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But we had reached a station. Those who were next to the windows told us its name:


No one had ever heard that name.

So says the young narrator in Elie Wiesel’s Night, a hybrid novel-memoir (he calls it his “deposition”) about his Holocaust experience. That simple observation is laden with emotion—for the narrator (looking back on his ruptured adolescence), for the author, and for the reader. Its simplicity belies its power. Or perhaps is a source of its power, heightened by the revelatory place name being given its own line—a structural contribution to emotion. The impact of the observation that the name had no significance requires intellectual understanding as well as emotional capacity. Without the intellect, there is no emotion in narrative. To be effective, a story must be affective. To be affective, it must involve the whole person, because emotion colors every aspect of who we are. We only care about stories that care about our caring. No emotion, no significance.

Emotions are, by definition, subjective. But then so are the intellect and the will and the body, ad infinitum. Everything I claim in what follows, and especially every example I give, is contestable. What moves me might not move another. What I find sentimental or manipulative, someone else may find authentic and artful. We should not want it any other way. Stories are not multiplication tables, and we relish them for their diverse and unpredictable effects.

I wish to investigate the role of emotion in storytelling, with an emphasis on narrative in fiction and memoir, but with some examples as well from poetry. I begin by exploring the proper role and sources of emotion in storytelling and end by considering how stories can abuse the emotional power inherent in the form, to the detriment of both art and audience.

Consider first the notion of engagement. Engagement—in literature as in personal relationships—involves the ability of a story to span the gap between one’s self and everything else in the universe (and beyond). An effective story makes us feel—that emotion word—that we are experiencing something ourselves, not just hearing a report on something—because we are. At the least we are witnesses and often we find ourselves participants. The story is not over or past—no matter how long ago the setting or in what tense it is told—because we are experiencing it in real time as we read or listen. A second or twentieth hearing can affect us as much or more than a first.

What, specifically, is it about an effective narrative that “draws us in,” that “engages us”? In part it is the mimetic, mirroring aspect of story—its use of creatures like ourselves (even if they are disguised as animals or aliens) involved in situations and actions that we recognize as having similarities to our own, though of course also different. One reason we partake in stories is that we are looking for clues, consciously or unconsciously, for how to navigate our own lives. If we struggle in everyday life with our weight, our ears perk up when we hear someone talk about their new diet; if we struggle with whether to believe in God, we pay attention when Ivan and Alyosha speak in The Brothers Karamazov. We are all trying to figure life out, and most of the helpful answers come in story form.

More particularly, stories engage us because they make an appeal to every part of us: emotions, intellect, body, and will. And they do so not atomistically but holistically. An appeal to the emotions is, at the same time, an appeal to the intellect, with a bodily response and a call to the will often not far behind.

Take, for example, Wiesel’s narrator’s statement about Auschwitz. Any effect this brief passage has requires an intellectual understanding. If the reader does not know what Auschwitz is (and I have had such readers in a classroom), the passage has no effect, emotional or otherwise. The reader also has “never heard the name” and so is waiting for significance to be assigned to the place. No understanding, no affect; no affect, no significance—and therefore no effect either.

But Wiesel is counting on the reader having not only knowledge of Auschwitz but emotional associations with Auschwitz. Because he assumes this, he can afford to state the narrator’s observation flatly, even indifferently. Irony—perhaps the most intellectual of literary devices—exploits the gap between appearance and reality, and in this case releases a thunderclap of emotion. And it does so without the need for any direct statement or elaboration regarding emotion or significance.

These few lines hit me, on first reading, in the pit of my stomach. A physical reaction. (I may also have shaken my head slightly or knit my brow.) And it operated, at some level, on my will, reinforcing, for instance, my determination to teach stories of witness, like Wiesel’s, to my students.

Not surprisingly in our day, the scientists have something to say about all this. Stories can make us feel this way because they take place in the brain, where everything else—real and imagined—takes place for us. Or at least is processed.

The brain is organized to process in narrative form the sensory data that incessantly floods it. It is always looking for a plot in all this data—a storyline that will make consciousness possible and create a sense of order, stability, and predictability. The brain hates chaos and will impose a story if necessary.

The brain researchers who study and theorize about emotion disagree somewhat about what the most basic emotions are (complex emotions being a combination of basic emotions—anger and disgust, for instance, combining to form contempt). They also have disagreed in the past about whether emotions are inescapably tied to thought or intellect or, instead, precede or bypass analytic thought. Most current researchers seem to believe that analysis is not only a component of every emotion, but that it must come first. You may recoil instantly from seeing the snake at your feet, but only because your intellect has identified the sensory data as a snake and reminded you that snakes can be dangerous. Emotion in a story requires the intellect because the brain, it appears, will have it no other way.

