Emotional Resonance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connection between fiction and emotion. It seems that really, when you peel back all the layers of style and genre and character and plot, the main reason we read is to feel something. To feel something that we don’t necessarily feel in our everyday lives, or to feel something that we wouldn’t want to feel in our everyday lives, but enjoy experiencing through the safe medium of fiction. The horror genre is one I’ve never really understood, because I don’t consider fear an enjoyable feeling. (There’s an irony in the fact that my first published fiction piece fits the label of psychological horror… I didn’t set out to write a scary story, but it sort of evolved that way.) But then I realised that sadness, anxiety, disappointment, shock and anger aren’t enjoyable feelings either, yet I love a story that immerses me in those emotions.

I think horror bothers me because fear isn’t an emotion that I want to be left with when I walk away from the story. I do get immersed in good fiction. It stays with me, and I’m not great at separating fiction-induced feelings from reality-induced ones (is there even a difference?). So a scary movie will make me jumpy and nervous for a while afterwards, despite my rational mind’s protestations, and I hate that. But a sad story can have the same effect, and I don’t mind it nearly as much. Perhaps that’s connected to the fact that a good cry is therapeutic… I don’t know. Maybe there’s no rational reason for my preferences.

But I do want stories that make me feel. Stories that immerse me in wonder, joy, love or hilarity. Stories that leave me reeling, pull the rug out from under me, tear my heart out. It’s no coincidence that my favourite book is one that wrecks me every time I read it. (Fool’s Fate by Robin Hobb, if you’re interested.) Fiction that lacks emotion is fiction that often falls flat. The writing might be superb, it might have a killer hook and watertight plot, it might have a fabulous setting, but if I don’t feel anything for the characters and their situation, it’s missing a crucial element.

I’m not sure why this isn’t discussed more in writing circles. There’s a mass of advice on plot construction, character development, world building, dialogue structure, pitfalls to avoid, voice, style, grammar, word choice, editing techniques, first sentences, last sentences, how much to write in a day, what time of day to write, whether or not to wear your lucky socks, writing with the door closed or open?, etc, etc, ad infinitum. But I don’t think I’ve ever read any advice on the importance of packing an emotional punch and how best to achieve that. (I’m sure someone will find me just such an article and link it now, but I’ve yet to come across it.) Maybe it’s not something you can describe or teach. Maybe you just have to find it on your own. Some writers are certainly better at it than others.

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s TV drama of Ken Follett’s World Without End, which I read when it came out a few years ago. I really like Ken Follett’s books. He may not be the world’s greatest writer, but he’s a magnificent storyteller. He writes superb characters and creates some of the most loathsome antagonists you’ll ever read. I’ve read his books with a constant feeling of sickening doom as the baddies continually manipulate their way through and destroy good people along the way (things always turn out right in the end, but he doesn’t half put everyone through the wringer first). I was watching the latest episodes the other night and it struck me that one of the reasons his stories are so good is purely because of that intense emotional punch. It’s painful watching Prior Godwyn lie, cheat, and worm his way into power – literally destroying lives along the way – but somehow that pain and dread keeps you hooked. And when good things finally happen to the good people, the payoff is that much bigger because of all the hardship and bitter disappointment on the way.

Is that the key? The full spectrum of emotion? Horror stories always start with everything all bright and lovely, just so they can tear it all away. If it was horrible at the beginning, what happened to the characters wouldn’t matter nearly as much. Character transformation occurs through conflict which forges the characters into a new mindset or situation. Conflict equals pain. Pain brings a whole flood of emotions you can draw on as a writer and experience as a reader. And overcoming that pain brings an entire set of opposing emotions that make the whole story worthwhile.

It’s that emotional rollercoaster that I revel in as a reader and a writer. I’m disappointed in a story that doesn’t make me feel anything. And it can’t just be me… can it?

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2 thoughts on “Emotional Resonance

  1. “I’m disappointed in a story that doesn’t make me feel anything. And it can’t just be me… can it?”

    No, because the majority of readers read -fiction, for the reasons you point out above. They want to be entertained, to lose themselves in a good if not great story. To put down a book reluctantly when they reach the last page, wishing that they could continue on with the characters, wherever they are going next.
    You want stories that make you feel, that immerse you in wonder, and you know that stories that lack emotion -or that fail to convey or raise a sense of emotion, fall flat. I don’t think that this is bandied about much, if at all, in most writers groups because they are about mechanical, structural aspects of writing. How do I….? and those things have to be mastered before one can move on to the craft; but you know this.
    So emotion is the key and how does a good writer go about conveying emotion, drawing you into a story and the characters, making or causing you to feel what they feel, or to feel for them. Skipping to the end, it is my opinion that the great writers -by that I mean the really, really good ones(!), do two things: They put themselves into the story, I mean they are really there, not writing about it, but experiencing it for themselves as they write. And in doing so, the second thing, that something in them, some aspect of them is being…revealed. And by that I mean, that they are feeling the emotion(s) and are able to capture the feelings, putting them down on paper.
    Have you ever written something, a scene in a story that brought tears to your eyes or made you cry? I had that experience just last night when I finally finished a re-write of a scene that before had failed to convey something about the main character, something I realized was critical to the story, or more to the point, to the reader, in order that the reader understand who she really is deep down inside and why she is the way she is. First person, her thoughts, her emotions (mine really) and it really hit me. I felt the emotions that she was feeling, and felt for her as well.
    I don’t know if this happens in every case, that writers get to that level or have to. But even so, I think that you have to first be able to feel an emotion, be feeling it when you write, maybe on a subconscious level, to get it down on paper honestly. And no, I don’t believe that it can be taught. Learned on ones own perhaps, through practice, assuming one, a writer, can transfer their own feelings to one of their characters.
    The very good writers/storytellers, the books that pack an emotional punch and stand up over time, are the ones where the emotions are conveyed honestly and without any contrivance. People can tell when you’re faking it or phoning it in.

    • Yep – I think the ability to really get inside your characters’ heads is crucial if you’re going to convey what they’re experiencing. I agree that as the writer, you have to feel what they’re feeling. If you’re not feeling it, how is the reader supposed to?

      And yes, I’ve written scenes that have made me cry. I always take that as a good sign.

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