Sunday, December 17, 2017

SiWC 2016 Workshop #4 The Story You're Not Telling

The Story You’re Not Telling
Donald Maass

“The Emotional Craft of Fiction” -> emotional effect that fiction has on us as readers, and not look at it as a happy accident, but as a craft -> why and how it happens so we can understand the techniques and use them.

Got the idea watching the Super Bowl and 30 second commercials impacting more emotionally than 300 page novels.

Mostly when we speak of emotional part of fiction, we’re talking about the characters and what they feel -> as if what characters feel, the reader will also feel. The conversation ends with ‘show not tell’, but there’s so much more than that.

Readers do not feel anything that characters feel, particularly if you are writing primary emotions, fear, joy, etc. Asking the reader to feel something overwhelming in an instant, or emotions we would normally avoid. Readers turn away from overwhelming emotions. A playwriting principle is, if you want your audience to cry, don’t have an actor cry, because the audience will clamp up. You want to catch your readers by surprise, explore an emotional corner is more effective than laying out the primary emotion they are feeling -> those primary emotions we feel in a flash, they are not things we sit and analyze because they are so fast/instinctive, so if you focus on those main emotions, they can read as overwritten/overdramatic/etc

If a moment is small, insignificant, blowing it up in a story makes the reader stop and say, woah… focus on it, give it more words. Controversially, a big twist/turn, huge impact are moments to pull back, underplay because your reader doesn’t need you to analyze, focus in.

The hidden journey of the characters, but also the emotional journey you create for your readers -> creating this opportunity. We are stimulated emotionally by things happening on the page, we then evaluate it and compare/contrast to our own emotions, would we do that, feel that? Then we assign that personal experience to the character in the story. The reader thinks they’re feeling a character’s experience, but they’re actually having their own experience.

So, how to create that opportunity?

Create an emotional landscape for the reader to walk -> the interiority of characters, which we often think of as dangerous because internal/emotian is not story/plot, so we try to minimize it. But the story we’re not telling is the emotional journey, what the character is experiencing emotionally, how they are changing scene by scene, growing and evolving. That’s where the emotional 

The plot makes us curious, but that’s only half the novel.

So, we want to trigger moments for the reader to bring their own emotions into it?

How do we create a hook, a beginning that makes us wonder what is going to happen and turn the page to see -> but we really also have to emotionally engage the reader. 

The Beginning

->How the character is feeling about what’s going on when the story opens.

*Write down one thing that’s warm, human, natural about your character.

*Even if the setting is exotic (fantasy, historical, chaotic, crazy), find something in the opening moment of the story that your character cares about right now.

We talk about what drives the characters, their motives, what they need, but in our day to day lives, do we think about our grand goals every 15 minutes? No, we’re thinking about the next cup of coffee. We’re thinking about something immediate. Humans think and feel and focus on what’s in front of them right now.

*write down something your character is passionate about right now.

Let’s not think about what’s happening externally to your character, but what’s happening internally for your character.

*write down something your character this is difficult, puzzling, ironic, strange, or anything that makes your protagonist to wonder at this moment.

*write down how does your protagonist know and feel, right at this moment, are changing and will not change back. This is a moment of permanent transition. How is that known by your protagonist, what signs can they see, and how do they feel about it? How are they feeling challenged and how do they feel about how they are different -> not just how they are different or what is different.

When we hook our readers with what’s intriguing and emotional, we will carry them through several pages. The emotional hooks just as much, if not more, as the plot hook.

You need to know these aspects first, as a writer, you have to know your character in that moment.

With these things you’ve written down, is there a moment you can write on the first page or 2, can we understand/show that humanity? In life we get a lifetime to do that, in fiction we get a couple paragraphs.

Humanity is what we connect to, relate to.

If you feel this is good to put on your first page or two, do it. We have to open up the interior live of the character.

The Midpoint/turning point

In plot, it’s the moment when things are hopeless, when they’re at their worst. When your character has their dark moment, and often this is where writers talk about it when the plot has turned against the character.

Also considered the mirror moment, when the character looks at themselves and asks who they are and who they have become?

*Write down what it is about your protagonist that they know can no longer be true, what is now lost and gone, what understanding of self, what foundational believe of themselves has been shattered, what is it that your protagonist can no longer be? 

*What can they no longer do?

