Writing Beyond Good: Creating Emotional Resonance
Today’s blog comes from Q Lindsey Barrett.
“A story must engage the heart as well as the head; a story cannot just play clever games with language or structure or generic expectations but must have a beating, emotional heart at its core.”
Last summer I ended my guest post, Writing Beyond Good, with a list of additional elements writers struggling to emerge from the slush should tackle to elevate their prose beyond good. With the difficulty getting your work seen in the world, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the spate of requests I received for more such advice on craft. Here then is the first of a series of WBG posts.
CREATING EMOTIONAL RESONANCE
Lisa Cron in Wired For Story says that story is an “internal brain-to-brain, emotion-driven expedition.” Emotion-driven—it’s not about the plot—it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. When a story, even when crafted with beautiful sentences, fails to have the all-important quality of ‘emotional resonance,’ often the writer has rendered only the surface, the external shell, the things that happen— the plot —without dipping beneath that surface of story events.
Master writing teacher and editor Jessica Morrell says, “Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our stories evoke meaning or a responsive chord in a reader.” Paragraphs full of beautifully crafted sentences do not make a fine story if the reader feels nothing after having read them. We read textbooks to comprehend; we read literature to feel.
But let’s back up here. Feelings = emotions. But what’s the difference between ‘emotion’ and ‘emotional resonance?’
Merriam-Webster defines ‘resonance’ this way:
res·o·nance : noun \’re-z?-n?n(t)s, ‘rez-n?n(t)s\
: the quality of a sound that stays loud, clear, and deep for a long time
: a quality that makes something personally meaningful or important to someone
: a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another
The Oxford Dictionary:
: the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions
So ‘emotion’ is what your characters are feeling; ‘emotional resonance’ is about evoking in the reader the emotions your characters* are experiencing in the work. To incorporate M-W’s musical definitions, resonance is a quality in the words on the page that stays with the reader; an emotion produced in the reader by what the characters feel. And, as Morrell says, the writer must place what she calls ‘stimuli’ into a story to trigger a response in the reader.
*By the way, ‘story’ means any kind of narrative prose; ‘character’ isn’t limited to fiction—the people who populate memoir are story characters too.
“It’s not what happens to people on the page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.”
~ Gordon Lish
Now, what stimuli will produce emotion in your reader? One way being developed at MIT to invite readers into your story world and help them feel what your characters feel is a project called Sensory Fiction. Characters’ emotions are relayed through networked sensors and actuators worn by the reader.
Potentially tragic for the many who like to read in the tub?
Short of literally wiring your reader for story, creating characters worthy of and able to carry the reader through the emotional ups and downs should be foremost in the writer’s mind.
Give Us A Character To Identify With Or Care About
Because TV and movies are more widely experienced than a specific book or story, they can serve as examples using a language we have in common. For instance, the TV talent shows I love offer a lesson for writers creating characters. They teach that the power to make the viewer care about the contestants enough to vote for them is not in their singing, it’s in their story. The most talented often don’t garner the most votes, it’s the ones who are talented enough, but who also have a moving story who do. We love the contestants for whom it didn’t come easy more than the ones who seem to have had all the advantages. Emotionally resonant characters must strive, must work, must overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean the old axiom about your protagonist needing to be sympathetic; think instead of creating a relatable protagonist.
Here’s another example. In addition to mainlining TV talent shows, caught up as the contestants (characters) strive to achieve their goals, I’m an Olympics junkie. Watching ice skater Jeremy Abbott crash on his first jump in the short program, and crash hard, I gasped, waiting, transfixed, counting the moments he lay there, willing him to be all right. He didn’t get up for what seemed a long time.
When he did pull himself to standing, he was hunched and moving slow, clutching his hip, the point of impact with the ice, his face a mask of pain. I assumed his skate was over. The crowd cheered when he made it to his feet. Hearing the crowd roar, his face changed from grimace to determination. He would find a place to join the still-playing music, he would finish his routine, even knowing he had no chance to medal. He had trouble regaining the rhythm, trouble syncing moves with music. The crowd clapped the beat to help him find his way.
His face at the end bore the emotion swelling from the audience to him; his arms embraced the entire arena in thanks. In a post-skate interview he said he didn’t intend to keep skating, but the audience buoyed him. He owed it to them to continue.
We admire singers and skaters who’ve perfected technique—and writers who create beautifully crafted sentences. But we are moved by Abbott’s struggle, by his triumph over adversity. We care not so much about the plot, not so much about where he landed in the standings; we are moved by his inner struggle—the nature of his character made manifest as we watched.
Even if you hadn’t seen Abbott’s short program, I’m guessing the details I used to describe what happened allowed you to imagine what watching it was like.
Layer In The (Carefully Selected) Concrete Details
The secret to helping your readers feel what your characters feel is in carefully selecting the details. Mastering the power of detail is important enough that I will cover it in, well—detail—in a future post. But here are some thoughts on using detail to power your prose.