Perhaps the single most important emotion that an effective story elicits in a reader is caring, especially the form of caring we call empathy. (I hesitate only because I think curiosity, an emotion with a strong intellectual component, might be even more fundamental.) Empathy, as with all the caring emotions—sympathy, compassion, pity—requires the imagination. Caring requires the ability to picture oneself in someone else’s situation and to respond as if that person’s self-interest is your self-interest.

If a story does not make us care—at some level—then not only will we not be engaged and not think it significant, we are not even likely to continue to attend to its telling. (I used to say to my writing students, “As your professor, I am required to read your entire piece. But in the rest of the world, if your first sentence does not engage a reader, he or she has no obligation to read your second.”) Many things can keep us engaged for a while (including skill with language alone), but the thing that keeps us most engaged to the end is the emotion of caring.

And of the caring emotions, the most important in fiction—and often in memoir—is compassion. Compassion, like its cognate sympathy, means literally to suffer with or to suffer together. And in fiction, as in life, there is no shortage of suffering because something is always going wrong. Something is broken. Something is not as it should be. There is a rupture in shalom and suffering is the result. (I am using the word “compassion” here somewhat loosely, in that it is commonly taken to include a desire to act, not just to feel. While there is usually no opportunity for a reader to act directly with either fiction or memoir, a reader might well act differently in his or her own life because of having experienced a story. The word “empathy” can be substituted for compassion or sympathy in what follows.)

Our compassion is by definition for characters, especially characters trying their best to figure things out, even survive. These characters do not have to be realistic in the “like the rest of us” sense, because often times engaging characters are not, upon analysis, particularly realistic. They are often heightened (a soft word for exaggerated), or unlike anyone we are likely ever to meet on the street, or one-dimensional. E. M. Forster makes the case for the usefulness of flat characters, but at least one character in an effective story must be believably complex. But realistic or not, engaging characters embody some recognizable response to the human condition. That response always has an emotional component and it invites an emotional response from the audience. A character reacting to experience with flat affect tends to generate a flat response from a reader (an example for me is Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles).

An engaging character does not have to be likeable. We can be drawn to and care about the fate of unlikeable characters as long as they interest us (curiosity again). Faulkner’s Jason in The Sound and the Fury is cruel, perpetually angry, racist, abusive of women, and paranoid. But I think Faulkner both understands and has some empathy for Jason. He knows people like this and sees what in life has contributed to what they are. If there is not some level of empathy even for Jason, then he becomes only a cartoon villain rather than an effective character in an engaging story.

A story often has an unstated question for the reader that tends to encourage the emotion of empathy for the characters: “If I were in this situation, what would I do?” (Or “How would I feel?”) If we care about a character, it is at least in part because we are able to imagine ourselves being in that character’s shoes (a metaphor for caring). I may or may not be able to imagine myself in a whaling boat with Ishmael, but I can imagine myself sharing his friendship with Queequeg and his awe of a forbidding Ahab. And I fully understand his feeling like a small bit of flotsam in an ocean of a metaphysical mystery. In short, I care about Ishmael and so I keep reading. (By the time he disappears as the narrator in mid-novel, I have learned to care about other things in Moby Dick too.)

Our compassion extends most directly to specific characters, but, more generally, a rich story appeals to our compassion for the human condition. We know life to be difficult and ourselves to be vulnerable and we engage with stories that explore any part of the human experience with empathy and insight. (We can empathize with rage, accusation, and despair as well as with affirmation, consolation, and hope.)

There are, then, many emotional stances a storyteller can take toward his or her story, but I would argue that the most engaging to the greatest number of readers is what I would call compassionate realism (or, more precisely, empathetic realism). Compassionate in the sense already discussed, and realism in the sense of giving the reader a strong sense that a story partakes of the richness and depth of the human experience, no matter what literary strategy is employed—from mimesis (mirroring the look of everyday life) to fantasy. Compassionate realism engages readers because it best satisfies what attracts most of us to a story in the first place—the desire to share in the lives of others and to marshal resources for our own living.

A story must make us care. Caring is a measure of our valuing. The easiest way to do this is to put someone in physical danger—Fay Wray in the grip of King Kong on top of the Empire State Building. (This is the well-worn formula of the action movie and its literary equivalents.) But the more profound and lasting way of making us care is to put characters in psychological or spiritual danger—especially if there is a strong moral element. (Readers are inherently moralistic, even though most today would not want to be thought so.) The danger, for example, of characters losing (or never finding) their sense of who they are or of the meaning of their life. This is Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or Eliezer in Night, or Anna in Anna Karenina.

