One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned—in fact, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned—from other writers is that good writers are willing to be split open, able to go to places they can’t speak about, dare to write about what they fear. This can mean writing about true happiness as well as it can mean creating a rape scene.
When I copy edit or critique a story, I often find myself writing comments in the margin like, “Go deep here. Don’t be afraid to explore this more. Resist summary and exposition. Who is this person, really? What is his/her motivation for acting this way? This is a good diving off point. Reside in this scene longer and get to the heart of what is happening…” These are the comments I received on my stories when I was being coached.
What exactly do they mean? Honestly, I had no idea at first—all I saw was more work, and the pages piling up when submission limits are low, and I was frustrated. But the more and harder I tried (literally scrunching up my eyes and holding my hand over my heart) to write well, and the more I read the superb work of others, the better I understood what Sarah Selecky and others were telling me: “Write it from the inside out.”
This doesn’t mean write every detail. It means slow the fuck down. Make every word, every person, every scene real.
How does one do that? This morning I saw this video on Facebook, an illustrated snippet of a talk by one of my heroes, Brené Brown. Watch it. It’s short. Can you see what I’m driving at here?
Yes! This isn’t just about how we navigate the real world! The difference between empathy and sympathy is exactly the difference between excellent and ineffective storytelling. In order to capture our readers (and by that I mean in order to cause them to engage with our stories), we need to have empathy. We need to go deep when writing characters, to take on their perspectives, to feel what they’re feeling. It doesn’t have to come from the exact same experience: we don’t have to have lived through a miscarriage to understand profound loss—or even (and we can’t be afraid to go here) shaky relief. Across the amazing scope of experiences are universal emotions.
As writers, we need to understand how our people feel, not just observe how they feel. We need to connect with something in ourselves, as Brené said, in relation to others—or our writing will be shallow and our readers will have the experience of either not being able to relate or thinking, meh. Who cares? Jung also hinted at this connection when he wrote, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Empathy is useful because it helps us create people rather than characters, just as Papa Hemingway entreated us to. It helps us reach and portray the complexity of those men and women and children who might otherwise seem only vicious or happy-go-lucky or arrogant or flaky.
A cruel person who is violent or seems merciless is just that without our empathy. With our empathy, we add another dimension: we come to understand that constant betrayal or wrong assumptions or abuse has caused her to feel anger, or, worse, to have flipped the switch on mental stability. We come to catch glimpses of hope in her, instead of focusing on the bad. We see that a lack of connection growing up has caused him to be distrustful. We see that a tendency to seek revenge is born out of being treated only with violence in the past. We understand that vulnerability is not necessarily manifested as meekness but can instead also be behind aggression.
Behind our (characters’) actions and words are our (characters’) beliefs, thoughts, and past. It’s our duty to know what all these things are in the people who populate our stories. This is how we create empathy in our readers.
Even more than this, going deep in the way I’ve described above is what helps us create realistic, engaging, and compelling scenes with our three-dimensional people. When we know our people well, we are led by them; the story “writes itself.”
Often, we hear readers say they didn’t like a story or novel because they couldn’t relate to any of the characters or they didn’t care about them, or they thought the story unlikely. This is not because we’ve never done or seen or said the things our characters did; it’s not because we’re not writing from experience. Regardless of who the characters are and how unlike us they are and no matter what the story is, we should be able to connect in some way. Instead, this is about a shallow writing, and the missed opportunity the writer had to tell the truth.
If you’re revising a draft now, read through and try to see where you might have avoided writing out a scene you’re afraid of for whatever reason, or where you stopped yourself from deeply exploring a person’s emotions, or where you find yourself stuck—perhaps because you are resisting what happens next or have no idea where the story is going.
It’s okay. You can still proceed. Writing stories is as much about probing for truth as creating fictions.