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July 11, 2013 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Short story recommendations that are packed with emotion. Or please provide suggestions as to how to write stories that are packed with emotion.

Here is what I'm trying to do. Write short stories but my epic fails are: character development and having any sort of emotion in the story.

One of the best ways for me to learn is to learn by reading from samples that do this well. There really isn't a story genre called emotions, so, if you can remember reading a short story that enabled you to feel what the character felt or to feel the story the story emotionally as quickly as possible (within a few pages), this would be helpful. Open to any genre. Preferably online and free, but even if it is not and strongly meets the criteria, please mention it.

Alternatively, if you have learned how to do this and do it well - can you share what you do and/or how you learned to do this (something an explanation plus reading samples helps).

Thank you!
posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Do you mean having characters act emotionally or causing an emotional reaction in the reader?
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:46 AM on July 11, 2013

Sorry-my goal is to have an emotional reaction in the reader.
posted by Wolfster at 10:47 AM on July 11, 2013

Adam Haslett, You are Not a Stranger Here.
posted by googly at 10:53 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hope this answer isn't to basic, but I think your starting point might be a really thoughtful reflection on your own emotions and the things (sights, sounds, smells, interactions, etc.) that prompt them. The old adage that writers should "show, not tell" will make a difference in your writing if you know what to show.

This is how I would proceed:
1) Identify the emotions you'd like to focus on. This means breaking things down into smaller and smaller subcategories of emotion - a thesaurus can actually be pretty helpful here. For example, you might start by listing Happy, Sad, Angry. Then you might focus on Happy. There are different facets of Happy. For example, there's Giddiness, Contentment, Fun (funfulness, maybe? It ought to be a word, anyway), etc.

2)Then you go through the process of feeling each one of those. Just close your eyes and relax and try to bring each emotion up to the surface within yourself - almost as if you were an actor. So, take Giddiness, for example. As you sit (or stand, or bounce, or whatever) what images and other sensory input do you find helps you to begin to experience Giddiness? It could be useful to do this with someone else, too. Just describe to one another what you're doing to draw up that particular emotion.

3)Write down what you come up with until you just can't do it anymore. It's probably going to be emotionally exhausting, but, over time, you'll have more and more sensory stimuli that, when described in detail, can give the reader the same sense of giddiness that you're trying to describe.

I think another overused adage that may have some truth that can apply to this is "Write what you know." In other words, you should really get to know emotions in order to write about them. Then, when your character is in a situation that ought to prompt emotion, you'll recognize exactly what they ought to be feeling and you'll have a stable of descriptions and analogies to draw upon as you describe their feelings to the reader.

Good luck and happy writing!
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 10:57 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

"That Evening Sun" by William Faulkner. "I hell-born, child," Nancy said. "I won't be nothing soon. I going back where I come from soon."

"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway. "I'll scream," the girl said.

"Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" by J.D. Salinger.
posted by seemoreglass at 10:57 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recall Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" and George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead" evoking similar emotions. Certainly they're both worth your time.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:02 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Alice Munro.
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:03 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

As I recall Wolfster, you're not really a touchy-feely kind of Wolf. If you can't point to stories that specifically moved YOU, I'm not sure that ones that moved US will be of any help to you.

Just like you can't fake sincerity, you can't fake emotions.

I base my characters on people I know. That helps a lot since their real people who do real things.

But, if you're not prone to emotional reactions to things, you won't be able to emulate that aspect of depth in your writing.

I think that A Fine Day for Bananafish is a story that builds up to an emotion, but I'm not sure if that's what you're looking for. The story may appeal to you because it's pretty straightforward in its telling, yet it builds towards the shocking end.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:04 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I found the short stories in Lorrie Moore's Birds of America to be profoundly moving (I read it almost 10 years ago and I still think about the last story in the book from time to time). Raymond Carver, too, has always been good for stirring my emotions (my favorite is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). Both of these books are quite depressing but I found them to be very inspiring to my writing.
posted by lovableiago at 11:06 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm going to vote for The Dead, by James Joyce.
posted by effluvia at 11:07 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories are all designed to break you in one way or another. Start with "Interpreter of Maladies" then read "Unaccustomed Earth." Skip "The Namesake" which is her novel. It isn't bad, it just isn't what you want.

In terms of how to craft emotion in your story, one tactic (that Lahiri uses to great effect) is to reduce the action in the story as much as possible. If very little actually happens, the reader is left to rely almost entirely on the emotional aspect of the story. So if your characters are zooming about and then and then and then and then... you can end up distracting your reader from the important things that are happening. Slow the tempo down. Narrow the focus of the action. Take a deeper look at what is going on. Let everything unfold (within reason) before moving on and zooming about in the narrative.
posted by jph at 11:08 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Something I've learned in my own writing is that I actually can feel when the emotion is there and authentic -- not necessarily strong, sometimes, quiet, but on target -- right in my own body. I write faster, my fingers fly, I'm fidgety in my chair, I get teary or smiley, I'm excited, I'm tense, I get goosebumps, I feel flow -- when I am paying attention.

I'm starting to sound like a broken record in these parts, but mindfulness meditation has been incredibly helpful to me, keeping me tuned in to what my body is saying as I make words.

The whole George Saunders collection worked for me.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:10 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point Of View (read first) and
The Emotion Thesaurus (read second) should help you.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:16 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first story that evoked intense emotions in me was, unquestionably, Ray Bradbury's All Summer in a Day. I read it in kindergarten and wept disconsolately for days. The impact has stayed with me for over a quarter-century; it still makes me shake.