If empathy or compassion is the most important emotion elicited in a reader, the single most powerful and engaging quality in a character is, in my estimation, moral courage. We tend to care passionately about a character who is wrestling with doing the right thing (no matter whether the right thing is clear or ambiguous) in a situation in which a great deal is at stake and the safe thing is to compromise or rationalize. Even in our relativistic age, we believe instinctively in the core virtues (from courage and wisdom to hope and love) because those are the qualities that have always helped human beings survive and flourish. (Aristotle believed emotion a crucial aspect of leading a virtuous life.)

Any element of story can engage us—from setting to theme. But nothing will engage us without a major contribution from the emotions. On the level of craft, what, specifically, makes a story emotionally engaging—in a way that stands up to analysis? I would argue that it is specificity of revelatory details of description. Put another way, an engaging story creates a world—like or unlike the reader’s own—that generates an emotional-intellectual-physical-volitional response in the audience, creating a mix of interest and dissatisfaction—a yearning—that cannot be satisfied until the story has kept its promises.

The interest derives primarily from the promises a story makes to gives us something worthwhile (not waste our time) and is rooted in simple curiosity; the dissatisfaction arises from the desire to know and experience more of the story than we have done so at any point before the end. It is a pleasant dissatisfaction—a yearning for something desirable—but it is a dissatisfaction. One sees it in children—“don’t stop, Papa, keep reading”—and one feels it when lost (an engagement metaphor) in the proverbial book that you “can’t put down.”

To clarify what I mean by specificity of revelatory details of description, I turn to Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Hemingway famously emphasizes the effect a writer can achieve by leaving things out. Most often the thing left out is overt declaration of emotion. When he says, “the dignity of the movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” he is not denying the existence or importance of the hidden seven-eighths. He is simply saying that we know—and feel—the presence of that which is hidden to the senses by attending to the smaller part that we do sense and imagining the rest that our intellect tells us is there.

Similarly Hemingway believes that specific, concrete, revelatory description of visible reality in a story will suggest inner realities—emotional, spiritual, thematic—that not only do not have to be described, but will be less fully realized if talked about directly. This plays out in relationships among Hemingway characters (think of the “chaps” in The Sun Also Rises who live by a code of conduct that disparages emotional talk), but it is also a craft strategy.

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway says the following of his early efforts in Paris to learn his craft:

the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced … the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion…

There is a lot here relevant to our discussion. His reference to knowing what one genuinely felt rather than what one was supposed to feel applies to both writers and readers (and to both fiction and memoir). An abuse of emotion is to trade entirely in stock feelings—the culture supplies them, the author transfers them, the reader accepts them, and everyone is happy—but not for long. The stock feelings of emoticon stories (think Hollywood, television, professional inspirational speakers, and much genre-fiction) do not withstand intellectual inspection. They can have a short-term effect, but on closer examination they leave us undernourished.

Thin stories with stock emotions are not evil. Every moment of our lives is filled with stories, and most of them, necessarily, pass quickly away. But if we desire stories that deserve to be told widely and to be retold (and actually be of help to people), we must demand a more lasting foundation under the emotions in stories. And that will require craft—not only the craft of the professional storyteller, but the innate craft that most humans possess to tell a good story, especially when it is one that captures a moment in their own lives.

Virginia Woolf’s lasting reputation as a novelist, for example, derives not from being a feminist or from her intriguing life among the Bloomsbury set, but from her rendering shades of emotional nuance as skillfully as any writer ever has (sometimes wearyingly so). She probes and re-probes a situation or a reflection in revelatory detail until the unique emotion-infused thought of the character is revealed—to the author, to the reader, and, at times, to the character. She offers us a believable rendering of consciousness, the place where we all live.

Woolf slides back and forth between the inner world and the outer. Hemingway tends to stay with the outer world—with descriptions of external conditions— but he hopes to be as revelatory as Woolf of the truth of inner states. Presenting “The actual things … which produced the emotion” in the writer is the one-eighth of the iceberg that is visible, and those tangible things can create in the reader, Hemingway believed, the necessary emotion of a good story. For all his macho reputation, Hemingway does not eschew the emotions; he simply identifies a strategy for eliciting them.

A perhaps apocryphal story about Hemingway epitomizes much of his strategy of suggesting emotion with physical, external description. Claiming to his friends around a table that he could compose an entire novel out of six words, he took a napkin and wrote on it the following: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This is all surface, direct statement, simple description of physical reality, maximally condensed and unelaborated, but of course implying a world of meaning and emotion.

Poets know even more than fiction writers about using the tangible to suggest the intangible, especially the things of the emotions and the spirit. T. S. Eliot counseled poets to present “the objective correlative” as a strategy for exploring inner states:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

In The Waste Land, polluted London—ancient and modern—is the external embodiment (the one-eighth of the iceberg) of the narrator’s internal psychological and spiritual state.

