Donald Maas and The Emotional Craft of Fiction Writing

In The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Donald Mass reminds us that our writing puts readers on an emotional journey.

We all know about showing versus telling, but sometimes there are important things a writer needs to tell their readers. As writers, we have to move the story along, and sometimes this includes cueing the reader in to what the characters are feeling, and developing an environment that will allow the reader to share those feelings, without explicitly stating what those feelings are. 

Think about the novels you have read that have stuck with you, those that brought you to tears, those that made you scream out loud, those that made you so angry you may have thrown the book across the room. What was it that stirred that reaction within you? Was it the plot? Was it the setting? Was it the characters? Or, was it the emotional experience that you had while reading that novel? Beautiful words on a page are just that, but when those words provoke feeling it has the potential of staying with you for a very long time, maybe even impacting your life.

No two readers experience the exact same emotions when reading a book.

Emotions are not to be confused with story elements. Story elements such as plot, setting, and dialogue are the basic mechanics needed in developing the narrative. Other fictional elements such as voice and point of view do not necessarily elicit emotions in the reader.

There are the emotions our characters feel. These are different from the emotions that are generated within us as we read the text on the page. We know that no two readers experience the exact same emotions when reading a book. How I felt while reading The Shining by Stephen King is likely not the same emotional experience that another reader felt.

Writing is difficult. Writing to generate an emotional response is difficult. Donald Mass lays out three different modes in his book, not formulas, for enhancing the emotional experience of your readers: inner mode, outer mode, and other mode. 

Inner Mode

Inner mode actually states the emotions being felt by the characters on the page. Think of romance, or even horror novels where you are told how the character feels. 

Her insides burned with anger. 

He felt grief over the loss of his lover.

Your insides don’t necessarily burn with anger reading that sentence. You don’t necessarily feel grief for the loss of a lover because a character does. You have to get creative to really generate those emotional responses within the reader, Mass says, but those techniques are found later in the book (see Effective Showing, below).

Outer Mode

Outer mode provokes in your reader what the characters are actually feeling. This is showing. You might see this technique used in action stories or thrillers. 

Other Mode

Other mode is described as a dialogue between the reader and writer. This is not a single technique, but more of a collection of elements, descriptions, dialogue and so on, that elicit an emotional response with the reader. 

Of course, you can see any of these methods applied across all genres.

Crafting Emotion

Following are just two of the multiple methods for crafting emotion as detailed by Mass in his book:

Effective Showing

Find a moment in your story when your protagonist is unsettled, moved, disturbed, or facing a difficult choice, and write down all of the emotions that are hidden and unhidden. Then, considering what they are feeling, write down how they can act out. What can they do? What can be symbolic? Add some detail that your protagonist would notice, or maybe there is a detail everyone notices, but your protagonist notices in a different way. Now, go back and delete all of the emotions that you wrote down at the beginning, leaving in just the secondary information you wrote out.

Third-Level Emotions

Pick a moment in your story where your main character feels strongly about something. Pinpoint what exactly that feeling is and write it down. Then, ask your protagonist what else they are feeling in that moment. Write that down too. Then ask them again, what else are they feeling, and yes, write that down as well. Here is where you will begin to layer the emotion. You will examine these emotions in four ways:

Objectify it and then create an analogy—make what Mass calls a moral judgement about it. Is it a good thing to feel this way? Is it a bad thing to feel this way? Create an alternative to these emotions. Is there a better way of feeling? Then, justify these feelings.

Then, you will look at the scene and take note of what your character sees that others don’t, and you will add details to the scene that are unique to your character. Finally, write a passage dedicated to this moment in your story with the hopes of being able to add those layers of the emotion explored. 


As we experience life we feel emotion. The emotional experience for the reader can be rich and long lasting. Regardless of what anyone else tells you, emotions that you feel while reading a story are compelling. We feel things as we read, and honestly, if I’m reading something I’m more likely to stick with it if I have an emotional experience, or an emotional connection to the work. 

In The Emotional Craft of Fiction Writing, the idea is that you can reenergize your writing by thinking of what your character is feeling, and thinking about how you can make your reader feel something. Characters created on a page are not real, and neither is the plot, setting, or scene. What is real are your feelings as you read the work, and hopefully if you can create a world, character, and scenes where your reader can feel, they will be connected to you, your story and your writing.

Image of The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface
Author: Donald Maass
Price: $13.77
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2016)
Binding: Paperback, 218 pages

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