Emotional Truths, Insights, And Emotions Are Key To A Great Novel
If you ask readers why they read, you’ll hear a lot of different answers—but if a story doesn’t have some hard-won emotional truths in it as well as being entertaining, readers will likely put it down. And if your character doesn’t struggle to gain their goal, and they don’t have an internal or worldview change as a result, your story won’t be satisfying. We all struggle, and are all trying to figure out how to be happier, how to get what we want and need in life—how to gain greater insights. Story is one way to help us do that.
Readers respond to emotional truths in story. One of the reasons we read is to give us a roadmap for the pain and problems we’re going through, to know that not only can we survive them, but we can also heal from them, maybe even come away from them stronger or with a new purpose. Stories help us see how other people have coped with the same problems we have, and help give us new ways of coping, or new insights or perspectives on our journey.
Stories also help us know we’re not alone in our specific struggle and pain. Being alone or seen as “other” centuries ago would have meant we were an outcast, and we might not have survived. Even today, being seen as “other” can mean we are ostracized, bullied, or mistreated. Finding others who understand what we’re going through—even in fictional characters—can lessen that pain and help us cope better.
Another reason we read story is to figure out how we would deal with a problem that we haven’t yet experienced. Stories allow us to vicariously experience painful situations that we haven’t had in a safe way, and help us figure out how we’d not only survive them, but also how we’d heal from them or make our life better. We absorb the main character’s insights, if they resonate in a way that feels true, and they can help us be or feel more prepared to cope with those problems if we have them in the future, or help us to better understand and support someone we love when they’re going through that tough time.
Another reason we read is to help us understand ourselves—and other people—better. Why do people act and react the way they do? How can we avoid having negative interactions with others, and navigate through life more safely or happily? How can we help someone we care about who’s going through a hard experience that we haven’t? A good book can help us really get inside someone else’s experiences in a way other mediums can’t, and help us understand ourselves and others better—through the emotionally true actions, reactions, and insights in the story. And it can also help us gain greater compassion, empathy, and insight for others as well as for ourselves.
Emotion, insights, and emotional truths help make a novel more compelling and un-putdownable for the reader, and much more satisfying. So draw on your own experiences, especially meaningful ones, include your insights and emotions, then infuse your character or stories with them. As long as there is that thread of emotional truth in your fiction, readers will respond.
The opposite is true, too; readers can sense when the author isn’t being entirely honest or writing from the heart. This is true not just in realistic fiction, but also in fantasy. So be as creative and as imaginative in your story as you want, but make sure there’s a thread of emotional truth if you really want to engage and keep your readers. How little or how much of your truth you put into the story is up to you, but write some in. You don’t have to write from your traumatic experiences, the way I do, but writing some level of your emotional truth will give your story more meaning.
A good story helps us feel along with the character, so writing with the emotion your character feels helps. Writing emotion in your manuscript isn’t just limited to what you show the main character feeling through body language and dialogue. You can also show their emotion through how you write the setting, weather, and symbolism, through how the character perceives their interactions with others, how others react to them, and through how the character’s past affects their present viewpoint, actions, and reactions. Someone who is angry will view and react to their surroundings and the people in it very differently than someone who is afraid, and again very differently from someone who is content or tired. Different things will stand out for your character than for the other people around them depending on how they feel and how their past has affected them.
Emotional truths, insights, and emotion can help hook your reader, engage them, and make them keep reading. Of course, it’s also important to learn all the other parts of story craft, but writing emotional truths is important if you want to write stories that readers won’t put down.
To read more about this in depth and to really make your stories come alive, read Story Genius and Wired For Story by Lisa Cron; Emotion, Conflict and Back Story by Mary Buckham; and The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. I also highly recommend writing courses by Mary Buckham; Margie Lawson (especially her Empowering Characters’ Emotions and Writing Body Language and Dialogue, which she also has as lecture packets); and CS Laskin’s Emotional Mastery For Fiction Writers course. You can also consult The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi for jumping off points in writing emotion through body language and how the body reacts to emotion.
©Cheryl Rainfield, 2020
Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, and HUNTED
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