Steve Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal is my go-to for this purpose in adulthood. Please look past the terrible cover art. It is devastating and wonderful.
posted by divined by radio at 11:42 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Joyce's "The Dead" (and several other stories in Dubliners, particularly "A Little Cloud"). I can never read the final few paragraphs without getting choked up.
posted by scody at 11:43 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ponies by Kij Johnson really did me in. Also the frequently-AskMe'd All Summer in a Day (on preview, I've been beaten to it). They share quite a few similarities, and both of them stuck with me emotionally because they felt so very familiar to me. You can probably guess what my childhood was like.

In addition to thinking about emotions in your writing, think about wants and fears. Not just your characters', but your own. Most people want the same essential things (e.g. security, companionship, a sense of worth) and react emotionally when those things are obtained or taken away. If you can find the common denominator among your own wants and fears and those of your characters and your readers, it will help you evoke emotions in your stories.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:51 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The current land speed record for emotion induction is held by David Foster Wallace's Incarnations of Burned Children.

Be advised: the emotion in question is annihilating despair.
posted by Iridic at 11:57 AM on July 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Check out Richard Yates's short stories. One particular recommendation is 'No Pain Whatsoever.'
posted by Asparagus at 12:03 PM on July 11, 2013

The Last Leaf by O'Henry.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 12:12 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

James Joyce's "The Dead" was the first story that came to mind when I read your question. It's one of two short stories that I can recall ever making me cry. I think it's a marvelously instructive example of an emotional story, because what makes it so effective is its emotional restraint. Joyce doesn't tell us how we should be feeling. He doesn't try to make us feel emotion with purple prose or stylistic gestures.

Instead, he creates characters and invests them with life and personality. So when we reach the emotional climax of the story, we don't need any prodding in order to feel deeply for the characters. We empathize with them because they're recognizable human beings. Gabriel Conroy isn't even all that likable a character, but what he experiences in his moment of reflection is moving because of the universality of what he's feeling, and because Joyce has taken care to build up to this moment organically. The emotions Gretta and Gabriel express in that last scene are convincing because they're the product of their characters and what they've experienced, without being pushed there by an authorial hand.

Understatement is a very powerful literary tool. Kurt Vonnegut is a great example of this. Some of his most devastating writing works because Vonnegut creates emotional situations that speak for themselves. He doesn't try to pump up the emotions -- in fact, the more heightened the emotions of a particular scene, the more he underplays them. And his plain style works to make his words seem more truthful for their bluntness and lack of interest in persuasion. (A novel that employs this plainspoken style beautifully is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.)

The other short story that has made me cry is Mark Twain's "A Dog's Tale," not just for the obvious reason -- it involves cruel treatment of a puppy -- but because, again, the pathos of the story is understated. What makes this story so heartbreaking, in fact, is that the narrator (the puppy's mother) is completely unaware of what happens to her puppy. Everything that is painful and horrific about the story is left for the reader to infer from between the lines of what is actually said.
posted by Mo' Money Moe Bandy at 1:18 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just reread Alice Monro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Man, she is good.
posted by readery at 1:36 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

How about some simpler, very effective stories, like Tobias Wolff's "The Rich Brother" or Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetary Where Al Jolson is Buried." Reading these two as a set might highlight different ways of getting at what you're talking about. They are both very efficient, they get you into the heads of the characters quickly, and they have emotionally devastating endings.

Both are perfect in their own way, but manageable as stories to learn from as a writer.
posted by Philemon at 1:56 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ken Lui - Paper Menagerie [on the blue] 2012's Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner.
posted by xqwzts at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2013

It is rare that I just KNOW the answer to an askme, but I am so confident that I know the answer to this one that my heart was racing a little bit as I scrolled down the screen, because I really didn't want anyone to beat me to it. You want:

In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel.

Pay close attention, read it slowly, and enjoy your kick in the heart.

EDIT: AND THEN SOMEONE BEAT ME TO IT ANYWAY. Maybe I need to go drink some soothing tea.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:35 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts. One of the most emotional short stories I've ever read.
posted by gt2 at 9:31 PM on July 11, 2013

Love is Not a Pie, from Amy Bloom's collection Come to Me (though I read it in a Year's Best Short Stories book). I cry every time, but not from sadness.
posted by sumiami at 10:36 PM on July 11, 2013

I would like to thank *every single person* who gave a response to this- even if a particular answer doesn't speak to me, I have no doubt that it may speak to another person who searches and finds this question.

I have to be honest and say that Ruthless Bunny may be correct- the problem may be me and not a particular story. I did not add the info to the question, but I will admit, I often have a hard time even feeling many emotions, so I may need to step back in terms of my goal for including emotions in short stories.

Some of the stories here that were listed here and that really spoke to me included Bradbury's "All Summer in A Day," Kij Johnson's "Ponies," Twain's "A Dog's Tale," and Ken Liu's "Paper Menagerie." I haven't reviewed the short stories that are only found in books,though.

The advice as to how to write stories that may evoke emotion were helpful. I will definitely try and think about Quizicalcoati, jph's, amd Metroid Baby's suggestions .

Finally, Jacqueline's recommendation for the book "Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View" was spot on for me. It is a very short book and you can finish it in 2 hours, but it included material that I could immediately apply to my writing and I think took it a level up. The Rivet book even helped me more than the books that I've been reviewing as a result of this post (i.e. books to improve the craft of writing fiction).

Again, thank you everyone for responding to the question!
posted by Wolfster at 7:01 AM on July 19, 2013

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