Donald Maass Wisdom: Cultivate Reader Interest Through Unexpected Emotions

Recently I was at a workshop with Donald Maass and the topic of Emotional Writing came up. As you can imagine, I immediately perked up and my fingers became cyclones over the keyboard of my iPad, taking notes.

fragileThe gist of it was this: the most powerful stories have emotional writing, the kind where we dig deep into our own feelings and then put them on the page. Donald encouraged us to move past ‘expected’ character emotions and try for something deeper, more primal. Something unexpected.

We were to take a scene from our book, list the primary emotion our character was feeling, and then change it to something they would never dare to voice or show, but felt none-the-less.

I chose a scene from my Upper MG WIP, Wrath of a God. The Egyptian God Osiris, newly resurrected and clothed as a simple human storekeeper, shows up at the protagonist’s house as a surprise dinner guest. The goal is to intimidate my hero, Brett, and convince him to stop fighting Osiris as he attempts to gain control over everyone in the town. The two of them are speaking outside, away from Brett’s mother who doesn’t know who Osiris really is. Brett is full of anger and frustration because deep down, he knows he’s powerless to stop the God.

But a deeper emotion, something unexpected? What might he also feel? I decided to try DESIRE.

Donald then told us to then duct tape our protagonist, and show that emotion non-verbally (talk about right up my alley!) Want to see what I came up with? (WARNING: It’s not exceptionally written–just a two minute free write!) 

A glow came off of Osiris, a hue that had nothing to do with the sun setting. It was something that came from inside the god…a sureness, a confidence. He was powerful, close to having it all. Brett imagined that for a moment, imagined the feeling of control, the ability to wipe the slate clean. To heal his mother, to heal the town.

His chest expanded and he straightened with the need to have what Osiris had, to shape the world with power. But as he stared at the god, the shadows clutching the sharp angles of his face stood out in dark contrast. Power corrupted. Power consumed. If Brett had it, would he do good? Or would he become like Osiris, and only want more? A deep pain spread in his chest and he reached up, kneading it with his palm. This was wrong. How could he feel this, want this? 

I love what I came up with, because it’s so much deeper than the original emotions of anger and frustration. By honing in on Brett’s desire, I show how he craves what he doesn’t have (power & control), and then the shame he feels at wanting to be like the antagonist.

Donald then challenged us to find 20 more scenes and do this very same thing. And you know what? I plan to. (Oh and that little book on the right? Click on it. You want to own it, trust me–it’s fabulous!)

How about you? Have you ever used an unexpected emotional reaction to deepen your character to readers? Let me know in the comments!

Image: Mhy @ Pixabay


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Description, Emotion, Subtext. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Donald Maass Wisdom: Cultivate Reader Interest Through Unexpected Emotions

  1. Pingback: Emotional Connections With Readers | Writers In The Storm


  3. I didn’t until I saw your comment! Talk about making my day 🙂

  4. That’s really awesome! Speaking of which, did you know Donald Maass posted your link on twitter? 😉

  5. I write romance, and pretty much the ONLY way I can approach the requisite intimate scenes (book after book, scene after scene) is by applying this technique. Desire, yearning, longing, arousal = yawn, yawn, skim, and go get a snack. When I can peer under the emotional bed and find boredom, resentment, loneliness, gloating, humor… the scene develops power, and takes it’s place as an uncuttable contribution to character and dramatic arcs, and, oh, yum, good stuff, indeed!

  6. I’m definitely not a lyrical writer, so I could really benefit from practicing this technique. Thank you!

  7. Julie Musil says:

    Wow, I never thought of that! And heck, your free writing is darn AWESOME!

  8. Marcia says:

    Sounds like a fantastic workshop. And yes, I do love his 21st Century Fiction.

  9. Robin says:

    Sounds like a great class. Unexpected Emotions-that is why I want to read. Off to dig deeper into my WIP. Thank you for your posts, and your Emotional Writing Brilliance!

  10. First of all, your story sounds amazing! Second, what a great two min writing spree! You did good!

    Yup, I try to add unexpected things as well. I have a note on my external hard drive that includes this and other awesome recommendations Donald encourages writers to do from his other writing books. Love how you came up with DESIRE.

    I think this may be the only book I don’t have of his. Thank you so much!

    Donald is thee man! And you, the WO man 🙂

  11. First of all, your story sounds amazing! Second, what a great two min writing spree! You did good!

    Yup, I try to add unexpected things as well. I have a note on my external hard drive that includes this and other awesome recommendations Donald encourages writers to do from his other writing books. Love how you came up with DESIRE.

