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‘Emotive Writing’ – What Novels Give You the “Feels”?

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

In my last blog, I wrote about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which made me think about the ending of that amazing novel. It’s one of the most emotional passages I’ve ever read - so moving, I sobbed.

To set the scene, the Joads are homeless, starving, and unable to find the new life they were so desperately seeking after their journey from Oklahoma to California. Yet even in the midst of abject poverty and desperation, they are all happily anticipating the birth of their daughter’s first child. By the end of the book, I was excited for the baby to come and loved the daughter, Rose of Sharon. Then Rose of Sharon’s baby is still-born. The characters (and this reader) are distraught. In the last chapter, a stranger enters the barn where the Joads have taken shelter. Everyone can see he’s starving, close to death.

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort around her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

After having suffered so much loss, Rose of Sharon chose to be selfless. She turned her personal tragedy into purpose. Writing fiction these past 15 years, I’ve had this philosophy that if the parts of my stories that are supposed to elicit emotion don’t make me laugh or cry, if they don’t make me feel angry or tense, then they’re not going to make the reader feel those things, either. I’ve taken to calling it emotive writing and that’s my first goal, primarily because I love writers who are able to elicit deep emotions from me.

In journalism, you’re taught to start articles by thinking about the five Ws – who, what, where, when, why (and also how). With creative writing, it’s more like you think about the five senses. What do the characters hear, see, feel, smell, taste, and generally experience? Even more importantly, what do they think or dream about, and what choices do they make and why?

Here’s one of my humble attempts, from the first chapter of The Life-Diving Days, to elicit emotion by building suspense and conveying the main character’s horror as she watches her barn on fire:

Bad memories rise up, out of nowhere. They play in my head like the talkies at the movie theater. There’s the light that flickered across my eyelids until it woke me. When I opened my eyes, triangles and odd shapes of light danced across the ceiling. I stared up at them flashing lights for a few seconds. They looked like magic. Then there was a loud noise, like the cracking of a whip. I ran to my open window. The smell of smoke was choking. Fire crept out of the barn in fiery claws. The barn door was wide open and Mrs. Z, my favorite Belgian, bucked at her stall. The flames were crawling up her back and mane. She made an awful bellow when she collapsed.

We use a beautiful Maya Angelou quote frequently in talks for my work: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s very true of literature and why it’s such a powerful medium. It allows us to be empathetic. I love novels that give me the “feels,” as my daughter says.

I’m curious, what scenes/novels have moved you to tears or laughter or fury? I’d love to hear about it and check those novels out for myself!

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