Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer is in Session!

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

-- Summer Sun by Robert Louis Stevenson

 Summer time! The perfect time for new adventures, new beginnings, and new things! Besides beginning my third term teaching MFA grad students and learning all this new techno-stuff, I continue to search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, let me tell you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.


Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Maass explores the emotional modes of writing, and demonstrates how to “how to use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones...

“Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.”

In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

With this in mind, Maass explores three primary paths that an author can use to create this emotional experience.

One. Report what characters are feeling, using language and images that evoke feeling. As we know, words can have multiple meanings. The denotative meaning is the explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Childhood, for example, means the state of being a child. However, the emotional weight, or the expressiveness of language, comes from the connotative meaning. The connotation of the word impacts the tone and themes of the narrative. When Dorothy says "there's no place like home," she is referring to the emotional impact of her family. Because fiction is an emotional exchange, a writer chooses words to create a larger emotional impact. Maass calls this the inner mode, the telling of emotions.

Two. Imply the characters emotional – or inner – state through external action. Maass calls this the outer mode, the showing of emotions.

“Like billiard balls colliding … a character’s actions transfer an emotional impact to the reader, who feels it with equal force, and the reader caroms across the table.”

Three. Create an emotional dialogue between author and reader. Maass calls this the other mode, in which readers feel something that a character does not feel. The reader reacts, resists and sometimes succumbs, but “…she can never escape the churn and flow of her own feelings.”

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, a character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” A character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

Human beings are complex, messy, flimsy, brave, heroic, cowardly and courageous and infinitely interesting. Emotions skim the surface and run deep, creating conflict and contradictions in the character’s life. When an author masters this emotional connection in her writing, it becomes the difference between a reader simply reading the story, and experiencing the story.

Story – whether in prose or verse – can do things, Maass reminds us, that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level. It can stir hearts and bring about change in a way that other art forms rarely achieve.

“Writing a novel is itself an emotional journey akin to falling in love, living together, hating each other, separating, reconciling, gaining perspective, accepting each other, and finally finding deep and abiding love. Writing fiction is like living…The emotional craft of fiction is a set of tools, yes, but more than anything it’s an instrument beyond the range of any book: the gracious gift of your own loving heart.”

Hope you are enjoying your summer!

Bobbi Miller




6 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Bobbi. I like the lens you (and Maas) put on this, and am always interested in new ways of framing the work, like this. I also have a particular interest in the contradictory impulses we, as people (and our characters) bring to the table. If anyone is interested reading more about that angle, I have a blog piece on Kate Messner's Teachers Write blog this summer, where I wrote about creating character dimension through contradiction, internal conflict, and so-called shadow traits. Link here and scroll down to my July 30 entry: http://www.katemessner.com/blog/

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    1. Thank you for the link to your blog post. It really adds to this discussion. I'm always on the lookout for this sort of information to share with my students. Thank you!

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  2. This post really resonates with me as I write my current WIP...an exploration of one boy's internal and external conflicts. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I LOVE craft books. I gotta check this one out.

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