Emotional Truth and Storytelling: Why It Works and How

From Jane Friedman:

I never fancied myself a fantastic writer. What I do believe I excel at is the ability to capture the emotional truth(s) of a character, scene, chapter, and overall story.

Think about your favorite novels and how they made you feel. Something stirred and lingered, right? You felt—and likely still do—the uncertainty, rage, joy and love that the characters felt. Perhaps your perspective even shifted as a result.

Defining emotional truth

Emotional truth is elusive and difficult to capture. No standard definition exists. Here’s my crack at it: Emotional truth allows readers to feel a certain way about the experiences of people who may lead different lives from them. It’s the lens that allows us to see ourselves in a story that results in a heartfelt connection to a fictional narrative. Emotional truth transcends facts.

What I value most is that emotional truth engenders empathy.

Fostering empathy is the main reason I infuse emotional truth in my work. In these increasingly polarized times, it’s clear empathy is in short supply. Several years ago a report found 40 percent of college freshmen lacked empathy. Reading that left me deeply disturbed. Future leaders need empathy to understand the needs of others. Without it, well…take a look around. Empathetic leaders can build a sense of trust and strengthen their relationships, which can lead to greater collaboration. I’ll leave that here.

I learned the techniques to capture emotional truth during my first fellowship through the Education Writers Association more than twenty years ago. Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story, served as an advisor to my narrative nonfiction project examining survival tactics of gifted Black students at troubled schools, where being smart carried a stigma. I was intimidated to work with the two-time Pulitzer winner, but he read my three-day series and said, “You got it right.”

How to tap into emotional truth in your story

Here are 10 techniques I use to write with emotional truth.

Be vulnerable. My debut novel, Malcolm and Me, follows a reluctant rebel with the heart of a poet as she navigates a school year fraught with adult hypocrisy. While my protagonist is wounded by a traumatic event involving her Catholic schoolteacher, I knew she couldn’t wallow in pain and self-pity for 272 pages. She doesn’t. She’s funny, often in “good trouble,” and a ball of confusion. Whatever Roberta feels so must my readers. Roberta’s vulnerability was rooted in my teen years. Nothing beats authentic angst.

Mine your secrets. Personal truth feeds the character’s truth. In writing my debut novel, I borrowed the emotional truth about my struggle to forgive, including those I love deeply, and gave it to my protagonist. I could not write that story with authenticity until I dug deep and understood why I had been stuck and what led to a breakthrough. My clarity informed and honed the behavior of my character. 

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

3 thoughts on “Emotional Truth and Storytelling: Why It Works and How”

    • She’s talking about fiction, E. 😉

      However, you bring up an excellent point. In 2020, a great deal of politics is fiction.

  1. I aim to write fiction so immersive readers feel they have lived a different life from their own.

    The key to that is making readers experience the good parts of someone (fictional) else; the result is empathy and understanding (if done right), propaganda and demagoguery otherwise. Or the dreaded “it didn’t work for me.”

    Not everyone wants to take the risk of being made uncomfortable. There are readers who want light entertainment.

    The trick is finding your own kind, especially when the majority is different.

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