Review: The Emotional Craft of Fiction

I’m woefully behind on my book reviews, and I’m kind of ok with it, because it’s summer fun that has set me back so far. We’ve been having a lot of kiddie-pool play dates and lemonade lake days and sweaty, sun-kissed hours at the park. In the midst of all that, I’ve managed to keep on track for my goal of reading fifty-two books this year, but I haven’t made as much time for writing. 

I would almost consider skipping a few reviews, even though that would mean failing to meet my secondary goal (a review for every book I read this year). However, a few friends have asked for my thoughts on some of these books. You, my dear readers, have demanded opinions. And I must oblige. 

I may, however, make these next few reviews rather more brief and informal than usual. I’ll take your permission for granted. 

The Emotional Craft of Fiction by literary agent and writer Donald Maass is a must-read for all my writing friends out there. Maass’s book inspired and rejuvenated me, and completely realigned my writing mindset. The book isn’t merely a manual or a treatise on technical aspects of writing fiction. Rather, it is a thought-provoking look at how to engage your readers’ emotions from the opening words to the very last line. 

The Emotional Craft of Fiction is far from spewing dry technicalities, yet it is extremely practical. Maass discusses the emotional weight of each major story element, from character to world to plot to the author herself. Scattered throughout his advice, which is at once personal and practicable, he gives thirty-four guidelines for achieving “emotional mastery” within a story. Each guideline is followed by a list of ideas for applying that principle. Maass also quoted generously from a wide range of novels to provide examples for his various principles. 

One piece of advice Maass gave especially piqued my interest and made me rethink my perspective on story-writing. He urges authors to make their characters good, and lovable, and honorable. So much of modern fiction, he says, is about heroes who are “sour, snarky, bemused, self-pitying, singly focused, disconnected, or, frankly, just plain dull.” He’s right of course, though I had never truly realized it before. We are in the age of the anti-hero, where protagonists must be deeply flawed to be real. They must be broken, bitter, and jaded in order to be authentic. And authenticity is everything. 

Maass denounces this approach to stories, pointing out that we are all unfailingly drawn to stories of hope, redemption, and second chances. Despite the modern commitment to raw, unfiltered authenticity, if we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that we love to read stories that give us better endings than we find in real life. We want the villains to get their just desserts. We want to see the heroes win despite all odds. We want happily ever afters.  

As authors, we should want to create a world that readers never want to leave, and heroes that readers aspire to become. While our protagonists should never be one-dimensionally perfect, they should be decent and good. 

“The solution,” writes Maass, “isn’t necessarily creating characters who are relentlessly chipper and nothing but fun… Yearning, need, struggle, and change are essential to good story, yet all of that can be accomplished in a spirit that invites us in more than makes us run screaming” (italics mine).  

I admit to having fallen prey to the idea that my protagonists and secondary characters had to showcase mankind’s deep brokenness and desperation in order to be of high literary quality. However, even as I think over the last few books that I read and loved, their heroes are truly heroic, even if their deeds are small. Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn of Lord of the Rings, Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game and The Speaker for the Dead, and Scheherazade of Arabian Nights… these are characters that make us love them, who make us strive to do better, who become our old, familiar friends for years to come. 

That is what I want my stories to give. I want to write a story that, like Maass says, “is not just a plot to wrestle to the ground or a journey to take, but a celebration of human endurance, a forgiveness of our sins, a bountiful grace to bestow, a freedom to roam, a greathearted kindness, and a high-minded call to our better natures.”

Hopefully, as I follow the advice that Maass lays out in The Emotional Craft of Fiction, that truth will shine through my pages.  

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