Shadows Beneath The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

I haven’t read The Graveyard Book yet, but since I finished The Emotional Craft of Fiction, I thought I should put my thoughts down on paper before I forget them all together. There are a lot of things I love about this book, but there are a lot of things I hate about it too.

Let’s dive into the things I liked:

The way Maass went into detail about the mechanics of what makes a reader feel emotion is super helpful! He says, “When Outward actions stir us, it’s not the actions, but that we have stirred ourselves. When showing works is not why it works, but when.” When he refers to the Outward actions, he’s talking about how we show the story to the readers via plot, dialogue, and setting versus what we tell the readers in the Inner mode. This discussion of how the details can spark huge emotions is something I think every writer needs to understand.

Another thing I liked about his book are all 34 Emotional Masteries. This book can be a good tool to have on your shelf. Something you could pick up and flip through until you are able to diagnose whatever problem has arisen in your story. Then you can fix it. It’s a book to come back to again and again.

In his Emotional Masteries, Maass addresses the character arcs and how their hidden needs like hope or redemption can be a driving force in the emotions of the readers. In fact, my first writing workshop was with Nancy Rue who was the first one to tell me about this hidden need and how to know what it is and how to resolve it. If you don’t learn anything else about writing, this is what you should walk away with. Not only will it make your writing dive deeper and resonate more with your readers but knowing what the hidden needs are in your story will help you to write better, to tie all your plot threads together, to figure out what needs to be cut or added. There are times in your protagonist’s story that are important to take a closer look at and see how they are feeling, to emphasize that feeling, or pull it back or even change it to the unexpected emotion. Knowing your character’s arc, their turning points, and what is really at stake will help you do this.

Some other Emotional Masteries that I think are worth mentioning are that emotions are nuanced, symbols are important, change is necessary, and every character in the book effect how every other character feels and changes. Can we describe an emotion that is hard to put into words? Something that we all feel when we have conflicting feelings. Think about the emotions of every scene. What is the hidden need? Do you have the right symbols in place? Symbols can take a huge emotion and convey it in as little as one or two words. Use them but remember that a book full of chocolate rivers doesn’t make it a sweet book. Change is necessary, difficult, emotional, small or big. Think about what changes. Is it your character’s belief, behavior, or both? The harder it is for them to change the bigger the effect it will have on your reader.

Those are some of the many things I liked about Maass’ book. Now, for the things I didn’t like:

The excerpts from other books were mostly annoying. Yes, some of them conveyed his point very well, but they didn’t add to what he already said. I felt like they were redundant and made the book longer than it needed to be. Which I guess is a good argument to have a hard copy of the book that is easy to skim past these parts when you are looking for the right tool to use in your own writing. And considering that these excerpts make up about half of the book, you could say I only like 50% of this book, though I will say, I liked the meat of the book.

Well, maybe not THE point of the book. I think he has a lot of good points but his conclusion is wrong. I know saying this, most people would agree with Maass more than they would with me., but that’s why I have to say it. Maass talks about the truths that we tell in our stories and how fiction can do things that few other art forms can. He says you have to be confident that your story needs to be told whether or not it is published. This much I agree with. But then he goes on to say that that we are all flawed and we are all “good.” That is why we should just believe, have faith in humanity. I agree that we are all flawed, but even more than he thinks we are. Because I also believe that not one of us is good. He says there is good inside all of us. But even what we think of as the good inside of us isn’t good at all. Too often the good we try to do falls short of goodness. That is why there are so many injustices in our world, that is why there is so much pain and sorrow. We are all bad. If I have no faith in humanity, then what hope is there for my stories to ring true? My faith is in Jesus Christ. We have to have faith out side of ourselves in the one who is truly good. He, being the son of God, came down to earth, became man lived the perfect life, died on the cross, suffered the wrath of God, and rose from the dead so that he might forgive us of our sins and impute His righteousness to us. He is the promise of eternal life, goodness, and peace. He is our hope and our protagonists cannot give us this hope no matter how great a writer we are.

What did you like or dislike about the book? Comment below. Let’s talk! And be sure to pick up a copy of The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’m so excited to read this because the next book in the series, The Relentless Moon, is set to come out this month on July 14th!


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