Love It, Review It, Give It Away: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

It’s time again for my monthly giveaway and review. To find out how to enter for a chance to win a copy of Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, check out the giveway rules here. The contest ends August Monday 6 at 11:59pm EDT.

Review in a nutshell:

A excellent book that explores the emotional side of storytelling in depth. It’s greatest value comes through the large number of exercises that can be applied to a work in progress.

Book Details (from the publisher):

Published: December 30, 2016
Print Length: 218 pages
Author:  Donald Maass (New York, NY) heads the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City, which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 150 novels every year to publishers in America and overseas. He is a past president of the Association of Authors Representatives, Inc., and is the author of several books.

Engage Your Readers with Emotion

While writers might disagree over showing versus telling or plotting versus pantsing, none would argue this: If you want to write strong fiction, you must make your readers feel. The reader’s experience must be an emotional journey of its own, one as involving as your characters’ struggles, discoveries, and triumphs are for you.

That’s where The Emotional Craft of Fiction comes in. Veteran literary agent and expert fiction instructor Donald Maass shows you how to use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers. Topics covered include:

  • emotional modes of writing
  • beyond showing versus telling
  • your story’s emotional world
  • moral stakes
  • connecting the inner and outer journeys
  • plot as emotional opportunities
  • invoking higher emotions, symbols, and emotional language
  • cascading change
  • story as emotional mirror
  • positive spirit and magnanimous writing
  • the hidden current that makes stories move

Readers can simply read a novel…or they can experience it. The Emotional Craft of Fiction shows you how to make that happen.

Overview and Review

In consuming any type of fiction, the most satisfying moments for me are always the ones that invoke strong emotion: those gut punch moments when a character fails or the stand up and cheer moments when they succeed. In my own writing, I want to invoke those feelings in my readers and The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass has helped me take a significant step along that path.

Emotional Layers

At the simplest level, authors want readers to understand what emotions their characters are experiencing. Clarity of emotion, however, is seldom the end goal. Phrases like “Bob was angry,” while clear, are boring. Usually, we want the reader to experience the emotions of our characters and this rarely happens by stating them outright. Sometimes, to get the emotional response we want, we have to look at other, deeper emotions.

Skillful authors play against expected feelings. They go down several emotional layers in order to bring up emotions that will catch readers by surprise. . . We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable.

Maass not only details both “telling” and “showing” techniques to elicit reader empathy, he also discusses methods for evoking emotions in the reader that are different from what the characters are feeling.

Emotional Plot

Just like the climax of a great story is built on a foundation of earlier scenes, the emotional plot should also be considered. Hooking readers to your protagonist through emotional beats and tracking along their emotion journey is crucial to getting the most out of any story concept.

This is more than just character arc. Recognizing that the reader goes through their own independent emotional journey takes things to a whole other level. Maass details techniques to develop every step of the emotional plot from making us fall in love with protagonists to delivering the moments of catharsis we all long for.

. . . the effect that a novel has on us is not produced by who is in it, where it’s set, or what happens there. It’s produced by how we feel about those things. It’s a series of emotional kisses and blows. Mile-a-minute thrillers can leave us cold and heavy-breathing romances can make us roll our eyes. On the other hand, stories that have no precedent, little action, a quiet voice, and a mundane setting can move, shake, and change us.

Emotion Beyond the Characters

I love science fiction and fantasy. That love isn’t because the characters are better or the stories more original, but because I fall in love with the world. Maass discusses how setting and symbols, mood and human nature can all be integrated to pack a strong emotional punch.

. . . what’s happening inside . . . has implications for creating a story world that is magical, absorbing, vivid, and involving, and a place readers don’t want to leave. Our feeling of wanting to linger isn’t generated by the setting itself, by loveable eccentrics in your cast, or by what happens to your protagonist–though those things aren’t bad. The feeling of wanting to linger comes from our feelings.

Using the Book

The techniques that Donald Maass details are valuable on their own, but what made me love this book are the exercises it presents. They aren’t trite or simplistic, and they don’t feel tacked on–like so many other writing books I’ve read. They are well thought out and, for me at least, hold the true treasure of this book. The exercises change The Emotional Craft of Fiction from an instruction manual to a master class in fiction writing.

For the exercises to be most effective, you need a work in progress. I’ve gone through the book a few times, and I think the best time to use it is when you have a complete first draft (or at least a complete outline).

Before reading this book, I’d focused my revision process on key story elements. Do my scenes move the plot forward? Do I escalate toward the climax? Is my world vivid, and are my characters well-rounded? This book provided an entirely new analysis tool for me to use, helping me take inventory of what I’m doing and giving me ideas for re-writing scenes and re-working plot for greater impact.

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend this book. A lot of books on fiction retread the same writing advice again and again, but Maass doesn’t do that here. Rather, he takes this very specific topic and dives deeply, providing useful advice and invaluable exercises to work on developing the skills. It has found its place amongst a small group of writing books that I read repeatedly.

If this book sounds interesting to you, I hope you’ll take the time to enter the giveaway contest (or just go by the book). I’d also love to hear what books on writing you go back to again and again to help you improve your craft.