Meredith Efken is the owner of the Fiction Fix-It Shop, exclusively serving writers of adult and YA fiction. A multi-published novelist as well as freelance editor and writing coach, she is passionate about great stories and about empowering other writers to reach their full potential. Actively pursuing that desire, she started Fiction Fix-It Shop in 2006 where she has helped many fiction writers achieve their personal and professional goals. Her clients include award-winning Christian fiction authors such as Deborah Raney and Randall Ingermanson. She is also a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers as well as Word Sowers Christian Writers – a local group she has cofounded. Meredith currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, Jason and 2 lively daughters.
Emotional Range of a Teaspoon?
“Just because you’ve got the
emotional range of a teaspoon.”
...writers may understand intimately how the character feels, but they lack ability to convey it in the story...
Maybe you’ve had this experience—you are reading a novel that is well written, the characters are great, and the plot is fantastic. But you couldn’t care less about any of it. What went wrong? Chances are, the author failed to connect with your emotions. It’s one of my biggest gripes about a lot of fiction.
Fiction is supposed to give you a powerful emotional experience, right? I mean, that’s what it’s all about—to allow us to vicariously experience the life and soul of another human being. And what is a human life without emotion? Even if a person doesn’t show much emotion doesn’t mean there’s not an entire universe of feelings happening inside.
Authors are supposed to capture feelings in a way that allows the reader to experience them with the character. Too often, writers miss crucial opportunities to invite the reader into the emotional life of the character.
Most writers I work with or read in my free time neglect developing genuine character emotion. I do it, too. We get so involved in what has to happen next, and where the plot is going, that we forget to ask ourselves, “If I were this person, how would I be feeling right about now?”
Interesting and memorable fictional characters have a heightened awareness of themselves. This isn’t a narcissistic awareness; it’s simply a consciousness of their mental and emotional states. So if the character is feeling, say, despair, he is aware of that emotion and explores it through his narration and internalizations. Sometimes a character may express an emotion without being explicitly aware of it, but typically, a good fictional character has this high level of self-awareness. This allows her to fully experience the emotions and draw in the reader by communicating her feelings.
This level of self-awareness requires writers to maintain a consistent link to the emotional state of their characters as they craft the scene. If I point to any line or word in a story, the writer should be able to tell me how the character is feeling at that moment. Too many writers don’t stop to think about what the character is feeling moment by moment, which are missed opportunities.
Other writers may understand intimately how the character feels, but they lack ability to convey it in the story. This takes practice and a lot of revision. And it takes a willingness to honestly explore their own emotions, too. Journaling helps develop emotional awareness. And sometimes, you have to be willing to bleed on the paper for the sake of your story.
Keep a balance—we don’t want so much emotion that it bogs down the pace of the story. Nonverbal language; dialogue phrasing; and internalization in the narration: these are just a
few excellent ways to convey emotion. The key is for the writer to make a consciously work emotional cues into as much of the scene as possible.
Another problem for many writers is that they don’t actually know how a character would be feeling, so they either overplay or underplay the emotion. An overdone emotional response leads to a melodramatic feel to the story. Understating the emotion makes the characters seem less real, less authentic.
If you are trying to convey an emotional response to something outside your life experience is to talk to people who have experienced it. Find out what it felt like for them, then you can look at your own life experience when you had a similar emotion. Maybe it was on a smaller scale, but once you know the approximate emotion needed for a scene, you can make it stronger or weaker to fit the scene. The ability to pretend, to put yourself in the other person’s position, is essential.
Another bit of advice—if you are trying to write something out of your own life experience and you really can’t relate to it, you might need to back up and write something a little closer to home. The more advanced you become as a writer, the more you will be able to convincingly capture unfamiliar experiences and emotions. This reason is at the heart of the cardinal rule for writers, “Write what you know.”
As for the books already out there that fail to connect—well, not much we can do about that. But when you find that gem of an author who grabs your emotions, support that author so he or she has time and emotional energy to maintain the high level of craft. Writing authentic emotions in a story is exhausting for most writers. With the added pressure to put books out as quickly as possible, many writers simply lose the creative energy they need to infuse emotion into their stories. As readers, we need to be strong advocates for our favorite authors by buying their books, word-of-mouth promotion, and encouraging them to keep up their good work.
With enough conscious effort, I firmly believe writers and authors can expand their emotional range to at least several tablespoons. Maybe even a whole cup. Now that would be a powerful emotional experience, indeed.