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Writing for Emotional Impact

In addition to a panel on writing horror, macabre, and supernatural tales, for Arisia 2018, I'm also in a panel entitled "Emotional Impact - Making Readers Care!"


End of Day by Morgan Crooks (2017)
Assuming for a moment I've written stories containing characters readers care about, what advice could I give to aspiring writers?
To repeat a bit from last post, my big three pieces of advice are rather simple and self-evident:

  • Read Everything
  • Write as Much as Possible
  • Reflect on Your Art
To paraphrase from the previous writing advice post, read everything simply means an aspiring writer must first be a diligent reader. You must be a fan of those books generating a strong emotional response.

As you begin to figure out what you like and don't like in stories and other types of literature, begin to write. I do not think you need to write every single day to be a writer. I also don't think you somehow stop being a writer if you put down the pen (so to speak) for a day, week, year, or decade. However, like any there craft, practice is important. If you get stuck, find one of your favorite stories and copy it down word for word. Watch how a writer you respect manufactures a certain emotional response and try to do that.

Which gets us to my last more or less universal piece of advice: reflect on your art. Partly this means you should think about what you do. You should be intentional. This also means asking questions. It means you should seek to take apart each thing you read, word-by-word, to see how it ticks.

Now for some best practices that I can't guarantee help in all circumstances but do strike me as useful in creating works with emotional impact

Write from the emotion, not about it. Emotion is not something you describe to a reader it's something you make the reader feel. Don't say what emotion a character is experiencing, describe her actions, mental state, and speech so clearly that there can be no mistake what the character is experiencing.

Become a student of human emotions. Your emotions. The emotions of the people around you. The emotions recorded in art and research. Start a journal where you describe how emotions feel, what people look like when they have emotions, and the turns of phrase in literature summing up each subtle shade of emotional response. Shamelessly raid this journal when you feel tempted to describe a character as 'sad,' or 'happy,' or filled with nostalgia.

Study how other writers make you feel emotions. Obviously you want to learn how to create strong emotions to add weight and drama to your work but you also want to be able to capture nuance. There is as much power in a quiet moment of dread as there is the final shock of discovery.

Aim for conflicting emotions. I find the works that truly grab ahold of me are ones where I'm not sure exactly how I should feel, I just know that I feel something deeply. My go-to example of this is William Faulkner's final scene of his novel "The Bear." I actually wrote a bit about this in a very old post in Ancient Logic, expressing my love for how this scene describes a hunter's rising jealous mania while still preserving the moment in kind of pastoral sheen of beauty. This scenes tugs a person's heart in conflicting directions. Such complicated responses form strong bonds with the reader.

Junot Diaz and Ken Liu are two writers I believe craft and sustain emotional impact routinely in their works. "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is one of my all-time favorite novels and contains the full range of human sentiment: anger, love, despair, humor, and peace. A far shorter but no less devastating work is "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu, a spare tale of investing a single crumpled paper tiger with all tragic impact of Greek tragedy.

When you write emotions, you must, on some level feel those emotions. You don't have to have experienced exactly the same thing as a character. How many of us have been trapped inside of a bomb shelter with a murderous blood-thirsty rat, as is the case in Premee Mohamed's macabre flash fiction piece "16 Minutes." This story, despite its few words, expertly establishes the fear and claustrophobia of the narrator before drawing the noose tight around his neck. This effect happens despite Mohamed never once using the words 'afraid,' 'terror,' or 'trapped.' The narrator's increasingly frantic attempts to assuage his guilt and isolation manifest as pleas for more time and the bewildering attacks of the rat.

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