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.
I’m a super fan of Neil Gaiman. Not only do I love his stories but I love his prose and I love the upstanding man he is. He broke through in his career with the urban fantasy Neverwhere and has most recently given us the darkly witty Norse Mythology. What I admire about him is he’s a genius who doesn’t think he’s a genius. He just writes from a place of inspiration and ends up entertaining the world.
I came across his New Year’s Wish from 15 years ago on his website. What struck me about it was the unwavering optimism and intimate touch in all of the images. Check it out.
May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere is a funny macabre urban fantasy that focuses on a regular everyman named Richard. One night, he accidentally gets sucked into a magical world beneath London. And when I say beneath London, I mean in the sewers. It’s a mucky dank world where most people are out for themselves as they barter, plot, and kill. Richard’s sole motivation is to get home to “London Above” as he goes on an adventure with a ragtag group seeking an angel named Islington who may or may not be able to help them all. It’s a delightful story, one that features Gaiman’s vivid witty writing. I admired page after page of it. What I admired most though was his ability to deftly weave emotions into the plot. Neverwhere offers a great lesson in how to write emotion. Here are the techniques he used:
After Richard discovers the character Door bleeding on the street, he carries her back to his flat. This is the wrong choice, he knows that, since moments earlier he made the choice to leave his girlfriend Jessica behind. They were headed to an important dinner with her boss. Here’s how feels about it:
Somewhere in the sensible part of his head, someone — a normal, sensible Richard Mayhew — was telling him how ridiculous he was being: that he should just have called the police, or an ambulance; that it was dangerous to lift an injured person; that he had really, seriously, properly upset Jessica; that he was going to have to sleep on the sofa tonight; that he was spoiling his only good suit; that the girl smelled quite dreadful … but Richard found himself placing one foot in front of the other … he just kept walking.
This is a great passage that shows Richard’s contradictory mix of emotions. He’s disappointed with himself for not ignoring Door, guilty at ditching Jessica, annoyed that Door smells, and finally numb in the name of doing the right thing. And we witness how he actually thinks it through. We all have interior selves arguing about what to do and how to feel sometimes and Gaiman captures that internal struggle well.
Close Point of View
When Richard’s at his office and his desk is being carried away by co-workers who should notice him but no longer really do, he realizes he has disappeared from the upper London world. His frustration and shock and panic all come through in a simple exclamation that’s italicized to denote his immediate, internal reaction: I don’t need this shit.
Physical Action & Description
Halfway through the story, Richard finds himself on a high plank in an elevator shaft. We feel his intense fear through what he does. The description masterfully incorporates his actions, his thoughts, his feelings, his desires.
Richard stepped off the shaking platform, and onto the wooden board; then his legs turned to jelly beneath him, and he found himself on all fours on the plank, holding on for dear life…. The rest of his mind, however, was engaged in telling all his limbs to clutch the plank rigidly, and in screaming at the top of its mental voice, “I don’t want to die.” Richard closed his eyes as tightly as he could, certain that if he opened them, and saw the rock wall below him, he would simply let go of the plank, and fall, and fall, and–
An implied feeling via the words in dialogue can often be most effective. When Door won’t accept a creepy woman named Lamia that Richard found and who’s offered to guide the group, he feels indignant. That comes through in his verbal response to Door’s refusal.
“You just don’t like it that I’m sorting everything out for once, instead of following blindly behind you going where I’m told.”
Sometimes Gaiman says it straightforwardly with an adjective to describe Richard’s feelings. It’s not as complex or sophisticated as the passages that describe his interior monologue but it keeps the emotion flowing alongside as Richard experiences it.
Richard folded his arms, exasperated.
Richard looked around, puzzled.
Well Used Adverbs
How many books and articles have you read that say you should never use adverbs in your writing? I’ve read plenty and though I avoid them, I do use them once in awhile. I think adverbs can be effective when a character does an action that can be truly described with an adverb. For instance, you can say, “She waved cheerfully” or “She waved slowly.” Those give off different connotations. Gaiman uses adverbs in these kinds of instances.
When he bumps into Lamia again, now knowing of her vampire-like ways, Gaiman writes:
Richard raised the knife, nervously, remembering the chilly passion of her embrace, how pleasant it was and how cold.
Similarly, toward the book’s end, when his friend Garry asks him if he wants to talk about his spacey melancholy state, he writes:
Richard looked at him seriously. “You’ll laugh at me.”
This last adverb especially pulls its weight as we know what Richard has been through. He can’t take the story lightly. Richard can’t look at Garry’s offer to talk any other way because his adventure has been so unreal and life-changing. It’s a small but effective way to reveal Richard’s feeling at that moment.
Practice and Patience
I believe including emotion in a story is the most difficult aspect of writing. It can come off as stiff and unconvincing. Some how-to writing books recommend you only describe emotion via a character’s physical manifestations. “She stiffened,” or “His fingers trembled.” This is an effective strategy but it can stray toward parody when used again and again. I mean, how many times can a character’s hands tremble? Conversely, Gaiman uses all types of techniques, mixing in the physical with the psychological. This is what makes his writing so rich and our attachment to Richard so strong. I’m sure it took him many years and many drafts to master it. I can’t recall if he’s done this assorted approach with later books like American Gods, but it certainly helped to make Neverwhere the timeless classic that it is.
To learn more about writing techniques, see my post, Why Reading Aloud is the Best Editing Tool.