July 16, 2019

Aim Your Writing for Emotional Impact

Aim for emotional impact on readerDanny Rubin wrote the screenplay for Groundhog Day. He has also written a book, How to Write Groundhog Day, about what authors and screenwriters can learn from his experience. Of course, you should read the entire book (watching the movie, again, is optional). I found The Daily Beast’s Book Beast to lift up the best points.

His fourth point bears repeating:

4. Economize. Less is more. Small is large. The best screenplays are not loaded down with redundancies, but instead are elegant structures characterized by efficiency and economy. Why give a speech when a nod will do? … Sometimes the tapping of a finger or the raising of an eyebrow can be more devastating than an explosion.

Too often, authors include what is “intellectually satisfying” complexities that can choke a story’s emotional impact. Showing the behavioral cues–this has more impact than telling the reader about the correct psychological diagnosis.

As Rubin says, “The tapping of a finger or the raising of an eyebrow …”

More than a few nonfiction authors write in a stilted voice with similar sentences–both structure and length–that can become droning. Even more problematic is when authors put whatever action there is in dependent clauses: It is the case that …, One authority has said that …, A majority of respondents voted that …

Among fiction writers, I see this especially in the claimed need for a prologue (“to explain the intricate world of my story”), in lengthy openings and closings in scenes, and in dialogue that stops the action.

In your rewrite, aim your writing–whether fiction or nonfiction–for emotional impact. Get into the middle of the action (in medias res) before offering the reader the full context or especially the meaning of the scene. Focus on the reader’s surprise or intrigue.

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