Similarly Eliot laments what he takes to be the “dissociation of sensibility” in the poetry of the two centuries before his own. Unlike the unity of thought and feeling he believed characterized the Metaphysical poets of the early 17th century (“A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility”), Eliot felt the poets of the 18th and 19th either thought (“ruminated”) or felt, but rarely used language in a way that fused the two into the same moment. (They do not “feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.”)

Ezra Pound, Eliot’s sidekick in the modernist revolution, both anticipates Hemingway’s call for using the external to suggest the internal and recognizes the intimate connection between the analytic and the emotional in his well-known definition of the poetic image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In his poem “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” for instance, the intense longing of the young Chinese wife for her husband, far away on an extended business journey, is conveyed entirely by description of external actions and objects. She never says she is sad, but sadness colors her perception of everything around her—from the moss growing near the unused front gate (suggesting her isolation and loneliness) to the “paired butterflies” that, having a mate, “hurt me.”

Eliot’s and Pound’s main concern is poetry and Hemingway’s is fiction. But the points they make are relevant to both, and also to nonfiction, especially memoir or autobiography. Alex Haley was the midwife of Malcolm X’s autobiography. In the epilogue to that work, Haley talks of how difficult it was initially to move Malcolm X away from the abstract talk of ideology to the details of his life. He finally succeeded by making a simple request:

I wonder if you’d tell me something about your mother?

Slowly, Malcolm X began to talk, now walking in a tight circle. “She was always standing over the stove, trying to stretch whatever we had to eat. We stayed so hungry that we were dizzy. I remember the color of dresses she used to wear—they were a kind of faded-out gray…”

The lesson is clear: we want to hear about the gray dress. Theme—ideology, if you will—can be important in storytelling, but we only find a theme worth attending to if the story first engages us with the revelatory details of a woman standing over a stove in a gray dress. And the theme will not be something separable from that action and that gray dress. The emotional engagement is in the details and it is the emotion that convinces us of the truth and significance of any theme or larger meaning. One might even go so far as to say the “intellectual-emotional complex” is the meaning.

Pound’s definition of a poetic image is in fact a description of the ontological status and action of all emotion—in life and in story. William Wordsworth, more than a century earlier, described the state in which poetry is composed as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility” (in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads). The poet’s original emotions arising from an experience are powerful, but they need both memory and cool reflection (“recollection”) in order to be realized again in a work of art. This is also the case in fiction and memoir.

Wordsworth reminds us, as does Hemingway, that the emotion in art originates not in characters or situations but in the artist. The storyteller experiences some aspect of the human experience and encodes that in a narrative that a reader decodes (an inadequate metaphor), allowing the reader to have a related experience with emotional, intellectual, physical, and volitional dimensions. But the artist-writer has to experience it first—often in the moment of composition rather than before. If the writer does not feel and reflect on an experience “as immediately as the odour of a rose,” neither will the reader.

Audiences and readers of story are also tellers. Everyone both receives and tells stories. Each day is filled with story exchanges, without which we could not be human. When someone tries to tell the stories of his or her own life more formally, we call it memoir. And almost everything that one can say about the crafting and consuming of fiction also applies to memoir. Storytelling is storytelling. (One possible difference, which we will explore, is that our current taste in fiction calls for showing not telling, while memoir allows for both.)

While fiction generally seeks a public hearing, the great majority of memoir writing is private, created for a highly circumscribed audience. Therefore I would like to provide such a story to serve as an example for comment. It is by Glen Wiberg, a retired pastor, now in his eighties. It was written for a class I taught on sharing a spiritual legacy through personal life stories. He calls it “Grandpa’s Blessing.”

Grandpa Wiberg was both one of a kind and the archetype of all Swedish grandpas—the neatly trimmed mustache, the gold-rimmed glasses, the smiling blue eyes, the sandy hair, the big blacksmith hands, the faint, sweet smell of Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic, the Swedish accent, the shuffling walk. He was everybody’s grandpa. Young and old called him grandpa.

When I was about seventeen, I was asked to speak at the Sunday afternoon meeting of the Young People’s Society at First Covenant Church, Kansas City. Those were the days when everyone came, young and old; we hadn’t heard of anything like a generation gap. My first attempt at speaking before a group was a total failure. I spoke too long, too haltingly, too rambling. It was bad. I knew it and everyone else knew it. Following the young people’s meeting was the evening service and then the ride home where no one said a word, a silence that said more than words.

Not long after arriving home, my mother said, “Glen, your dad and I have been talking.” (Mom always did the talking on the important stuff, so I knew it was serious business.) “Your dad and I are concerned about your desire to enter the ministry. With your best interests at heart, we think you should consider something else—perhaps being a doctor or some other profession. We don’t want to add to the ranks of so many poor preachers.”

