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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