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

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

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 view of beauty in imperfection).

We’ve all read books that were perfectly executed, but somehow lacked that magic. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed the word craft of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, and yet it failed to connect with me emotionally.

On the other hand, Jane Porter’s perhaps technically (and certainly historically) suspect Scottish Chiefs never fails to wring me out like a dishrag after dinner dishes.

Although skillful craftsmanship can only serve to lift emotionally resonant stories higher, 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?

The Link Between Emotional Resonance and Physical Reaction

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 all powerful stories must be the authors themselves.

If a story doesn’t resonate first and foremost with you, why think it will ever be able to touch readers?

So how can you identify story ideas that have the potential for affecting you—and hopefully, by extension, your readers—over the long haul?

The answer, happily, is the simplest of the simple:

Listen to your body.

How to Identify Your Body’s Response to Emotional Resonance

Write Away One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing LifeIn 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.

Naming the WorldNational Book Award finalist Dan Chaon, in his essay “The Title Game Exercise” in the compilation Naming the World 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.

Emily of New Moon LM MontgomeryIn 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 as well.

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?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your physical response to emotional resonance in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I just finished The Hobbit (or There and Back Again). I don’t think I cared for all the convoluted processes and tedious situations, so I just felt very stressed and anxious.

    When I am affected by anything emotionally in a story, I smile and laugh, regardless of the emotion I feel. I tried to explain this to my professor when I laughed during Chaplin’s big speech at the end of The Dictator. She thought I was making fun of it (which she didn’t seem to mind), when I was actually very moved.

  2. M.L. Bull says

    Very great post and relatable to most writers, I’m sure. While learning our characters we become close to them, as if they’re real people. I know that’s how it’s been with me. The topics that I discuss in my novels are real life situations, so sometimes I do cry while writing certain scenes or acting them in my room. It was not easy writing Jessica’s nightmare of her sexual child abuse in my novel ‘Wisdom’. Growing up I used to be really scared of the same thing happening to me, or getting kidnapped or something. We hear these things in the news every day as my character Robyn says, and you just wonder sometimes why these things have to be in our society.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Vulnerability is one of the most important things in fiction. Is it hard? Incredibly. But when we’re willing to share those hard places with readers, they respond in ways they never would have with a shallow representation of life.

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