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The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface - Donald Maass

This is a provocative writing book. As always with these sorts of books, I think the best reaction is probably to take with you what’s useful and leave behind the rest after having given some consideration to it - if you're going to do something that's not generally advised, you want to be doing it deliberately, not thoughtlessly. And I think there’s a fair amount in here worthy of consideration, though it’s also sometimes less helpful than it could be, particularly when Maass devotes large portions of sections to quoting passages that worked for him, usually preceded with overly long explanations of what the book in question is about even when it’s not actually relevant to understanding the passage.

Now there are certainly some good insights and tips in here. For instance, on how to make character emotions effective for a reader (usually by writing around them in one way or another). There are also some insights and tips that I’m glad most writers don’t use. Maass points out, for instance, that the fictional characters you love most are probably in some way better and more admirable than the average person. And this is true for me. But at the same time, I don’t expect or even really want to fall in love with every book, but a large part of what I do want from fiction is a window into lives different from my own. I don’t want every protagonist to be a hero or every book to be about the triumph of the human spirit, or whatever other inflated universalizing language blurb-writers love to use. That’s exhausting and at a certain point I think it’s alienating. I like to read about real, flawed people (though Maass is right that for us to care, their everyday lives need to be rich with meaning). So, is writing about extraordinary, inspiring people a good idea for the individual author? Maybe. But please, don’t all do it at once!

Relatedly, Maass pushes back here against the idea that everything in a book needs to be action, no contemplation, and conflict, no harmony. Again, correctly in my reading experience, he points out that the books we love the most tend to be the ones where there is some warmth and emotional connectedness. I think he’s right that it’s rare to see this overdone, and more common to see bleak settings where strangers are hostile, friends useless and generic, families toxic, and protagonists isolated (though I would add: except for their love interest. Perhaps much of this is a clumsy way of isolating protagonists to make sure their romances are meaningful?). One of his more solid tips is to include in the opening not just a plot hook, but an emotional one: why should readers connect with this protagonist? (Because they care about a family member is a good suggested answer.) I find it a little odd that he discusses this whole topic almost in a vacuum though, without addressing the obvious question of how to square it with all that advice about every line consisting of conflict and action.

A couple of criticisms I saw before reading the book were about the author’s preference for classic literature, and a couple of weird gendered comments. Maybe it was because seeing these criticisms more than once made me expect worse, but I didn’t think either of these was much of a problem. Maass may connect most with classics, but his examples come from an admirable range of genres and represent both genders. The weirdest bit was his references to “women’s fiction,” which made me think he just calls all contemporary fiction by and about women that doesn’t fall into some other genre label “women’s fiction” (by which standard, of course, most of our celebrated male authors ought to be known as authors of “men’s fiction”). However, that’s a minor point in the scheme of the book.

There’s also the valid criticism that the author advises pulling back from very dark character emotions, this evidently being a place he doesn’t want to go. I would put this in the “take it if it helps, leave it if it doesn’t” bucket – I can maybe see where he’s coming from in that big enough emotions can take over the page through action alone without needing a lot of interior description, but I also didn’t find the passage he quoted as a good example of this to be emotionally effective. Instead it came across as weird and distancing.

At any rate, there’s plenty to dig into here and Maass offers a lot of concrete tips and exercises for writers, which will no doubt be useful in taking your fiction to the next level. I wouldn’t take it as gospel, but the same should probably be said for every how-to-write book.