I was devastated. I sat in stunned silence, unable to say a word. From my earliest recollections, becoming a pastor was my single passion. But perhaps they were right and a calling to ministry was my own idea and so misplaced.

Grandpa, who was staying with us at the time, was witness to my failure and sitting in the living room overhearing this one-way call to judgment. With the verdict in, I went upstairs to my room and in the darkness threw myself on my bed in tears. Soon I heard the heavy steps of grandpa coming up to the bedroom we both shared. He opened the door and there in the darkened room came over to my bed, knelt down and laid his big blacksmith hands on my head in blessing, then began praying in Swedish. I understood every word he prayed: “O Lord God, don’t let anything take from Glen the calling you have given him to serve you. Pour out on him the Holy Spirit so that he will be of rich blessing to many.”

Though it would be some ten years before my ordination by the Evangelical Covenant Church, I nevertheless count that night when I received my grandpa’s blessing as my initial pre-ordination into the ministry. In sharing this story, I need to add that leaving home for Chicago a year later to pursue biblical and theological studies, I did so with the blessing and support of both mom and dad. And further, it is important to know that I would never have known the blessing of grandpa if, in my first attempts at preaching, I had wowed the audience. Instead, I received the blessing in my failure.

This six-paragraph story—in memoir form—embodies much of what I have argued above about stories, engagement, emotion, and character. The first sentence—the first word—begins a series of revelatory descriptive details that carry both the emotion and the meaning of the story through to the last word. The story begins with “Grandpa” and ends with “failure” and the two concepts are linked inexorably in an unbroken chain throughout.

Actually, only “failure” is a concept. Grandpa is a person. And the success of the story hinges on the wonderful rendering of this person with the string of details in that first sentence, my favorite being the “sweet smell of Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic.” Each detail adds specificity to this particular grandpa. Each detail moves him from being a generic grandpa to one that we experience ourselves, as though we were smelling that hair tonic through our own nostrils. He is simultaneously general enough to elicit the emotional and intellectual responses we have to the category “grandpa,” and specific enough not to be simply a stereotype.

We all have emotional associations with the word and idea of “grandpa,” even if we were not lucky enough to have known ours, or had bad experiences. The writer here both invokes those inherent emotions and shapes them to his own purposes by not only the revealing details but by the affectionate tone of the entire first paragraph. He has us hooked (another engagement metaphor). We want to know more about this grandpa—and about the promise made in the title—and he will be both engaged and dissatisfied until we find out more.

The second paragraph introduces the rupture in shalom—the trouble—that attends almost every story. It reminds us that emotion in stories is shaped by overall narrative structure as well as by details such as character and plot. The famous Freytag’s Pyramid of introductory lit classes speaks of exposition, followed by rising action and complication. The second paragraph dramatically raises the stakes—especially the emotional stakes. Bad news—in this case his failure as a speaker—is not genuinely bad news unless it is felt to be so. Feeling bad is what makes it bad, as opposed to a simple fact.

This story is told in first-person close to 70 years after the fact. And yet the author clearly still feels the emotion of the event in the telling now, and he has rendered it with the kind of convincing detail that allows us to feel the emotion as well. (Unless we judge it excessive, which I do not). We feel the emotion because of the amazing ability story has to make us feel that we are experiencing an event ourselves, in present time.

Again, one can invoke the scientists. They disagree on many things regarding emotions and the brain, but they have agreed since Bergson and even before that emotions have a timeless quality. Faulkner captured it memorably when he affirmed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When Glen Wiberg tells the story of his grandfather’s blessing, he is experiencing it again in the present—not identically, but in a way that is just as “real” as far as the brain is concerned. And his telling invites us to experience it as well—not exactly as he or other readers do— but in a way that we feel real emotions that involve our intellect, body, and will.

The story’s third paragraph raises the stakes much further. Rather than simply being a story about an embarrassing event, it now becomes a story about the potential misshaping of a life. An embarrassment now threatens to become a life-long wound, and readers feel the threat, perhaps even feel a threat to themselves as memories are called up from their own life. If the story is working for us, we feel compassion for the young narrator; we literally suffer with him. We might well have a physical reaction—tears in the eyes or a tightening in the chest. We might even make a volitional vow of some kind—conscious or unconscious—such as, “I will never treat another person that way.”

All these things can happen in a story because of the way we are made and the way stories are structured. A good storyteller, at some level, understands this and tells the story accordingly.

The fourth paragraph violates one of the longstanding canards of writing workshops—“show, don’t tell.” The advice has its place—and seems to echo Hemingway and other recent masters of the craft—but it is often violated by great writers (especially those before Hemingway) and it not only can but often should be ignored in memoir. In nonfiction prose, especially autobiography and memoir, one should both show and tell how one felt or feels about what one has shown.

