It’ Don’t Mean A Thing…


First published at Savvy Authors as “Emotional Writing”. Now revised and update.

As the song goes, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”…meaning you have to have more than words on a page.

There’s a tension in every story between what’s logical and what’s going to get the reader emotionally invested. That can be a good thing in that tension always adds to a story—if you can get that tension you’re feeling onto the page, you’re ahead of the game. But that’s the art of writing, too. Getting the feeling onto the page. And the truth is, no one can teach you this.

The good news is that you can learn everything else. Structure is structure, be it a short story or a novel. You can learn pacing, scene structure, putting together chapters, building a story, how to add conflict, how to create a character arc, all about plotting and subplots. All of that is technique that can be taught, and all that will serve you well. With that you can move into becoming an excellent wordsmith.

This logical part is also the easy part for some writers—some folks just love making puzzles and putting them together. And, if you do this brilliantly, you can get away with only doing this. The characters and the emotions take a backseat to the intricate plot. If you’re not utterly brilliant, however, this doesn’t work because most folks read for characters. And emotion.

Getting the emotion on the page is where you’re on your own as a writer. It has to come from within you—and it has to be real and honest. This is where that saying comes from that writing is easy—you just have to sit down and open up a vein. If you don’t feel the emotion, the reader’s not going to either. If it doesn’t cut into you, it’s not going to touch a reader.  It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing—and you can’t fake it. Because the fake always shows up as fake—the reader always catches you out on the inauthentic.

This is where, too, I see most young (in experience, not age) writers having trouble. They either have not mastered the technique, so they’re tripping over their words—you can sense great stuff, but it’s a stumbling effort. Or they have great technique, but haven’t found a story that strikes their heart—they’re writing a story similar to what they’ve read, not their own stories.

Technique does need to be mastered—an awkward sentence or an unclear paragraph will get in the way of the emotion. It’s like watching an actor trip on the stage and forget his lines—you’re immediately pulled out of the fiction. There’s no faster way to lose the emotional moment. The technique has to flow. But once it’s out of the way, it’s time to invest yourself in the story.

And the story telling has to be there, meaning pace control, scenes that build conflict and characters that come across as living, breathing, irritating, vibrant folks.

Sometimes I wish this was extra “something” that a story needs could be taught. I’ve seen work from very good wordsmiths which just lacks this magical something—this emotion. And it’s something I struggle with in every book. It’s too easy to get caught up with the clever phrase, or the scene I “think” is good because it’s such a great twist. And I forget, once again, that it’s not about me being oh so smart. It’s about me needing to be honest, and digging down in my own emotions. It’s about making myself laugh and cry over the scenes I’m writing. It’s about being true to my characters and getting as deep into them as I can—it’s cutting open that vein.

I struggle not to be a clever writer, or a smart one. I’d rather be someone who opens up my own heart so that maybe the writing will touch someone else. And that’s where it is an art. That’s where you have to practice your craft and practice and practice—and then let go and take a flying leap into what matters most to you. When you write from your own heart, you start to be a writer, not just a wordsmith. That’s when you start to learn how to get emotion into your stories.

And now I need to go off and practice what I blog.

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