Graduate Essay: “Adventures in Emotional Craft” by Sam Weiss

Sam Weiss is a graduate of the 2007 Odyssey Writing Workshop and the 2021 Odyssey Online class Emotional Truth: Making Character Emotions Real, Powerful, and Immediate to Readers.” She is an applied mathematician who works in Boston with her husband and two cats. Her first professional sale, “There Will Be No Alien Invasion,” was published in Fireside in August 2021.

When I first started writing, I got a lot of “pretty writing but this isn’t really a story” critiques. I didn’t have a clue how to fix those stories or even what underlying problem those critiques pointed to. Once I wrapped my head around active main characters working toward a specific goal, obstacles, causal chains, and the framing of character change, those criticisms abruptly stopped. My stories fared better in my attempts to publish them (and caused less pain to those reading them), but I acquired a new set of criticisms: that my point of view was too distant, that I was telling and not showing, that I was showing but not telling, that the emotions my characters felt seemed inauthentic or inappropriate for their situations, or that the emotions were too on the nose.

In short, I got a lot of contradictory complaints that, like the “this isn’t really a story” complaints, left me clueless. I wrote occasional scenes that readers had strong emotional reactions to, but I had no idea how to replicate that success apart from waiting for inspiration to strike.

In the summer of 2020, my critique group homed in on the problem more clearly than I’d ever heard it stated before: my emotional craft was weak. Which made sense, because I had only peripheral awareness of emotional craft to begin with. I started by digging into a Donald Maass book on emotional craft (The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface), from which I learned a chunk of what I needed. I learned about options for “showing” character emotion, where the techniques were ordered from the most distant to the closest POV (act-it-out –> dialogue –> observations specific to the character –> direct thoughts). I learned how to make powerful use of “telling” (namely by subverting reader expectations). Encouraged by unambiguous positive reactions from readers in my various writing circles—but also aware of how much I didn’t know—I went on to take Scott H. Andrew’s January 2021 Odyssey Online class, “Emotional Truth: Making Character Emotions Real, Powerful, and Immediate to Readers.”

The class laid out an entire framework of options, from sentence-level techniques to paragraph-level techniques to scene-level techniques (which the Maass options I’d learned fit into), and ultimately to story-level techniques. We were told about the techniques, shown many examples, given readings in which those techniques had been executed with skill, and ultimately, in the homework, given the opportunity to practice the techniques for ourselves. 

Critiques from Scott and my classmates allowed us to gauge the success of our efforts. The act of critiquing others allowed us to feel out, for ourselves, which techniques moved us and what constituted a successful application of the techniques. Many of the exercises were quite short, of the “In 100 or fewer words, use this technique to convey one of the emotions on this list” variety. Others were longer and supported more than one technique. Scott gave painstakingly detailed critiques, mostly using in-line comments to clarify (a) if he understood what emotion we were going for, and (b) what emotion he felt when reading. I learned that (a) constituted much of the battle, and that most of us writers (including me) fail to provide enough context for the reader to know how characters are feeling. 

A lot of ideas I’d heard but only sort of understood became clear over the course of the class. Things like: emotions should escalate through a scene and peak at the end or near to the end of that scene. The debate over showing and telling came into particularly sharp focus. I learned that at times—like at the beginning of the story when the reader doesn’t know the character yet and just wants clarity—that telling can work well. At other times—as during important, key-to-the-story emotional moments—telling works less well, though it can work if the emotions experienced by the character deviate from expectation and therefore require clarity. 

At no point did anyone dictate a set of rules. Scott presented evidence of the techniques working and then stepped back so we could make our judgements. 

I walked away from the class the way I did when I first learned about plot. I understand now what core problem those critiques point to. I have the tools to improve. In the near future, I anticipate using the techniques as post-initial-draft fixes. At this point in my writing, I instinctively write active main characters—but that instinct took me years to develop. In the same way, I anticipate these ideas will require time and practice to fully sink in. 

I don’t know why, of all of the art forms, writing moves me like nothing else does. I don’t know why I feel compelled to write when I have good employment (in the far-less-mercurial sciences), and good relationships, and many other (admittedly less compelling) hobbies. But… I’m built that way. And I imagine if you’re reading this, you are too. It astonishes me that Scott and Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos and the others involved in these online writing classes are willing to put so much hard-earned expertise and energy into creating content that enables us to get that much closer to our own goal: having strong enough craft to minimize that translation loss between the compelling stories that live in our heads and what comes out on the page. But I’m grateful that they’re willing. Their efforts have improved my writing, and given the central role writing plays in my life and identity, those improvements have… well, improved… my life.


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