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This Writing Life: Words Like A Punch to the Gut

29 March, 2012

The more I read, and specifically the more I analyse what I read, the more I’ve realised there are two general things that make me keep going back to an author’s books. The first is just basic enjoyment: I like their prose, their world-building, their plotting etc. etc. Usually, I can pin that down to one or two aspects. The second thing, though, is more complex and less tangible. In these authors’ works, it’s the emotional impact they create I keep going back for.

Here’s an example: I’ve just been reading Kate Elliott’s ‘Shadow Gate’ (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, in fact). I don’t want to go too far into spoiler territory, because this is the second book in a trilogy. There’s a character in the first two books, though, who has been brutalised and traumatised to the point that she no longer speaks, and seems to have lost the will to live. She remains incredibly passive for the entirety of the first book in the series, and the first half of the second, cropping up from time to time, but always being seen through the eyes of other characters, who view her as little more than an object to be used as they will.

And then, halfway through Shadow Gate, Elliott fully introduces this character for the first time. We see who she was before, what her life was like, and glimpses of the horrors that have turned her into who she is now. When I finally made the connection (which was probably supposed to be obvious from the start, but it took me a good dozen scenes to work it out) between the current, traumatised, passive character and the strong, capable girl she had been before, I think I probably winced. I was horrified, and astounded, and it felt a little bit like being punched in the gut.

It’s impossible for me to unpack everything Elliott does to achieve this reaction – it may even be that not everyone who reads these books will feel the same way I did. I’ve sometimes lent similar books to other people, only for them to come back with a ‘Meh’, whilst I stand there open-mouthed. How could they just not get it? But, of course, reading is incredibly subjective, etc. etc., and that’s not what I want to get into now.

Instead, I want to make a point about that all-important emotional impact. It’s this, more than anything else, that makes me return again and again to certain authors: when the characters and situations feel so real and compelling to me that their outcomes – which are often bad, but there are happy endings too – leave me physically exhausted, or utterly elated. There are only a handful of authors who I find can do this (again, we’re back to the subjectivity of reading), but when I find them, I love them forever.

It’s this sort of reaction that, as writers, we want to engender in readers. There must be a thousand ways to accomplish it, just as there are a thousand ways to read a book in which an author has tried to accomplish it. When, as readers, we find a book that has this impact on us though, I think it’s essential to sit down and think about why it worked, and how we can aim to emulate that success in our own work. Because having readers laugh and cry and sigh longingly over my fiction? THAT’S what I want to eventually achieve!

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6 Comments
  1. 29 March, 2012 12:40 pm

    I think as writers, we all want to accomplish this. We want to write words and create characters that will make our readers cry, laugh, and clench their fists in anger – in other words, we want to elicit real emotion.

    • 30 March, 2012 1:15 pm

      Absolutely. And it sounds so simple – but achieving it is anything but!

  2. 29 March, 2012 1:07 pm

    As a young wanna be big writer, I am taken, this has made me realise what writing is really about.

  3. 11 April, 2012 8:23 am

    So, so true. In my case, it was just such a punch to the gut, like nothing I’d ever felt before, while reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s book The Wounded Land (part of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series), that started me writing fiction for the first time. I imagine that if it hadn’t been Donaldson, it would have eventually been some other exceptional author and book or series. Or maybe not. Now, some three decades later, I still remember that book, that scene, and I still hope for that same kind of emotional impact to someday touch a reader of my own work. To give that gift back, to pass it on.

    I guess it’s a pretty common desire in writers, or any type of storyteller for that matter, to have some type of memorable impact on one’s audience. It’s kind of like an addiction, I keep thinking. But in a good way. And yet so individual that it can’t be predicted. Yeah, there’s the “broad appeal” thing, where nearly the whole audience laughs or cries at the same time, and that in itself is difficult and takes a great deal of storytelling skill. This has gotten me thinking a lot, and I’m realizing that what happened to me is near the level of what I’d call “life-changing.” Maybe it’s kind of like a hole-in-one in golf. You may always be aiming in its direction, but you’ll rarely or never hit one. The best you can hope for is developing enough skill to consistently get close.

    • 17 April, 2012 1:22 pm

      Yes, reactions like this CAN be truly life-changing, which is just one of many wonderful things about fiction. It’s an incredibly personal experience though, and you’re right that it can’t be predicted, which is why it’s so difficult to aim for creating that effect in our own work. Developing our skills so that it’s more likely to happen is really the best we can do.

      Ah, Thomas Covenant. I read the first two trilogies in a matter of weeks when I was about thirteen or fourteen, but the more recent books just don’t seem to have had the same impact on me. I suppose the originals must just have been the right books at the right time – which is yet another part of that ‘punch to the gut’ sensation.

      I’d recommended Donaldson’s ‘Mordant’s Need’ duology too, if you haven’t read it. It’s another series I have on my shelf and really want to go back to, but I keep wondering if, like Thomas Covenant, I won’t love it as much on re-reading. Now I think I’ll have to give it another go!

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