Whap! Pow! Zing!—How Can You Tell if Your Story Has Emotional Resonance?

The magic ingredient in fiction is that special something that socks readers right in the gut and leaves them breathless with joy or sorrow (or maybe wabi-sabi, the Japanese term for that impossibly beautiful combination of the two). We’ve all read books that were perfectly executed, but somehow lacked that magic. I thoroughly enjoyed the word craft of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, but for whatever reason it never connected with me emotionally. On the other hand, Jane Porter’s perhaps technically (and certainly historically) suspect The Scottish Chiefs never fails to wring me out like a dishrag after dinner dishes.

Skillful craftsmanship can only lift emotionally resonant stories even higher. But even perfectly crafted books can’t always guarantee an emotional reaction from readers. So how do you go about infusing this all-important essence into your fiction?

Ultimately, of course, emotional reaction—that heart of all stories—is subjective. What resonates with me won’t necessarily resonate with you. But the starting place for any powerful story must be the author himself. If a story doesn’t resonate first and foremost with you, why think it will ever be able to touch a reader? This, of course, begs the second question of how we identify story ideas that have the potential for affecting us—and hopefully, by extension, our readers—over the long haul. The answer, happily, is the simplest of the simple:
Listen to your body.

In her wonderful book Write Away, best-selling mystery author Elizabeth George speaks about how:

Writing is not only an intellectual endeavor for me, it’s also very much a physical one. When I’m onto the right story, the right location, the right situation, the right theme, my body tells me. I feel a surge of excitement in my solar plexus that literally sends the message Yes yes yes! to my brain.

National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon, in his essay “The Title Game Exercise” in Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston explains it as:

…seek[ing] out not what we know but what stirs our hearts, a little minnow-flash of unshakable emotion—a character, a situation, a voice…. You know you’ve got it when you feel a little tingle in your chest, a flip-flop of your stomach.

In her children’s novel Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery referred to the feeling as “the flash,” the possibility of which kept the main character “a-thrill and expectant.” My own experience is almost always a feeling of my stomach leaping up and forcing the air from my lungs; I refer to it as “my chest collapsing.” Whenever my chest collapses, when I can’t breathe, when my stomach seems to be practicing aerial dives, that’s when I know I’ve hit an idea that matters. Even if it should end up mattering to no one else, it matters to me. And, during the creative stages, that’s more than enough. Even more encouraging, if a story matters so deeply to me that it’s able to evoke such a dramatic physical response, it’s a pretty sure bet it will end up mattering to someone else.

So what does your physical response to emotional resonance feel like? And, most important of all, does your work-in-progress evoke that feeling from you?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Simile! “…never fails to wring me out like a dishrag after dinner dishes.” That one was really cool.

    It’s hard to get all of the readers to get the same feeling, though. I get it just from seeing the characters growing up! When one of my characters had to die (had, note, he was getting in the way of the plot *gets smacked by him*), I cried for about twenty minutes afterwards. How do you get the writer crying/laughing when something happens AND the reader crying/laughing?

    Really good post!

  2. I will laugh or chuckle with a humorous book. Thrillers leave me wide eyed and turning the pages. Sad stuff makes me cry.

    For my own writing, I’ve cried when there’s an intense emotional scene. Recently, I got mad when my heroine couldn’t get it through her thick boyfriend’s head that to marry her, he needed to actually propose. Men!

  3. @Kate: The key, of course, is writing well enough to convey everything about the character that connects with us. Easier said than done!

    @Bonnie: Emoting along with the characters is always an excellent sign that we’re putting the emotion on the page.

  4. I find that when I am really excited by the emotions I am generating when I write I have trouble sitting down (which is a problem when I am trying to get the words down on paper as fast as I can.) I jump up and pace as I think of the next section, then run back to my computer.

    I too laugh out loud, or cry, as I write. This shows me I am tapping into strong emotions.

    But one of the best checks for me is to read my writing out loud. I read the last draft of my historical mystery (in stages) out loud to a friend, and it was a wonderful way of getting immediate feedback. What a great feeling of accomplishment when she laughed at the spots that I thought were funny, and got teary just when I thought she should, and said excitedly, “Don’t stop there-I need to know what happens next.”

  5. I move around a lot when I’m writing too. I often feel like I need to act out tough scenes, esp. ones that are physically intricate, such as battles. Can’t think who off the top of my head, but there was a well-known author who wrote all his stories standing up at his typewriter.

  6. GREAT POST!

    I was interested that you’d loved the wordcraft of The Thirteenth Tale but never connected emotionally with it – I read it last month and had exactly the same reaction.