So we do not protest when the narrator in paragraph four states unequivocally that he was “devastated” and that he “sat in stunned silence” and that he reflected on whether his parents were right. This is a brief, overt statement of emotion (which also involves intellectual analysis on his part) and it does not render the story abstract or less powerful, because as readers we think, “that’s exactly how I would feel.” We not only think it, we too, like the narrator, feel it. In fact it might even make us angry as we root for the kid to ignore what his mother has just said. (Unless we feel manipulated, in which case we will not care how the kid feels.)

Structurally, we are nearing Freytag’s “climax.” The pressure has built to the breaking point. We will be dissatisfied indeed if the story ends here. Happy ending or not, something more has to happen. The pressure has to be relieved.

And the fifth paragraph satisfies that desire, that need, for the story to be a genuine story and not just a series of events. (Kairos, not just chronos.) It does not have to end happily, but it must end convincingly.

I have argued that the key to engagement in a story—at all levels—is specificity of revelatory details of description in a created world in service to empathetic realism. So it contributes to our emotional engagement when the narrator leans on the archetypal description of someone climbing stairs toward a darkened bedroom (setting contributing to emotion through the suspense created by a person climbing stairs and by our associations of a darkened bedroom with intimacy and privacy and even grieving). And we react in an ancient and physical way to the description of the laying on of hands, touch also being emotion-laden. And, most crucially of all, we react with emotion to the words the grandfather speaks. Not because we have to share the religious convictions that underlie the words, but because they give life and reality to a deeply intimate and relational act.

Contrast the use of specific dialogue here to some bland abstraction such as, “My grandfather prayed a blessing over me.” No, anything less than actual speech, even if imperfectly remembered, diminishes the emotional engagement. This is true no matter which genre one uses to convey this archetypal event. (I think it even adds something that we are told the grandfather prayed in Swedish. If I were advising the writer, I would suggest he consider putting in a few phrases from the original language. But he does not need any advice from me.)

In Freytag’s Pyramid, exposition, rising action, and climax are followed by falling action and denouement. Why is that? Why not end a story at the place of greatest emotional intensity? I think because the brain (consciousness), like the rest of the body after strenuous exercise, needs a cooling down period. We need time, within the story as well as after the story, to decide what we think and feel about what we have been experiencing. (Aristotle explores this with his notion of catharsis.) The blessing is the most important moment in the story, but we are still curious about other things. We want to know, for instance, if the narrator ever did go on to be a minister. (How would we feel if he did not? Would that undercut the power of the blessing or would it be enough that the grandfather loved and encouraged him?)

And that final sentence about the blessing only coming because of his failure is a “moral of the story” kind of closing. It offers a last bit of wisdom. Maybe it is too didactic for some, but I think the genre encourages it. We bring genre-specific expectations to our interaction with any text (written or spoken) and our emotional response is shaped in part by the degree to which a narrative fulfills or frustrates those expectations (something the researchers tell us the brain demands).

After all, why is Glen Wiberg telling this story? He is doing so quite consciously to bless others (a distinctive feature of legacy stories)—especially younger others about whom he cares. And so he rightfully makes explicit that which might encourage someone he loves, just as his grandfather encouraged him. Hemingway would not do it, but Hemingway is not writing memoirs about his grandpa’s blessing.

In sum, my subjective judgment is that this story manages emotions within the story and shapes the emotional response of the reader in a way that is both artful and ethical. Each of the common devices of storytelling—setting, plot, characterization, language, and theme—contributes to the emotional energy of the story that keeps us engaged from the first sentence to the last.

I use the words artful and ethical in evaluating this story because I think they are both keys to understanding the uses and abuses of emotion in narrative. The abuse of emotion, to which we now turn, is primarily an abuse of either craft or ethics or both. The primary failure in craft involves laziness and cliché, the primary ethical failure involves manipulation. At times they are two sides of the same coin, the cliché or stereotype is the catalyst or vehicle for the manipulation. The abuse of emotion in storytelling, as in all art, is any use of emotion that distorts or otherwise fails to convey the nuance and depth of our lives as we actually experience them.

Consider one of the most common abuses of emotion: sentimentality. Sentiment is a synonym for emotion, and in storytelling, as in life, it is a positive and inescapable force. Sentimentality, on the other hand, is the abuse of sentiment for manipulative purposes. It is, in brief, the manipulation of emotion to elicit responses not supported by the circumstances. (I am indebted in this discussion of sentimentality to Alan Jacobs.)

