Playing With Minds And Hearts


Yes, that.  Exactly that is what you're supposed to do to your reader only vicariously!
Yes, that. Exactly that is what you’re supposed to do to your reader only vicariously!

It took me till I’d been published for seven years or so, before I realized I was doing it all wrong.  Now this is fairly normal.  Okay, it’s fairly normal for me – I don’t know about the rest of you zombies.  I’m either unusually dense, or I need to have some sort of a running start to get the rest of the view of the field.

Anyway. here’s the thing: I’d been published for going on seven years before I realized that writing was not about ideas.

By then, I’d sort of gotten used to the idea that it wasn’t about words.  Okay, that took Dean Wesley Smith telling me to get over the word thing, but you get my meaning.  I’d got it.  I’d realized that while writing can use incredibly beautiful words, the one thing I got for free in the craft – words – were of little or no value.  Spending my entire day crafting a perfectly crafted sentence about turnips did nothing, if my audience didn’t like turnips, or couldn’t care less about turnips.  Particularly if the turnips didn’t advance the plot.

So, then, of course, I thought that writing was about words.

Look, guys, I’m a Heinlein fan. I love the big ideas in his books.  So, I figured that was my job: big ideas.

And since I couldn’t play with the big ideas I wanted to play with: how should humanity govern itself? Or How much individual freedom should we have?  Or Is it right to take from one person to give to the other?  In what circumstances is that right? – because all those stories would reveal I was less than enamored with the ideas that were popular amid my publishers – I played with history, and how to use history for modern audiences.

If the most essential part of a novel was in there it was because it fell in and I didn’t know how to take it out.

The most essential part? You ask.  Of course.

The most essential part of a novel is emotion.  Arguably it’s also the most important part of any form of fiction, including movies.  But the novels have the upper hand because  they can make you as close to BE someone as you can.  Movies, it’s more watching someone, no matter what level of identification you achieve, or try to achieve.

My problem is that I was raised in a time and place where emotion was considered uncouth.  Certainly public emotion, and for our purposes there is nothing more public than the pages of a book.

So, I tried to suppress it.  I tried to avoid taking my characters to highs and lows, and when I did I tried to write it in as understated a way as possible.  Because I didn’t want to be crass or melodramatic.  Even my humor was understated to the point most people missed it.

And then I got it.  Look, guys, yeah, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is about ideas.  But would I give a hang about the ideas if they didn’t matter to Manny Garcia O’Kelly?  If it didn’t make a difference to how he lived, and those he loved?  When the professor died I almost cried, and I did cry when Mike stopped answering him.

The dime dropped.  Yes, it’s fine to have your story be about ideas.  I’m fairly sure that Jane Austen meant to say things about income, social class, child rearing, social demeanor, and other issues of the regency, but we remember Pride and Prejudice because of Darcy’s and Lizzie’s “against all odds” love.

Words, sure, words are fine, as are plots and all the other tools of the craft, but that’s just the knives and stilettos you sculpt emotion with.  Your goal is to cause your reader to FEEL.  That’s what will keep him coming back.

This is where the New Wave by and large failed to connect with the public.  They thought that their job was to write “far out” ideas.  Far out ideas are all very well, but they’re ideas.  Ideas are very well, and if you can get them in your novel, you definitely should.  But if that’s all your novel is, perhaps you should write a non fiction book instead. (Or for a lot of New Wave, a pamphlet.)

Note that among the New Wave authors, Phil Dick is arguably the most successful.  Why?  Well, his words were fine, but the man couldn’t carry a logical plot in a stainless steel basket.  So why?

Because he has emotion.  It’s often odd and despairing, but it is there.

Think of words/description/setting, even to an extent plot as the panning in and out of a camera showing a landscape.  You can make it look happy, sad, despairing, hopeful.  It’s all in the lighting and the panning.

And you don’t want it to be all one emotion.  You want to build fear or sadness or tender moments, until it explodes in a climax that often brings about the opposite.  There is an emotional mapping to a novel – and often a short story – though those can sometimes be about “mere” ideas.

The tempo is also dictated by the emotion you wish to evoke.  But you should give your reader a good two or three strong thwacks in the “strong emotion” – fear or tragedy or… even love.

