Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Emotionally Driven Fiction

A couple of weekends ago, as many of you have figured out by now, I attended the South Coast Writers Conference. It is always an amazing experience because of the skills I pick up and because of the two full days spent with other writers. There’s something refreshing about that, especially when people in your personal life do not really understand what being a writer really involves.

It is energizing,

Perhaps the best workshop I attended was conducted by Eric Witchey. It was a truly eye-opening day because he laid out for us a (for me) revolutionary new way to look at our work, especially in the revision process. Since his exact method is proprietary and he does not want it published to the general public. I do and will respect that.

But I will discuss the concept underlying his method, because I think it is a new and effective way of looking at what we’re trying to do.

The concept is this: all good fiction, regardless of the genre it fits in, is driven by human emotion.

Notice that it qualifies itself. “All ‘good’ fiction…” Because there is fiction out there that for these purposes doesn’t qualify as “good.” Some is simply written poorly. But there are other examples which are technically written just find, but are completely disposable. They do not leave the reader to contemplate what was written. They do not inspire re-readings. While they may be a pleasant and even entertaining escape for the reader, as soon as the reader finishes them, they are completely forgotten.

If reading were partaking of a meal, rather than leaving you satisfied, in an hour or two you’re hungry again. Good fiction makes you feel like you really ate something. Like you would post it on Facebook.

Emotion drives good fiction. It is emotion that attracts the writer to the story. It is emotion that she tries to evoke with her choice of words and images. It is emotional sympathy that allows a reader to connect with a character.

Note that there are three sets of emotions here, the writer’s; the character’s; and the reader’s. In almost every case, these three sets are not all the same emotion. They can often be completely different emotions. What’s more, a skilled writer can use this fact to manipulate the reader and his emotions in ways that enhance the drama of the work.

Consider Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. Ms. Flynn presents a husband whose wife has disappeared without a trace. He has done no harm to her, but the community and the police are suspicious. We the readers sympathize with the long-suffering innocent man who cannot prove his innocence. We are rooting for him. Then Ms. Flynn introduces us to his mistress. Suddenly, this man isn’t so sympathetic anymore.

She then has us reading the wife’s diary, which portrays a naïve young woman being abused and manipulated by a sociopathic husband. We now sympathize with the wife and fear the worst for her at the hands of her abusive husband. Then we find out that the diary is a lie, a total fiction created by the wife for the sole purpose of making her husband look bad.

Suddenly, we are rooting for the long-suffering husband again. Ms. Flynn is expertly manipulating our emotional sympathies until we don’t know who to trust. It is an exquisite ride.

We humans are emotional animals. It is emotion that we use to relate to each other through emotional sympathy and this truth is used in the best of fiction. This is true in both a macro analysis of the work as a whole and a micro analysis of each individual scene.

In the workshop, Mr. Witchey used the example of Disney’s Cinderella. Everybody is familiar with the story, correct? The evil step mother, the step sisters, the fairy godmother, and the glass slipper that saves the day? It is part of our culture now.

So what is the emotional driver?

After the death of her father, Cinderella wants to be loved. She wants her step mother and step sisters to love her, but that doesn’t happen. Then, at the end, the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom—the prince—discovers he loves her just as she is. As the saying goes, they live happily ever after.

The macro analysis goes thus: after the death of her father, Cinderella wants to feel loved again; in an effort to win the love of her step-family, she agrees to do all the cleaning, becoming little more than a slave; this does not work; her step-family not only won’t love her, but won’t let her even go to the prince’s ball; just when she’s falling into despair, her fairy godmother steps in and she meets the prince; after the ball, she returns to her cleaning chores, but the prince loves her and sweeps her away. In the end, she is loved and she is happy.

The entire story is propelled by her emotional longing for love. It ends when that longing is satisfied. In a darker story (too dark for Disney) it would also end if she gave up her hope of ever being loved.

The emotion drives the story.

That’s the macro analysis of the story. The same emotional analysis also works on the micro level, on a single scene within the story.

Back to Cinderella. After he father dies, Cinderella wants to be loved by her step-family. (This is the opening emotion, just as in the macro story). She decides the best way to win their love is to be a good girl and cheerfully do as she’s told. So she cleans. However, this still does not win her step-family’s love. Cinderella falls into despair.

At the scene level, the character’s emotion starts at “wanting to be loved,” goes through conflict, and emerges as “despair.” The emotion has changed. This new emotion then becomes the starting point for the next scene.

Each scene within the Cinderella story as a whole follows this pattern. An emotion drives the action, which transforms it into a new emotion, which drives the next scene. Try it. You can plot the entire story as an emotional flow chart.

Now examine your own work. Does it follow this pattern? Are your characters’ emotions driving the action? Can the plot be outlined as an emotional flow chart? If not, it may be the reason that it doesn’t feel right, or readers have trouble connecting with your characters.

I know I am going to look at my own work with this in mind. I will do everything I can to ensure my fiction is driven by emotion.

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