When Emotion Is Free

EmotionsEmotion is what we strive for in writing. Get your reader to feel something! This isn’t a new idea. There’s been plenty of blog posts and craft books on the topic. It’s why Twilight is so successful, because the audience falls in love with Edward. Not stellar writing, sure, but it definitely got thousands of readers to feel something. Yes, this may seem like a no-brainer. We go to a comedy film to laugh. We read a drama to cry. The point is to create a catharsis.

But why is emotion so important? Possibly more important than plot or even good writing?

There’s a quote from Janet Burroway’s book Writing Fiction that has been on my mind for weeks, and I think it gets it the heart of this question.

Burroway says:

“Literature offers us feelings for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings – intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion – have consequences, and powerful feeling may risk powerful consequences.”

This quote stuck with me because it has so many implications for writing and what an audience wants from a literary experience.

I’ve always hated the concepts of writing as entertainment or even escapism. But the idea of experiencing emotion – emotion that is not our own, that we pay no consequences for – is in a way entertainment. But it’s not “entertainment” as a word associated with money or the market, but entertainment as experience. It’s a real human need to feel, to connect, to have the opportunity to experience something – gain understanding – but in a safe environment without consequence.

And that is pretty powerful.

TexasChainsaw1The idea of free emotion puts a new slant on many of own personal struggles with writing honestly. I’m often annoyed with “rules” that there must be conflict, or catharsis, or change in a character. I’m not convinced these things happen in “real life” – and yet perhaps that’s the point. Emotion without consequence allows us to step out of reality, and live vicariously through the fictional characters that are willing to put up the fight, deal with the consequences, and lose everything. We watch a horror film – not because we want someone to chase after us with a chainsaw in real life, but because we want to feel the thrill of fear and not almost die. We want to know the whole gamut of human emotion. And to do that there must be some fabrication, coercion, perhaps even a heightening of the truth, if you like.

Granted, this is a slippery slope. If we read too many romance novels we might forget that great passionate love comes with consequences. You can’t have the glorious love affair without the tears, and the work, and the heartbreak. We might start expecting our partners to be something they aren’t – something easier. We might want a relationship with emotion that’s free.

But then…that’s what books are for. In real life we have to pay the consequences and make the hard decisions.

Breaking the RulesI realize this post is rambling a bit. I’m still wrapping my head around how this affects my work. But it does give me insight and respect for some of the mainstream “popular entertainment” books and films out there. They create an emotional response in their audience – and that’s not easy to pull off.

It also makes me consider the emotional response I want in my reader. Are there enough risks and consequences in my book to create a truly exciting “free” emotional experience? Are my characters really put to the test? Or is my book about creating a pleasurable intellectual experience for my reader? Maybe it isn’t about making a reader cry, but activating their curiosity, or letting them feel the wonder of a new phrase of language.

The concept of “free emotion” opens you to so many possibilities.

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