The Emotional Response

I’ve been trying to find my way through an early draft of a new piece and have been reminded why going deep into character is so difficult, and so necessary.

The third lecture of my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts was given by Louise Hawes. She described what she called a novel’s “desire line” – the engine that drives the story, the longing for something. The desire line exactly balances the story arc in reverse, because readers want the protagonist’s desire to be satisfied at the end of the story.

Asking “what” your character wants is the first important question any writer should ask. Asking “why” they want it is one way to get to their deepest desire.Children Playing

Louise gave us all an exercise: she asked us to dig deep and speak to the kid we were at an age when we were most vulnerable. Speak to the child inside, and find her desire. Then she gave us ten minutes to write a letter to that child asking why she wanted what she did, and what it meant, and reassuring that child that she was not alone.

At first, you could have heard a pin drop in the room, a full room – I’m guessing a hundred people. Then sniffs. Then some of us (yes, I’ll confess, I was one) were openly weeping. Why? Because we were tapping the core of our own oldest dreams and desires. We were acknowledging longing and loss.

This acknowledgment for our characters (and, as we write, for ourselves) is painful but essential.

If we know our character’s deepest desires, at a time when he or she was at their most vulnerable, we tap into universal longings. And by bringing universal longings to life on the page, our readers can connect.

Effectively, we tell readers, I hear you. I get you. You are not alone.

That’s why I write. I want to express the universal longings and desires that bind us together as human, as vulnerable, as unique and yet as all the same. Boy, it’s hard.

But it’s also so important.


Filed under Advice, Writing and Life

17 responses to “The Emotional Response

  1. Pingback: The Emotional Response | Susan Vaught

  2. That is a marvelous exercise. I’ll have to try it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mariagianferrari

    Lovely post, Janet! Yes! Universal longings and truths; books are bridges that bind us together! And thanks for the exercise too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great exercise, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great way to dig deep! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lindsey Lane

    Need to hear these words on this writing day. Thank you, dear Janet.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great exercise, Janet. Thanks for sharing it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Janet Fox

    Thanks, Penny!


  9. Christine Hayes

    Such a beautiful reminder about what ultimately drives a good story, Janet!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Janet Fox

    Thanks so much, Christine!


  11. Rebecca Van Slyke

    Wow. I’m going to have to get some courage (and tissues!) and try this with my WIP.

    Liked by 1 person

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