    I think this may be the only book I don’t have of his. Thank you so much!

    Donald is thee man! And you, the WO man 🙂

  12. I like the idea of using “desire.” It’s a much more visual feeling.

  13. This is great stuff. I’ll definitely have to check out this book.

  14. Pk Hrezo says:

    Nice! Love your snippet. I can tell you dug deep. I’ve been doing that with my latest and digging deep inside, but I’m sure I’ve got scenes where I didn’t. I love the idea of duct taping the character. Great concept to remember! Thanks for sharing.
    I need to get that book.

  15. That’s a great example! And as a scene it reminds me a lot of Galadriel refusing the One Ring in LOTR.

  16. What you wrote is fantastic! Donald Mass is a wonderful teacher. Some day I will be able to afford his lectures. What an awesome way to look at things. Now I have more re-writing to do. Thanks, kiddo! 🙂

  17. This is a really interesting writing technique! I hadn’t heard of it before. I’ll have to try it. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Heather says:

    I love this idea and am definitely going to try it! Donald is an outstanding speaker and teacher.

  19. mshatch says:

    I like what you did with that suggestions; it felt real. After all, who wouldn’t feel helpless before a god and secretly want that power – like Galadrial.

  20. JeffO says:

    Interesting stuff, Angela, I’ll have to look into it myself.

    I’m a big fan of emotional writing. One of the biggest things I tell people when I beta is ‘more emotion!’ I think a lot of people kind of hold back for some reason, maybe for fear of going over the top.

  21. Susan Oloier says:

    I love it! And I really appreciate Donald Maass’s Breakthrough Novel Workbook. It is priceless.

  22. I think taking all of Don Maass’s exercises and using them all would lead to an overwritten rollercoaster story. But I think taking the scenes we think are dragging or too slow or we’re doubting…then his questions and exercises could really help.

    Great example!

  23. Oh, I like this concept. I need to use this!!

  24. Stina I didn’t do all the exercises, but this one I was glad I did. I can see how it can deepen the meaning to the scene and leader to a more human level of contact between reader and character. It was a great workshop!

    @Traci & @Shelly, thanks for stopping in. I’ll post more lessons here and there from the workshop because it was full of great content!

    @Elizabeth, I think with all things, moderation is the key. If each time we wove a moment into the book like the one above and it caused a page or two of reflection, it would seem like too much. And this is only one technique as you know–his book is full of ways to draw the reader in deeper and create a stronger meaning in each scene.

    I know @StinaLindenblatt (above) plotted her whole novel using the 21st Century Fiction book, so you could possibly ask her how she kept from being overwhelmed, but for me, I think I will pick some things to incorporate, but not all. I agree that if we try to deepen everything in multiple ways, it will lead to overwritten prose. Too, so much of this is a style issue. I am not a lyrical writer, so a few passages like the above really would help enhance the writing a bit. But if a person normally created beautiful imagery and deeper meaning naturally, they wouldn’t need to use the techniques to ‘bring that out’ quite as much. It would naturally evolve.

    Go with your gut on which techniques feel right for your story. Your critique parters will tell you if more is needed, or if you tried to do too much, I think. Hope this helps!

    Johanna, showing is always so much better when it comes to emotion, and if a person can show while adding deeper meaning through a few subtext visuals, all the better!

    @Natalie, thanks! I strongly recommend this workshop–if he ever does one in your area, it is worth the money to go. An the 21st Century Fiction book is really good. I loved Breakout Novel, but Fire in Fiction not as much. This one here might be his best book yet.

  25. I think I’ve read a post where he or someone else suggested this. I love how it changed what you wrote. Thanks for sharing it. It’s a great piece.

  26. It’s so true that we get much more powerful emotion through all the things our characters do instead of what they say. I think this boils down to a concrete example of showing and not telling.

  27. I absolutely love this!

    One thing I am curious about…I am going through Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing 21st Century Fiction, and there’s several exercises like this one. You have to show the new emotion/action through words and non verbal cues.

    Do you find that this makes the novel overwritten? I really love subtext, and I really love the idea that this presents–that there’s so much going on underneath. I just worry that I am making it too wordy by changing everything to nonverbal and actions.

    Am I worrying needlessly? I don’t think your passage was too wordy, after all.

  28. shelly says:

    Right now I’m processing this.

    Great post.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  29. A powerful lesson!!

  30. I’m still impressed you did the assignment. I decided that was the moment I just HAD to go to the bathroom. lol

    Great job, Angela. And thanks for the reminder. I’d forgotten this. Looks like I need to re-read my notes.

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