The primary faculty for judging between appropriate sentiment and manipulative sentimentality is the intellect. It asks, at the time or in retrospect, “Do the facts of the story, as conveyed in the particulars of its language and strategies, adequately support the emotional response it is attempting to elicit?” Or, less pedantically, is the story appealing to my emotions or playing with them?

Sentiment is earned emotion; sentimentality is manipulated emotion. (Or, as the poet Wallace Stevens said, “Sentimentality is the failure of emotion.”) Sentimentality is usually tied to character and characterization, making use of specific narrative strategies. A cinematic example, for me, is Steven Spielberg’s adaption of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Spielberg lingers on extreme closeups of Whoopi Goldberg’s agonized, tear-stained face that struck me, 30 years ago now, as sentimental and manipulative—and unnecessary to convey the more artful depiction of emotion in the novel itself. (Whether those shots would still strike me that way, I do not know.)

Though sentimentality most often is found in characterization, it can express itself in any aspect of a story. There are sentimental settings, sentimental plots, and sentimental themes. One example is the false requirement (an expectation of some audiences) that a story be uplifting—sentimentality in plot or theme or both. We enjoy happy endings in stories, of course, not least because we want one for ourselves and those we love, but the challenge for a story is to be convincing—no matter the outcome or its ultimate view of reality. Sentiment (emotion) is necessary to convince us of anything, but sentimentality is an attempt to fool us instead.

Stories without sufficient emotion read like instructions for assembling an Ikea dresser. But an excess of emotion can have the effect of muting rather than heightening the reader’s engagement. This is a matter of taste as well as craft— subjectivity again. The Romantic poets often cultivated emotion (for programmatic reasons in the case of Wordsworth). Shelley could write, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and not be thought excessive. Today that declaration from a living writer would strike many readers as intentionally humorous.

To make the discussion more concrete, consider the following anonymous story that can be found endlessly on the internet, always accompanied by high praise. It is called “A Box Full of Kisses.” (It appears in various forms; the following is representative.)

The story goes that some time ago, a man punished his three-year-old daughter for wasting a roll of gold wrapping paper. Money was tight and he became infuriated when the child tried to decorate a box to put under the Christmas tree. Nevertheless, the little girl brought the gift to her father the next morning and said, “This is for you, Daddy.”

The man was embarrassed by his earlier overreaction, but his anger flared again when he found out the box was empty. He yelled at her, stating, “Don’t you know, when you give someone a present, there is supposed to be something inside?” The little girl looked up at him with tears in her eyes and cried, “Oh, Daddy, it’s not empty at all. I blew kisses into the box. They’re all for you, Daddy.”

The father was crushed. He put his arms around his little girl, and he begged for her forgiveness.

Only a short time later, an accident took the life of the child. It is also told that her father kept that gold box by his bed for many years, and, whenever he was discouraged, he would take out an imaginary kiss and remember the love of the child who had put it there.

In a very real sense, each one of us, as humans beings, has been given a gold container filled with unconditional love and kisses … from our children, family members, friends, and God. There is simply no other possession anyone could hold more precious than this.

Judging by the flood of laudatory comments on the internet, many people find this story powerful and wise. I find it sentimental and manipulative. I cannot prove that, of course, but I can try to explain why I say so.

The story’s general arc is very similar to the blessing story that I previously praised. This story, however, fails for me the test of “specificity of revelatory details of description in a created world in service to empathetic realism” that I claimed as necessary for a story to create lasting engagement. What we have instead is a generic simulation of a story (“The story goes” opening is a tipoff) that substitutes stereotype, cliché, exaggeration, and stock characters for the hard work of creating an engaging world.

The laziness of “infuriated” in the first paragraph is an example. It is an exaggeration that discourages believability. And the child is rendered as a big-eyed cartoon character (compare sappy Keane prints from the 1960s) with the “tears in her eyes” and her repetitive use of “Daddy” and “Oh, Daddy.” All the emotion words and phrases are, like “infuriated,” over the top: “anger flared,” “yelled,” “crushed,” “begged,” “discouraged.”

Worried perhaps that some readers still might not be adequately moved, this version of the story adds that the little girl soon dies (cue Little Nell)—a plot cliché to go along with the clichés of characterization and language. And some versions, as here, add the last paragraph to clinch the moral of the story, one version throwing in references to angel wings.

My description is veering toward sarcasm, perhaps my defensive reaction to feeling that I am being manipulated (sarcastic being the opposite of sentimental). But why do I praise the blessing story and find this one a failure? Because I think the former has earned its emotion and this one has cheated. It has failed ethically as well as artistically. I actually believe the general truth it tries to enunciate in the closing paragraph (missing in some versions), but I do not think the story has earned that insight. It has tried to bypass one part of who we are—our intellect, reason, intelligence, life experience—to strike directly to another part, the emotions, in order get an effect that it does not deserve. I call that manipulation and I think it is an abuse. The story has not addressed me as a whole person, which I think a good story must. I understand that others have and will judge differently.