    And here I thought I was a rarity among writers to have such strong physical reactions when I write. I do know when I’ve got something good: my stomach turns flips, I hyperventilate, my muscles contract… it’s incredible sometimes! 😉 When writing the conclusion for my YA novel SS-5, I actually almost blacked out because I forgot to breathe. Literally.

    So… glad to know it’s not just me!

  7. Wowzers. Blacking out from forgetting to breathe. I think you win the prize for most impressive physical response! You better surround your chair will pillows the next time to write a tough scene.

  8. > Emoting along with the characters is always an excellent sign that we’re putting the emotion on the page.

    And also, your emotions can run ahead. I almost cried while writing–of all things– a laundry fight, because it was so humurous, but I knew what was coming and how tragic it would become.

  9. Oh, yes, I can definitely relate to that. In addition to my own work, I’ve done that when watching movies whose stories I was already familiar with from books.

  10. Thank you for a wonderful post! There was a scene in my novel that I had been dreading and procrastinating for days. When I finally forced myself to sit down and write it, it came together perfectly. My character revealed herself to me, and I just started crying. I have no idea if my readers will feel the same way, but that was the moment that I feel I became a “writer.”

  11. Not all readers will respond to your story in the same way you do, but the fact that it evoked such a strong reaction from you gives it a wonderful chance of socking the majority of readers in the gut as well.

  12. It’s the small details : a trembling, small hand held up against thin lips on a thinner body.

    I try to go for the universal hungers : for love, for safety, for the sense of worth in at least one pair of eyes.

    I tried that in my Sunday’s post where the MC (me, actually, trapped in the fictional world I created) see both the adult and the inner child of the people he passes in a supernatural jazz club.

    Come take a peek, why don’t you?

    Have a great week, Roland

  13. Sounds like an interesting premise. I’ll hop on over right now.

  14. You like Scottish Chiefs? No wonder I enjoy reading your blog! 🙂 Great post…

    I certainly haven’t come close to passing out while writing, but maybe I’ll work on that. 🙂 (Having read some of N. H.’s work, I can see how she could do that! I really enjoyed the small portion I read.) 😀

  15. Yes, The Scottish Chiefs is a perennial favorite. My father read it to me when I was a little girl, and I’ve been bubbling over with a love of Scotland and all things medieval ever since.

  16. I’m about to read The Thirteenth Tale- it’ll be interesting to see if I have the same reaction.

    And you’re right- the best scenes are the ones we writers emotionally connect with. I find those tend to be the scenes I’ve waited the whole book to write.

  17. I would be interested in your reaction to The Thirteenth Tale. I can be a hard sell emotionally, but if you can hit me in the gut, I’ll forgive a host of other problems.

  18. oh my gosh, let me explain the ways this WIP has brought emotion!

    I’ve cried at work, wrestling with the torture I’m going to put my character and readers through, I’ve wanted to say ‘no!’ so many times, but the feelings and pushings I get from God are so much stronger than my no’s.

    I’m feeling this one deeper than any other before…and I LOVE it, yet at the same time, I kinda hate all the tough research and pain it takes to write it.

    But I’ve heard that if you’re raw and feel these things so deeply, that it will show and you’ll be read. And it will be honest.

    I’m looking forward to doing it again after this one 🙂

    “Hi, my name is Kelly, and I like to be tortured with sad stuff as I research my novels”
    -“Hi Kelly…”

  19. Ha! Yes, we should all probably start a group – Masochistic Writers Anonymous. Seriously, though, feeling that amount of emotion as you’re writing is a very good sign that you’re onto something wonderful.

  20. What a great post! I had never thought of it quite in this way before, but it’s definitely true that your body responds when you’ve mined something valuable in your writing. Mine usually registers as excitement or laughter. A feeling like I could go on writing forever. I have been known to cry too, but not as often since I write children’s picture books.

    P.S. I think it was Hemingway that wrote standing up, but don’t quote me on that.

  21. I was thinking it was Hemingway too. I often get a sense of euphoria from ideas too – a twirling in the rain kind of feeling.

  22. I have mild hypoglycemia and I find my blood sugar drops and I feel almost sick and not very good while reading a lengthy intense and nerve-wracking section of a novel. After I discovered that, I tried to stop binge-reading tramatic epics.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not that any nice person would wish you to feel ill, but I have a feeling a lot of authors would be tickled to know their books affected you in such a physical way!

  23. That impulse usually attacks my jaw muscles. Leaving me with a big wide grin. And it makes me so excited. That’s actually the reason I can’t stop this journey of writing fiction. I don’t want to loose those wide grins of mine 🙂

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  1. […] their own dark emotions. The best-drawn characters are compelling. They create emotional resonance, a sock in the gut. We like or dislike, love or hate […]

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