in a given scene. Then wonder what else they feel, then a third layer. Go through the four steps of the example, then write about the third feeling).
  • Other mode: readers want to feel something about themselves. They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge. That they have been through something. That they have connected to your characters and their fictional experience, or think that they have. That is much more than just walking them through the plot.

The emotional world

The emotional life of the characters should be the focus, not a sideshow. Methods to make us feel as we read:

  1. Me-centered narration: Make characters talk about themselves. We open our hearts to those that do it first. That said, when characters say things about themselves, they say the opposite of what is actually true (tips on p. 34). It’s a good idea to describe the world not by explaining how it sounds, tastes, or smells, but by explaining how the characters experience the world.
  2. Emotional scale: Big emotions can be stirred in readers, but not directly or by force. It requires laying a foundation on top of which readers will place their own feelings. Small details and reminders that evoke situations preloaded with feelings. Tips on p. 38. Making characters struggle with their feelings force readers to wonder if they would feel like that, too. Tips on p. 41.
  3. Stirring higher emotions: Moral elevation: reading about good characters make us better people. Tips on p. 49.
  4. Moral stakes: Apart from the personal stakes for the characters, the moral stakes are very important, too. We want to read about good characters (when anti-heroes work, it’s a trick: they’re actually good), and we should establish that early in the story. That said, moral struggles that pervade the story makes readers get invested in it. Tips on g. 56 (in short: prepare a big change for a character, including three “anticipation” events to prepare for the last event in which the character finally changes).

Emotions, meaning, and arc

What shapes us and gives our life meaning is not what happens to us, but their significance.

Dry information can have a big emotional effect not because of what it means, but because of the personal significance for one of the characters. Tips on g. 67.

You might think your telling your characters’ stories, but in fact you’re telling us ours. Think of the universal significance of what happens.

Connecting the inner vs. outer journeys

Connect the plot and the emotional journey of a character by making the events in the plot (a) matter to them personally and (b) make them change. Also, make something outward happen when there’s an internal change.

Tension vs. energy

Pondering/reflecting/feeling vs. acting. Good stories make characters swing between those two modes. Tips on p. 79, 81.