Now, go grab your favorite novel and read it slowly, making notes on how by word choice or arrangement of events (like making a kid unbearably adorable just before you kill him) the author is playing with your emotions and tugging at your heart.

And then go you and do likewise.

33 thoughts on “Playing With Minds And Hearts

  1. I always feel awkward with my emotions while writing. Am i laying it on too thick here? Is he coming across as grieving, or simply saying the words? And I know I don’t get emotions while reading like most people do (not that I don’t get them, I’m just… not as perceptive, or something) which is either a by-product of my Oddness, or my reading style, I’m not sure which. I’ve been relying on beta readers to give me hints as to whether I’m getting it even close. My last short story, Sugar Skull, had betas coming back and asking ‘why isn’t she more scared here?’ which was helpful. I’m hoping it gets better with practice?

  2. This. This times 1,000.

    Emotion is what separates fiction from essays and policy papers. You get to know the characters and feel their personal struggle. Pushing emotional buttons is one of the most effective things a writer can do.

  3. We must certainly be Odds, crying at the death of a supercomputer. Heinlein said something (as Jubal Harshaw) in Stranger in a Strange Land about how true art reaches people emotionally, and that most of what passes for art these days (fifty years ago) is more like masturbating – no emotional connection.

    1. Mike wasn’t *Just* a Supercomputer. He was a person in his own right.

      To cry for Mike wasn’t like somebody crying because his car was demolished.

      It was crying because a friend was gone.

      1. Right. You wouldn’t cry for a machine that only did word processing and spreadsheets. Mike had come alive (for certain values of alive), had emotions, and then was taken away just when he should have become the new Luna’s most valuable asset.

        1. I cried when a mis-designed home-brew circuit fed 120V AC into the circuit board of my Commodore Pet. Does that count?

  4. I figure if I can wring a tenth of the tears out of readers Bob got with “Oh, Bog, is a computer one of your creatures?” I’ve won the big one. I don’t think you CAN lay it on too thick.As much as I despise horror and Friday the Thirteenth Chainsaw Hockey Mask and that ilk, I must (and I think YOU must) acknowledge that the reason for their success is the same manipulation of the emotional valves. That’s a question I’m forever asking my alpha — “Did you cry?” And it’s not just sorrow or joy, there’s pride, too. Like on last nights ep of NCIS, the final scene with the widow and the faithful K9 companion sitting and standing graveside after the funeral and patriotic music in the background as Gibbs stalks off in search of other ungodly to lay low.


  5. Sarah, It isn’t just you. People have been taught, like you were that showing emotions are *wrong.;* therefore, expressing them in writing was equally bad. I’ve said it before, but I’ll quote Vernor(?) Vinge again. “The intro should grab the reader by the throat, and say. *READ ME.*”
    I’m going to quote an opening sentence or three from four books, as examples. I grabbed 4 library books off the shelf, pretty much at random. (Note: I’ve known Mike and Gail for over 22 years, and Morrigan is my adopted Granddaughter.) Pick up any book that you have, and it’s likely similar.
    “MIss Owens is here, High Admiral.”
    High Admiral Wesley Matthews looked up at his yeoman’s announcement, then rose behind his desk as the slender, shapely brunette Midshipwoman in the sky blue tunic and dark blue trousers of the Grayson Space navy stepped past the yeoman into his office. . . ” David Weber, “Service of the Sword” In Worlds of Honor #4.
    Alex Marlow acknowledged that he was the was one of the best bodyguards in the Galaxy “Best” was a relative term, but he and his team had manged to keep principals alive through battles, riots, poisonings with neurotoxins, and even nuclear attack.” Michael Z. Williamson, “When Diplomacy Fails.”
    “Aramis Anders flinched as the bullet cracked past his head. That was a bit closer than he liked. (Prologue) Alex Marlow had just been tasked to guard the richest woman in the universe. He wondered He wondered why he wasn’t twitchy.
    Of course, his team hadn’t been told that yet.” Michael Z. Williamson, “Do unto Others.”
    “GET YOUR GODDAMNED SHIPS the hell out of _my_ space.”
    “The burly, dark haired man on Commander Yang Yau-pau’s com was red faced and snarling.” David Weber, “A Rising Thunder” (An Honor Harrington novel).
    That Hardback ($24-29) is nearly _5_ hours pay, for a minimum wage worker. A paperback is about 1 Hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes in cost. Granted, unless you;re Indie, you see only ~10% of that, but they don’t see that. All the buyer knows is, “I paid $X, for this book. It is worth it?” It’s their ticket out of _this_ world. I’m atypical because I’ll read half a book, desperately hoping it gets better. :-\
    Sarah, judging by your blog posts, you’ve done a pretty good job of undoing that early training. You make us care about the Hoyte household, and it’s lunacy.. If I were to write a book about my life, I’d start it this way.
    “I ticked the questions, ‘Are you depressed?” ‘No.’ ‘What do I have to be depressed about? I’m in a Nursing Home; Medicaid lets me keep $52/month out of my Disability check; My pain is at a level of 8 on a scale of ten, because my pain med.’s were cut 62%; and I’m in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Of course, I’m depressed. I know Depression by his initial, I’m so familiar with it. But, it could be worse.”
    (All of the above is literally true.)