Another skater in the Sochi Olympics, Julia Lipnitskaia, reminded me of that power, of the way the right detail can rivet our attention, can carry the emotion of a story.
Her music, the theme from Schindler’s List, her routine, choreographed by Ilia Averbukh, a former Olympic ice dancing medalist who is a Russian Jew, and her red-coat costume were intended to engage our emotions by reminding us of how we felt watching the little girl in the red coat in the movie Schindler’s List.
Spielberg drew Schindler’s and our attention to the horrific reality of what the Nazi’s were doing to the Jews by highlighting a particular detail. In a starkly black and white landscape, a tiny girl in a red coat creates an emotional turning point for the character and for the viewer. When Schindler later spots the red cloth in a pile of dead bodies, he is moved to take action. Rather than just the facts of what happened in the Warsaw ghetto—the plot—Spielberg employs a specific detail as a touchstone for our emotions. We have a visceral reaction when we notice the coat in the pile.
Because we know we must make our prose stand out in a sea of submissions, it easy to get caught up in being clever on the page, in making something unusual happen rather than focus on small and specific detail. Jeff Kirschner, as quoted on the screenwriting blog, The Black List, said, “As writers, we have a tendency to be overly cerebral. Personally, I’m always worried about adhering to this story principle, or that hitting that plot point, that I often overlook my heart – a true source for emotion.”
A story’s power is not in facts of what happens in the story. In a Salon piece last week, the author, Sonya Lea, first lays out ‘the facts’:
“In the 23rd year of our marriage, my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer, and came out a virgin. At first, I wouldn’t know that in the 10-hour ordeal we termed a “slash-and-burn” — a near-disembowelment and bath of hot poison medically referred to as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) — he’d forgotten his life. But in the weeks that followed, we would learn that internal bleeding caused a lack of oxygen to his brain, and the resulting traumatic brain injury destroyed his desire to communicate, and completely altered his personality. Gone was any ability to speak, emote, remember.”
While we understand how terrible the experience must have been, see how in a later paragraph employing concrete, physical detail carries us into the emotion of her story:
“In this strange place where we have come to recover, the November wind moves across the chaparral and sagebrush and goldenrod of the San Joaquin hills and down to the Laguna canyon, where it winds through the screen window carrying sand, and the sense of erosion. The wind lifts tufts of my husband’s hair where it’s graying: across his chest, the sideburns of his side-parted, freshly washed mane. His eyes open. They are indigo, wide and unblinking. His eyes disguise no thought; they alight as if to legitimize my belief in innocence.”
“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
~ E.L. Doctorow
Sonya Lea spends a paragraph in a single moment and that allows the reader to feel that same moment. There is a technique taught by Barbara Turner-Vesselago in her Freefall Writing Workshop, (which I will describe more fully in the future post on detail), where I learned not just the why but the how of lingering in a particular moment in a story to dive deep into the emotional impact. (By the way, though many of her workshops have waiting lists, I think she still has room in her Freefall workshop in Edenvale, BC, Canada at the end of May, for anyone interested.)
Sometime after I took her workshop last summer, I was gifted the anniversary edition DVD of Doctor Zhivago, and was struck while watching the ‘extras’ by how similar the technique director David Lean used to evoke emotion was to Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s stay-in-the-moment method. Here is a still from the movie:
That is Uri Zhivago ascending the stairs in a former mansion-turned-army-hospital after the army has moved on along with his nurse/assistant Laura, leaving him alone. The sunflowers, which are at the peak of perfection in a previous scene, serve as a metaphor for the light Laura has brought into Zhivago’s conscripted life. The dying flowers signify his loss when she leaves. Lean takes his time, lingering in this scene, though not much is happening, showing how desolate and alone Zhivago is without Laura. As Uri goes up the stairs, head down, dejected, Lean makes the flowers weep for Uri by tying monofilament to individual petals, which are then pulled by people under the table out of camera range, falling one by one like tears.
Because I am moved by simplicity of symbols and spareness of prose, it’s far too easy for me to fall into the habit of moving forward too quickly—typical first draft stuff—Freefall showed me where to linger, inviting readers into my world and allowing them time to feel.
A sporting event, a tidbit about how a director achieved an effect in a movie . . . what have these to do with creating emotional resonance when writing? As I described in TMR’s Working Writer Series, pay attention to things in the world that speak to you, moments that resonate with you, take notes, gather those ‘wool bits’ to later fuel your writing.
So to create emotional resonance:
• give us characters we identify with or care about
• layer in the (carefully selected) concrete details
In ‘Emotional Resonance: The Sequel’ (AKA Part II of this topic), I’ll talk about tapping into emotion while you are writing.
Thanks for reading ~
Q Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic