In the same way weights will keep a swimmer from resurfacing too soon, the emotional weight of your story is what will keep the reader submerged, intensifying her desire to go deeper, to follow the character’s own emotional journey into the unknown... only to emerge again on the surface (at the end of the story) whole and changed, a different person than before jumping in.
What is emotional weight?
Each story raises a reader’s expectations consciously or unconsciously (as we discussed in last week’s post), and those expectations are formed as a result of the questions that are provoked in a reader’s mind.
Each question contains a mystery, an answer that needs to be discovered, and a reader evaluates the significance of each question and answer based on its emotional relevance to the character’s well-being. The more danger the character is exposed to, the more risk, the greater the stakes... the greater the emotional weight.
How do you introduce emotional weight into your story?
Let’s take a look at the opening passage from Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan to begin our exploration:
I always thought the biggest problem in my life was my name, Naomi Soledad Leon Outlaw, but little did I know that it was the least of my troubles, or that someday I would live up to it.
It had been a double month of Sundays since Gram, Owen, and I were knitted together snug as a new mitten. I can point a stick, though, at the exact evening we started to unravel, at the precise moment when I felt like that dog in an old Saturday morning cartoon. The one where the mutt wears a big wooly sweater and a fox runs up and pulls a hanging-down piece of yarn. Then the fox races off with it, undoing the tidy stitches one by one. Pretty soon the poor dog is bare to its skin, shivering, and all that had kept it warm is nothing more than a bedraggled string.To get a sense of the emotional weight of this passage, you need to begin recognizing the expectations that Ryan raises in her reader’s mind as a result of the questions that are directly or indirectly asked. So, first, make a list of the questions that come to mind after reading this passage.
Here are a few of the questions that I want answered–my expectations, in other words–as a result of the words that Ryan has placed on the page:
- What kind of problem will Naomi face?
- Will the problem involve doing something that will make her an outlaw?
- What caused her relationships with Gram and Owen to unravel?
- Will she suffer like the dog, have nothing left, nothing (and no one) to keep her warm?
The questions themselves, interestingly, reflect the underlying structure of this passage, and show clearly how Ryan builds up to the emotional intensity of the final sentence raising the question in the reader’s mind about Naomi’s survival. That, it seems to me, is the question with the most emotional weight, and it’s the reason why a reader keeps reading: to find out how Naomi will cope with the challenges facing her and whether or not she will survive.
Now take a look at this opening passage from The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier:
They murdered him.What are the expectations that Cormier raises in your mind? What questions are you asking yourself after reading this passage?
As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach. Engulfed by nausea, he pitched toward the grass. His mouth encountered gravel, and he spat frantically, afraid that some of his teeth had been knocked out. Rising to his feet, he saw the field through drifting gauze but held on until everything settled into place, like a lens focusing, making the world sharp again, with edges.
Here are a few of mine:
- Why the violent images?
- Who is being murdered, attacked?
- Why does the narrator feel as if he’s at war?
- Who are his enemies?
- Why are they attacking him?
- Will he have the strength to survive another attack?
Now let’s look at the opening passage from Push by Sapphire:
I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ‘cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.What questions does the author raise in the reader’s mind? And what kind of emotional weight do the questions contain? Take a few moments to create a list of your expectations, and then try to determine which of those expectations has the greatest emotional weight... and why you feel that weight most strongly.
Last, here’s the opening passage from Brock Cole’s The Goats:
When he came back to the beach with wood for the fire Bryce grabbed him from behind. The firewood scattered, bouncing off his knees and shins.Make a list of five questions that the passage raises in your mind. And then review each question in an attempt to ascertain its emotional weight. Can you feel the different emotional weight of each question? Can you feel which question is pulling you deeper into the story? Can you explain why it’s pulling you into the story? (And why the other questions don’t pull you in as deeply?)
“Okay, Bryce,” he said. “Cut it out.” He tried to sound unafraid, even a little bored.
Once you can identify the questions that an author raises in a story, you’ll be able to review your own story and identify the questions and expectations (as well as the emotional weight of each question) that you are raising in your reader’s mind.
These are the questions and expectations that will draw your readers deeper into your story.