  6. Emotions. Yes. The bigger the better. It’s something I struggle with, because like the rest of you, I feel like I’m laying it on too thick. Then I think about an absolutely horrific anime I’ve started watching, called Attack on Titan. The story is horror upon horror and not particularly logical. Not the sort of thing I usually watch. But the emotions are there–grand, despairing, challenging, all bigger than life, and dragging me in despite the grand guignol of the story.

  7. Uh-oh. Sarah said “emotions.” And yes, she’s right, but uhhh… I’m a dude. I’m not supposed to admit to those. Seriously. As males we are supposed to have a stiff upper lip and be thoroughly stoic. So why is it that the piece of writing that I’m most proud of is the one that’s made just about every person who has read it cry?

    Seriously. It’s the story of the day my father was lost in a boating accident. The emotions in it are what you would expect if you knew what was coming. Of course if you read the work, it starts off on a totally different note, but that DAY started off on a totally different not.

    I’ve written oodles and bunches since then and my sentence structure, word choice, use of punctuation and every other damn technical skill has improved. All of them. And it’s not like I haven’t been able to move people emotionally since, but I think I’ve gotten the best response from that story still. It’s a moment I’ve channeled into another work when the MC loses his father suddenly.

    And it’s weird but even in movies you remember the emotional moments best. I’m a fan of movies with explosions and attractive women to be sure, but it’s the emotional moments that stay with me. I know it’s cheesy, but who can forget the first time that they saw Jim Kirk with his hand against the glass watching Spock die? Or the first time that they heard Darth Vader say, “I am your father, Luke?” Those are the moments that I try for. I think it’s harder for an author than for a screen writer too. Bill Shatner and James Earl Jones can add layers of emotion through voice and motion that an author just can’t… Not can struggle toward but are simply UNABLE to achieve. It’s overcoming that that’s the hard part. Something like 70-80 percent of communication is non-verbal and even if we include the visual cues in our writing we are communicating them verbally. I’ve often wondered how to overcome that.

  8. I’ve noticed that Ann Bishop elicits strong reactions from readers. I think its because she is a master at building up emotional tension and then YANKing the rug from under your feet. There’s very little setting, just enough to let you fill in what you think SaDiablo Hall and Keep would look like, but a lot of emotional development and description. So readers can get deeply involved in the characters. Now, she’s also a master at tapping certain strings and near-archetypes that resonate very, very strongly (the Ideal Lover, Strong Brother, Wise Father). I’m not certain most straight men would respond the way straight women seem to do to her stories, or respond to the same things. But she’s writing for sales and slips in a message about abuse of power, instead of pounding MESSAGE and whining about lack of sales.

      1. It’s not your fault that idealists keep stomping into your books and wreaking havoc with a perfectly nice plot line. *pats Sarah’s back, hands her a more-or-less clean hankie*

        I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me, I need to get back to rescuing the library at the University of Louven so the Bavarians and Hapsburgs come out with a better settlement at Versailles.

  9. Now, go grab your favorite novel and read it slowly, making notes on how by word choice or arrangement of events (like making a kid unbearably adorable just before you kill him) the author is playing with your emotions and tugging at your heart.

    dagnabit… fine…
    (goes to grab copy of… )
    Wait a second… favorite novel?

