Up until now we’ve only discussed “getting to your desk,” turning a process into a habit, and of creating an atmosphere to inspire action. And while those are the most difficult aspects of the actual writing, they are not the things that make the process enjoyable. Many talented and inspired writers face years of struggle, dead ends and writing blocks. I would bet you have a list of story ideas. Maybe a file of started, but yet unfinished work. Exciting ideas that never seem to advance to the page. Not because of time or effort – no, something else was missing. That missing item is emotion.
Emotion, more than anything else, drives human behavior. In the animal world the emotional range is more about survival than preference. Animals kill to eat, and although they may fight for mating and territory protection, they seldom actually kill for these privileges. You may believe your pet loves you, but for the animal their displays of affection or protection serve a more economic model (a trade for food and shelter) than an actual emotional exchange. Humans make a heavy investment in emotion, which is why we are a consumer driven society. Studies suggest that as much as 90% of our decision making is determined by emotions. We tend to deny this because we focus on the 10% of rational consideration we bring to the decision. It’s called rationalization. We make an emotional decision and then support that decision through sometimes selective evidence in support of our choice. If that seems untrue. If perhaps you think “others” are emotional, but your are not (see self-proclaimed realists, pragmatists and CFOs) you are not alone. Studies also show that most people judge their decisions as rational and other’s decisions as emotional. The truth is – it’s almost always emotional. That’s called being human.
Emotional decision making accounts for many of the things the objective outsider cannot understand. Why do people stay in bad relationships? Why don’t they leave that dead end job? Why do they buy things they can’t afford? Why don’t they just lose weight? The reasons are all emotional. Sometimes it is simply that the emotional charge of a “better life” is not stronger than the emotional pain of “fear of change.” Or sometimes, as we discussed, the old habits are stronger than the attempts at new ones. Emotion however serves two great purposes in your novel. The first is that it makes the process and the journey fun and interesting. The second is that emotion makes the difference between a best-seller and story no one wants to read.
The process begins with an honest analysis of your story. Does it excite you? Do you find it difficult not to think about it or to stay away from the keyboard? Many writers have good ideas, but the story doesn’t grab them emotionally. The story they “think” they should write, isn’t the story they “want” to write. I would love to write a spy novel. They’re easier to market than horror and they have a much bigger audience. I just can’t do it. I don’t feel excitement for writing such things. It would be a dead end for me. If you’re struggling with your novel, it just may not be the story you want to write. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Long ago I took my college SATs. I scored higher in the math section than the verbal section. By that score card I should have majored in something math related. I hate math – aptitude was not the reason – it bored me.
The thing that makes a story unique, the thing that drives you to write with passion, is the emotional charge you bring to the story. Sometimes that is sadness, sometimes joy, sometimes tragedy. Anne Rice has had a few tragedies in her life – the loss of her daughter, the loss of her husband – and these emotions are often felt in her work. Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t love someone who didn’t die, and his work was driven by that loss (and an appetite for liquor). Steven King struggled with his own demons and addictions and Franz Kafka’s, The Trial is often considered a story about his physical struggle with “consumption” (Tuberculosis). I don’t think that writers must be broken, tragic or dark human figures (I wish I could be that cool). I’m an eternal optimist who sees life’s glass as more than half full. But emotion is critical to your tale. If that emotion is not real to you, it won’t be real for your characters and thus not for your readers. The emotion is the thing that will drive your novel…and make it right.
A story is a world filled with a few people who are doing something. While the reader needs to know “what” these people are doing, they also expect to learn “why” they are doing those things. The “why” always must have an emotional element. Fiction therefore must start with the same emotional considerations as life. It’s nice to have a strong plot line. It may be interesting to think about Mary going home after all these years to discover a murder or a monster all while dealing with issues from her past (Mom, Dad, old Flame, Siblings). That type of imitation is important to the writing craft. A successful story is usually similar to other story lines, but unique in its own treatment. Plot imitation and visions of fame (people will definitely buy this book) are not enough motivation for you to write the story. The process dies when you are writing plots without real emotions.
When my eldest son went off to college I was very happy for him, but also a little sad to see him leave. That bittersweet sadness became the basis for my short story Reflections. That single emotion created the mood and tempo, it allowed me to work between the question of the father’s sanity or a step into the Nightmirrors (my horror world where all my story emotions live). Reflections is a horror story, but first and foremost it is a reflection of my own real sadness. You can read the story here to judge my success in conveyance. I created an audio version which gave me the opportunity to expand the emotion through voice and music. (You can listen to the audio version here). Each of my stories carry an emotion other than fear. For example, I took my childhood shame over being overweight and worked that real emotion into my story The Dead Lie.
If you are going to write a novel in six months, your story must have personal emotional experiences. You can’t write someone else’s story. If you’re copying a popular author’s storyline you’ll never get through that novel unless you can make it your own. And the most personal thing you can bring, the one that will connect with your reader is of course – Real and Experienced Emotions.
1. Find it – think about those places in your life of extreme joy or sadness or anger and incorporate them into your story. Many writers attempt to “fake” the emotion. They attempt to describe things that “are sad” or “should be scary” but such descriptions come off as canned. That is not to say you need to experience every situation to write about it – we’re writers, we lie for a living – but you have to write from a real emotion.
2. Face it – the more honest a writer is about the emotional experience, the more real the experience is for the reader. I have had a few experiences being on the receiving side of infidelity. It hurts and anyone who puts on a brave face is not being honest. That emotion is at least in part “loss” and it is what I connect to when I write any scene involving death or the potential loss of a loved one.
3. Place it – story emotions are like the real ones – they ebb and tide throughout events – I, and probably know one else, wants to read 300 pages of sorrow. The world isn’t like that and neither should a story attempt to be. I have gotten the giggles at funerals and laughed when our 135 pound dog dragged my wife across the yard (I still don’t know why she didn’t just let go of that damn leash). I have been so frightened when my daughter was late coming home that it became anger. Emotions shift in life, let them shift in your story.
Without the emotions you will not have another important requirement to Right that Novel. That being…
Part 6: Passion – Tell a story, don’t write a book
Categories: Right the Novel!