All the emotions can be abused in ways similar to this. It is all too common in political discourse, for instance, to use stories that appeal to fear and prejudice for unethical ends. (And political contests—even in nondemocratic societies—are essentially battles between competing narratives.) It happens in literature as well.

I, for instance, find the anger that defines Nikki Giovanni’s iconic poem “The True Import of Present Dialogue: Black vs. Negro” that begins “Nigger/Can you kill” (and includes “Can you stab-a-jew …/ Can you piss on a blond head/ Can you cut it off”) to be both manipulative and ineffective—and not rescued by its passing reference to killing “your nigger mind” that allows some to judge the entire poem “metaphorical.” Anger is a legitimate emotion—in life and in art—but it is not a good in itself, and using it badly is wasteful and potentially unethical.

That Giovanni (and others in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s) disdained artsy notions of poetry is irrelevant. She is choosing a traditional form of communication and I would argue that her abuse of a legitimate emotion in response to irrefutable grievances makes the poem a failure even as effective political speech. One could contrast the abuse of anger in this poem with other Giovanni poems which embody great emotion—from anger to affection to grief—but do so persuasively (such as her chant poem performed at a gathering at Virginia Tech University the day after the massacre there in 2007 of 32 people by a student who had been in one of her classes).

Excessive, manipulative, or poorly shaped emotion in a story (and most poems also have a story in them somewhere) errs in one direction. Emotional malnutrition errs in another. Life itself is inherently filled with emotion. The attempt to suppress or minimize emotion is itself an emotion, and can be related to control, stiffening, avoidance, or fear.

In some cases the emotion in a story is so constrained or otherwise attenuated that the story leaves us cold—impressed perhaps, but emotionally cool. This can result from stories that are too didactic, selfish, or self-consciously artistic.

Stories are inherently didactic. All the good and great ones want to teach us something. (Remember Horace’s declaration that the aim of poetry—read art—is both to delight and instruct.) But any wisdom or teaching or argument or insight in a work of art must grow out of rather than be imposed on the materials at hand. It is fine, even desirable, for a story to be didactic, but it must not feel so. If it does, our emotions flee. We are experiencing a lecture not a story. We may be more knowledgeable for it, but we are not moved as a whole person.

Didacticism sometimes takes the form of selfishness. In fiction, selfishness includes using the form of a story to promote an ideology (and impose it on the reader). I call it selfish because it privileges—a favorite academic word of the late 20th century—the author’s personal ideology over the need of the audience for a helpful rendering of the complexity of the human experience.

Selfishness in memoir includes using a story for purposes of revenge against another or some other form of manipulative self-justification. You can tell a story to help yourself and others better understand something that has happened to you. But if readers sense they are being recruited to gang up against your enemy or to attend a pity party, they are likely to withdraw their emotional involvement.

By “self-consciously artistic” I mean stories that call attention to themselves as elaborate displays of technical and linguistic brilliance, but otherwise offer little nourishment for the emotions. Unlike the clumsy sentimentality of “The Box Full of Kisses,” these narratives can be highly crafted, inventive, impressive in their use of language and a wide range of literary devices. But in foregrounding craft and knowingness, they sacrifice emotional engagement. Their tools are irony, sophistication, elaboration of technique, and the knowing wink—potentially impressive, but also emotionally distancing.

Take for example the post-modernist metafiction of the later part of the 20th century. My personal assessment is that the reading public—highbrow and otherwise—found it initially interesting because of its inventive cheekiness, but grew tired of it rather quickly. It failed in the longer run to meet the expectations—and needs—that audiences have always brought to any encounter that begins with something like, “Let me tell you a story.” Most such stories, despite dazzling us, fail to make us care.

These then are my claims about the use and abuse of emotion in story. A story engages us when it makes its appeal to us as whole persons, addressing the emotions and intellect together, affecting the body, and moving the will. It does so through craft, using specific, revelatory detail in a way that strikes us as reflecting the complexity of the human experience generally and of our own specifically—what I call empathetic realism. When the narrator in Wiesel’s Night hears someone reading the sign that identifies the place as “Auschwitz” and comments, “No one had ever heard that name,” we know we are in the presence of an important and well-told story that we need to hear.

Cite this article
Daniel Taylor, ““Didn’t Our Hearts Burn within Us?” The Use and Abuse of Emotion in Storytelling”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 27–42

Daniel Taylor

Emory University
Daniel Taylor (Ph.D. Emory University) is, most recently, the author of two novels, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist and Do We Not Bleed (both from Slant).