    1. You mean… I have to pick… ONE (?!) favorite novel? Well, I can’t read them all at once, can I? Okay, the first one I can get my hands on. Whatever that means with a kindle. 😉
      I was having troubles with a particular scene, and Sarah gave me the solution to it on a silver platter. Things don’t HAVE to explode as long as the tension is there, and the emotions ratchet properly. Thanks!

  10. I’m reminded of this Vonnegut lecture on the shape of stories. He speaks of fortune, not emotion, but I think there’s a relation. To get sort of pseudomathematical here:

    E = F^2

    Or Emotion = Fortune Squared. Why squared? Because that eliminates negative values, and it emphasize peaks AND valleys. When F = 0 (i.e., average) , E = 0 because it’s boring. But when F = -ALOT, there’s a lot of emotion because you wonder how he’ll survive. And when F = HAPPYDAY, there’s a lot of emotion because he triumphed.

    You can also think of a first derivative of E. You can think of this as W (Wonder). If F stays high or low, you start to get bored, and that first derivative becomes a flatline. So take him through a rollercoaster on F, and W will start to climb as the reader wonders what will happen next.

    Note: F = 0 is different for different characters and different stories. If your protagonist starts out as the happiest, luckiest, richest guy on Earth, that’s his 0. He has little upside potential. If your character starts out a complete loser in everything, then kicking him when he’s down is meaningless, because he can’t get more down.

  11. You must STOP giving away all the tricks!

    Just don’t tell them they also have to show the emotions, not tell them – you have to elicit the emotional response from the READER, not the character.

    And that it has to be in every scene, or your reader gets bored (low distraction threshold).

  12. I have to keep this in mind. I would rather not write Ayn Rand-style – lots of message and prose, and little emotion. (Okay, *I* got little emotion [i.e., none] out of Rand – maybe others got more?). Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune has stuck with me for decades – I don’t remember a lot of the story per se, but the color — that is what I remember. Guy Kay’s novels (well, some of them) hit me emotionally… to the point that Kay is an automatic buy for me, any time a new book is released. I didn’t particularly *feel* anything from Heinlein’s books, but they were generally a darn good read.

    Anyway – good points (Sarah has made), and I need to remember them as I write. I guess my rule of thumb is, if I don’t care about my own characters, then I need to stop and rethink my strategy. If I cry when they do (shut up, it could happen)… then I’m doing it right.

  13. This is one of the things I worry that I’ll never really “get” as a writer.

    Not that I feel I don’t “know” emotions. I practice evoking emotional responses several times a week. I like making my roleplaying partners laugh, or cry, or shake their heads in exasperation, or gasp with surprise. I can’t say I’m the best at it, but people seem to enjoy what I do, so I must have some idea of how to do it.

    But I am highly resistant to being emotionally manipulated. I resent being made to cry over a tv show or movie, and will sulk over it when I am provoked into it by a book (at least generally in a book, I can have my dignity because I’m reading in private).

    Now, I love being made to laugh, or love, or feel my heart race with vicarious excitement, or my muscles tighten with anxiety. Even getting mad, I enjoy. But if you manipulate me into crying, and I see the strings, I typically get angry.

    I don’t think it has as much to do with society’s “don’t cry”. (Though I will say that some branches of feminism has a lot to answer for by dividing the line between girls who let themselves cry and girls who are “too strong” to do weak things like that.) I think it has a lot more to do with my teenage years and the people who played on my tender heart to get the emotional responses they craved. More specifically, those who claimed they were going to kill themselves and no one loved them or cared about them and I was only pretending that I cared. One of those times my dad found me sobbing with a blanket over my head and the computer to hide the monitor glow (because I wasn’t supposed to be awake at that hour – it might have been a school night).

    I know it’s not the same. Provoking an emotional response in a reader, even if it’s the story of someone shouting the exact same words as were used on me, isn’t the same as manipulating someone in reality. I’ve felt a little twist of pleasure when someone’s told me something I wrote/played out made them cry or their “heart break”. I don’t need that as a person. But I might need it as a writer.


    1. Well, no. In fact, they revived him after his components were retrieved by dumping him into shiny new hardware with another intelligent computer. But at the end of TMIAHM, you just weren’t sure.

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