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?