*What now must your protagonist become, that is new, but also uncomfortable, unfamiliar, frightening, the opposite of who they are, or why they think they are? A person they don’t want to be? (suck it up, toughen up, become vulnerable) A moment where they are teetering between two selves, and it’s not easy.

*What does your protagonist leave behind?

*What can your protagonist now see that they couldn’t see before, about the world, plot, other people, goal & place ahead? How does their goal look different to your protagonist now?

*In what new way is your protagonist going to move forward, in a way they’ve never done before?

*Does this moment feel good, or does it feel bad? Right or wrong to feel this way? It empowering or humbling, or is it the same thing? In what way does your protagonist feel thoroughly dead, or utterly and completely alive, and how? What is is like to feel this feeling? Heavy or light? Use analogy. Sometimes you can feel uplifted, but also heavy -> like you’re unworthy of it.

Do you have another paragraph or two now to add to that moment? Do it. Capture that moment, that very unique way your character experiences that and the reader will follow and bring their own emotional experience to that moment.

Scenes and Building Blocks of Novels

Many different kinds, literary vs commercial, scene vs postcard, etc Lots of different purposes in scenes.

Pick a scene from the middle of your manuscript, choose a relatively inactive scene, one in the business of moving things along -> a flat scene (emotionally).

*As your protagonist goes into this moment, write down what they want to do, accomplish, avoid -> their goal going into this scene. What they they want and need to do right now?

*What is your protagonist’s emotional goal? What do they want to feel in the next few moments? What emotion are they seeking? How does your character want to come out of this scene (feeling)?

*Now, invent/add something new to this scene that will bring your protagonist one step closer to that goal OR one step further away? Either reward or punish them.

*How your character wants to feel, can you add something that bring them closer or farther away form that point? Is there another character who can help or hinder? Sometimes it can be said, “I know how you feel right now”, someone calling out the truth (this can be good or bad -> so, a character calling out the protagonist’s good/lofty emotional goal, or the ugly ones).

*Is your character afraid of what they want to feel, their emotional goal, and why is it important to seek this emotional state?

Think of political statements, they are emotional goals.

What’s your emotional goal this weekend? What’s your emotional goal this morning?

*What is the moment in your scene when your protagonist becomes aware that they are going to get their emotional goal, or not get it. Elation/affirmation or disappointment. Use analogy. What kind of feeling is this? What is the one thing your character will see/hear/say that will show us how they feel?

This is the emotional, the inner turning point of the scene/story. Not being able to go back to their previous way of feeling, or this is something beyond what they could expect to feel.

Have we captured more of the emotional movement of this character, as they go through a moment of plot?

Once a character has faced themselves, we want to know what happens after that… what to do, how to behave, who to be? A moment of transformation is one of the things we read fiction for.


Your Story in General

What you want them to feel through the journey of your novel, what virtue do you want them to be excited by? Self-control? Courage? Perseverance, understanding, respect? Do you want them to feel generous, open of heart, forgiving, or inspire them to serve/sacrifice? Cause readers to think about their own integrity or humility? Readiness or wisdom? What do you want readers to value because they have read your book?

Whatever value you want your ready to be inspired by, pick a character in your story who represents the opposite and has good, solid reasons, who is justified, successful, and right to be the opposite.

Why suggest this?

Because working on the opposite, justifying the opposite is going to move your reader in the direction you want them to go.

One of the things so interesting, and so appalling about this USA election, has been that it’s so powerfully stimulated conversations, revelations, declarations of how we should be instead.

There’s a piece in the NY Times how Trump boasting about his sexual predation has started a mass conversations of women talking to men about their own personal experiences, all the small indignities and harassment they deal with on a daily basis, the constant low-level daily sexual harassment, and a lot of men don’t know about this, and it’s been an appalling surprise. All of this is happening because of Trump’s appalling behaviour.

Provoke your reader in this way to examine themselves, to ask themselves what kind of person they are, and how they can/should be different. What better way, what virtue do you want your readers to embody?


This is the emotional journey you want to prompt in your reader. Pack your story with as much as you can, don’t hold anything back for the next story, the sequel if you will.


Consumers of entertainment want an experience, they want to trust there’s competence (a protagonist work through a situation and get to a point of resolution), they want their values reaffirmed -> BUT, the values readers think they want are not necessary the ones they NEED.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)