Getting Specific

“Emotion” is good, but too general

The first key to writing killer stories is to understand that stories are what they do. And what stories do is generate reader emotion.

But “emotion” is not enough. It’s not specific enough.

That’s like saying to a shipwright you need to build a ship–there are hundreds of types of ships and boats, everything from a canoe to a aircraft carrier. “Ship” is too general to do much with and so is “emotion.” Because you don’t generate suspense the same way you do surprise. They have different structures. You don’t generate dread the same way you do wonder.

What this means is that this first insight into story is not complete until we identify which emotions it is we’re trying to generate.

Now somebody is going to starting yelling at this point about this all sounding too mechanical. You can’t just push people’s button.

No, you can’t. Writing a successful story is never a mechanical process. But we’re not talking about the how yet. We’re just talking about the what. The function.

So what are the chief emotions people go to stories for? No, let’s restate that: what are the chief emotions YOU go to stories for? Because storytellers aren’t doing things to other people like scientists playing with pidgeons and levers. Storytellers have to experience it first. A storyteller knows he has something live in his hands when it does what it’s supposed to do to him.

This means the set of emotional experiences you’ll want to create will be different from the ones I want to because we’re all attracted by slightly different things. Some people love suspense, some love setting. Some love droll characters, some love freaks and wack-o’s. You don’t want to write my stories. I don’t want to write yours. And so it’s critical we each know what it is we’re striving for.

We might not know our objectives in minute detail. But we don’t need to. We just need to have a good idea of what they are.

A Method to Help You Identify Your Draws

Here’s one way to figure out the types of experiences that draw you. List out ten of your favorite stories. They don’t have to be the ten most favorite. Just 10 out of the hundreds you love. They can be fiction, history, or biography. They can be novels, movies, or poems. Just list them.

Now list next to each one the things you loved about it. List out the things it did to you. Did you delight in the characters? Was it intrigue? Were there surprises? Was it that it transported you to some exotic or wonderful place? List all of the things that sparked your interest and turned you on.

When you’ve done this for ten of your favorite stories, you’ll begin to see a pattern. You’ll see the same draws showing up again and again.

These are your draws. Focus on them. Be on the watch for story elements that generate them in you.

Your draws might change as you grow older. That’s not a problem, just as long as you know what they are.

Now this exercise can help you when you get into the guts of stories as well. For example, you can examine ten beginnings you love and compare them with ten you don’t. You can examine ten characters, ten problems, ten middles, ten ends, ten scenes, etc.

You’ll ask what the good ones did that the bad ones didn’t. And you’ll find common patterns.

But the first step is to see the overall emotions you go to story for. Do the exercise, then go to the next lesson with your list.

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