Last month, Mary Jane Nirdlinger wrote her first post about the top craft techniques she learned while obtaining her MFA. We welcome her back again for another thought-provoking article.
My first (unsold) novel got a lot of positive feedback from editors, but the consistent “no thanks” comment was: I’m just not connecting with the character.
Figuring out emotional resonance became my writer’s holy grail because, if our writing doesn’t make the reader feel that connection, all the lovely words in the world won’t sell the project.
Fast forward to my first MFA workshop. Our leader listened intently as a student read a passage with a winged fairy-woman riding a horse. “Wait!” She jumped out of her chair and stood, tossing her imaginary wings behind her. “So first she’s walking with these wings? They’re how long?” As the instructor walked, she had questions. Were the wings stiff or flowing? Did sitting on them hurt? When the fairy woman bound them up to ride, did that hurt?
Watching the protagonist come alive in that small room, I realized our workshop leader was asking questions only someone inhabiting a body with wings would ask.
This was my first major revelation. No matter how many interviews you do with your character, how many pages of backstory and family dynamics you capture in your freewriting, words on the page aren’t enough. When you write, you need to be in the head and the body of your character. Feel the world as they would and incorporate that information into your writing. At its core, emotional resonance happens when your reader feels the story in their body, and we achieve this through a combination of unique details, physical action, and creative expression.
One way to strengthen your emotional-resonance muscles is to get in the habit of noticing what your body experiences: Where are you sitting as you read this? Are you comfortable? When you eat your next meal, how do you handle the silverware or sandwich wrapper? Do you hunch over your plate? Does a shift in conversation cause you to rearrange your silverware? What’s that feel like in your body? When you walk down the street, how do your shoes feel against the sidewalk?
Let those sensations drift into memory and reflection: where else does your mind go? You may want to keep a “noticing journal” to jot down some of your daily observations.
Act it Out.
For your reader to connect, they have to feel your character interacting with their environment.
When you feel tension in your body, what do you do with that? Do you need to flee the room? Are you stuck in place? Do you rearrange everything on your desk? Throw something?
Neuroscience tells us that when we read about someone closing their left hand around an object, the “left hand” part of our own brain lights up. Close your eyes and put yourself in the body of your character, then go through the motions. What do they notice? What do they grab for comfort? Incorporate those physical details in your writing.
When I’m drafting, I still instinctively default to the roiling stomach and clenched jaw as shorthand for my character’s emotional state. We have to push past these tropes.
You may not consider yourself a poet, but this is a good time to dust off your poetry toolkit. Find the metaphors, the unlikely words, the inspired connections in memory and texture that open a new window into your character’s interior life and how it’s felt in their body.
Let them linger over a detail, or burst through layers of feeling into a revelation. The more unique and precise your writing about emotional and bodily reactions, the more surprised–and therefore involved–your reader becomes.
Crafting emotional resonance is the hard work of writing, and it’s where the payoffs are greatest. This is the work we do with our eyes closed, pencils down, living emotional, challenging moments with our character.
This is where we track every sensation and mine memories for new story depths.
This is how we connect.
Check back next month for some tips on revision, and if you still have questions about low-residency MFAs, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org by November 20.
Donald Maass’s Emotional Craft of Fiction contains specific prompts for crafting resonant moments and scenes.
In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron delves into the connections between neuroscience and storytelling.
Strengthen your poetry muscles:
Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan.
Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life With Words, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge
A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver.
Mary Jane has been a member of SCBWI since 2014 and is currently writing a historical fiction mystery. She graduated from VCFA in January 2020. Visit her at www.maryjanenirdlinger.com and follow her on twitter: @MJNwrites