Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Writer’s emotional bond

As a writer I have a ton of books I’ve collected over the years on becoming a better writer (I’ve often joked that if you want to make money writing, all you need to do is write a book about writing). One of the books I turn to the most, and often lend out to other writers, is Stein on Writing. He reminds me of my favorite writing professor in that he doesn’t pull any punches.

In the chapter, “The Writer’s Job May Be Different Than You Think,” Stein discusses the importance of considering the reader’s needs, the necessity of capturing emotion, and the importance of practicing, developing a thick skin, and becoming an observer of the unspoken.

“It is our job,” Stein writes, “in nonfiction as well as fiction, to juxtapose words that reveal what previously may have been blinked, and prove insights obscured by convention and shame.”

In other words, we have to be willing to say what is otherwise left unsaid. We not only need to answer the question “What?” but “What if?” as well.

Throughout the chapter, Stein compares and contrasts nonfiction with fiction, but boils the differences with the following: Nonfiction conveys information. Fiction evokes emotion.

One of my favorite writing quotes by Dave Lambert says essentially the same thing: Nonfiction communicates truth to the intellect, through logical thought. Fiction communicates truth to the heart, through emotion.

As a writer, my job is not to focus on saying what happened, but to allow my readers to feel what is in progress.

It’s the age-old “show don’t tell,” yet before I was introduced to Stein, this concept had never been expressed in this manner to me. Stein points out that when we curl up with a good book we forget about the words on the page. We love a book not because of the writer, but because of how the writer makes us feel. We thrill and despair without leaving our chair. Each word is carefully crafted and chosen to excite us and break our hearts.

I’m currently reading a series of books that does just that. I’m invested in the lives of the characters because the author forges strong emotional ties between the reader and the characters. There are the wicked people I long to see brought to justice because of the pain they’ve caused without remorse, there are the “innocents” trapped in situations far beyond their control who I want to see brought out safely, and even when I’m not reading I’m thinking about them, wondering what hand fate will deal them.

It is that essence I long to capture in my own writing.

Like in the real world, so much of what happens in a story happens underneath the surface. 

For example, my sister can read my emotions by looking at my eyes. She knows when I’m thinking about a particular person because the corner of my mouth will twitch. It doesn’t matter which words I use, she knows via subtle clues if I’m being honest or not. It’s determining how to take those clues and commit them convincingly to the page that often becomes the challenge for me.

I once heard someone say, “Everything is easy once you know how to do it.”

So this evening after work I’m going home to practice conveying emotion through the written word a little more.


  1. I think conveying emotion through writing is one of the most difficult tasks in the whole writing process. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I agree that conveying emotion is one of the most difficult skills a writer can develop.

    With hard work and diligence, however, developing the talent of tugging heartstrings with my writing is also an incredibly rewarding experience. It's worth striving for excellence in this aspect of my craft.

    I've learned that well-written Non-Fiction utilizes the art of evoking a reader's emotion, as well.

    Honing our craft is an ongoing process. I am thankful to be on this journey with you, Jen.

    Thanks for posting this snippet. It's a great reminder to show, not tell, no matter what we write.