Previously, I wrote about The Psychology Workbook for Writers by Darian Smith, which contains worksheets geared towards helping writers create more well-rounded, compelling characters. This is, of course, an excellent start. However, characters need to be more than just well thought out to be truly compelling. We have to care about them. Of course, a character that is fully formed and interesting can keep us turning pages, at least for a little while, but if there is no emotional connection, the story will leave us feeling cold. That's where Donald Maass's The Emotional Craft of Fiction comes in.
You may remember that I've reviewed a Maass book before, Writing the Breakout Novel. If that book seeks to tell writers how to elevate the premise of their stories and build more dynamic and engaging plots, this book seeks to do the same for the emotional elements of a story. I agree with Maass's assertion that, "Emotional impact is not an extra. It's as fundamental to a novel's purpose and structure as its plot." Think about your favorite book. Why is it one of your favorites? Inevitably, it is because you love the characters, because something about the story resonates within you. The stories that stick with us are the ones that make us feel something. So, how do you do that within your own writing?
According to Maass, there are three basic approaches to eliciting an emotional response from your reader:
- Showing - With this approach, you "show" what a character is feeling through external action. Instead of saying that the character is angry, you show the character smashing up dishes in their kitchen.
- Telling - The opposite approach is to come right out and "tell" what a character is feeling by describing their internal state. This one is harder to pull off well. Just saying that someone is afraid, angry, or anxious doesn't make us feel that way. Describing these emotions requires more finesse and originality.
- Other - Maass describes this last "other mode" as the unique emotional response each individual reader will bring to a story. So, we must strive to challenge readers, to give them something to think on, something that will immerse readers fully in the story so that the experience of the story itself evokes another emotional response separate from the emotional journey of the character.
From this basic understanding of how to create an emotional response in readers, Maass explores how to develop a character's emotional arc, how to make emotions connect throughout your plot, how to bring your readers on an emotional journey, and how to do the necessary emotional work as a writer to convey emotion in a way that feels honest.
The book is absolutely full of example passages pulled from a variety of books across genre lines, classics and sci-fi, literary fiction and horror. These passages show you what emotionally connected writing can do when executed well. In addition, Maass offers little "Emotional Mastery" exercises at the end of each section or topic within a chapter. These little exercises ask questions and offer scenarios for writers to explore to practice creating emotionally evocative writing. The exercises offer a concrete way to put into practice advice that can seem a bit intangible.
Overall, Maass's book provides an excellent look at what draws us to outstanding fiction and how to create that kind of emotional impact for ourselves. The real value of the book is in its examples and exercises. While Maass's ideas and advice on emotional craft are certainly clear and compelling, it is the actionable exercises that provide the opportunity for writers to get their hands dirty and practice. The Emotional Craft of Fiction is here to remind us that writing craft is not just some cold, technical engineering of plot and pacing, but needs to have heart too.