There are a lot of books that will teach you how to write fiction. And the best ones not only address the craft of storytelling but the issues beneath the story’s surface. A main character’s wound, the overarching theme, internal versus external conflicts. But the key to a really compelling novel is expression emotion in fiction. And that’s the hardest piece to put on the page.
The Trickiness of Putting Emotion on the Page
The reason it’s so difficult is because if you just flat out say what the character is feeling, it doesn’t seem earned. The reader may not respond. If you show it, the reader will respond viscerally. And if you can show it with complexity, the reader will be the character’s ally throughout the story. A while back, I wrote about how Neil Gaiman does this in his novel Neverwhere.
A Deep Book on an Even Deeper Subject
The best book I’ve come across for delving into the art of creating emotion in fiction is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maas, an experienced literary agent, felt he was experiencing too little emotion in too many manuscripts. He discovered the vital missing piece of these manuscripts was not great prose or an engaging world or lots of action. It was simply an inability to make the reader feel. So in his book, he set out to articulate some solutions.
In it, he explores the inner versus outer strategy or really telling versus showing. Showing, no surprise, is more powerful but telling in a clever way can be powerful too. He discusses the emotional world, how to create a world where a character’s deep sense of self is reflected in what they see and do and how they respond. It’s a complex subject but one worth pondering.
He also discusses the importance of examining not only your main character’s outer journey (plot) but their inner journey (emotional change). And he devotes a considerable amount of time on nailing an emotional opening, midpoint, and cathartic change to your character. It’s complicated and intense. I read that section more than once.
Too Into the Weeds to Be Useful?
Later, when he gets into issues of a reader’s journey and an author’s journey, I felt the book delved too far into the weeds for me. It’s already so difficult to write a compelling novel without thinking about what a reader may experience from moment to moment. Or the unconscious signals you may be sending to readers via character choices or world building. Worrying about it all in the end can be overwhelming.
An Effort to Help Writers
But I don’t think Maas wrote the book to confuse and overwhelm writers. He wrote it to help. In fact, the questions he asks at the end of each section are the most useful I’ve ever seen. They prompt exercises that will produce amazing results. I can attest to that. I took Maass’s three-day workshop on this topic and I’ve never dug so deep into my mind about my imaginary world. He truly knows how to prompt creators to think outside of the box, how to rewire brains to bring forth some serious work of the subconscious.
But if you don’t have the money for that workshop, I recommend doing as many of the exercises in this book as you can. What you discover will change you and most certainly change your fiction for the better.