Friday, July 11, 2014

The Emotional Wisdom of the Novel

The best ones have it. Consider the psychology of Melville’s Captain Ahab or the well-motivated sadism of Hawthorne’s Chillingworth. Generally, novels dispense insight because their authors have it—along with the ability to “show” rather than “tell” what they grasp.

Since the novel’s inception, people have sought moral truths from fiction. As Jonathan Gottschall asks in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal?”

To a novelist, “how” matters less than the conviction that after the characters disappear, readers know something about emotional wisdom that they didn’t before.

What does emotional wisdom look like? Here’s Richard Russo from Empire Falls:

“What he discovered was that violating his own best nature wasn’t nearly as unpleasant or difficult as he’d imagined. In fact, looking around Empire Falls, he got the distinct impression that people did it every day. And if you had to violate your destiny, doing so as a Whiting male wasn’t so bad. To his surprise he also discovered that it was possible to be good at what you had little interest in, just as it had been possible to be bad at something, whether painting or poetry, that you cared about a great deal.”

Who knew? Or that:

“Science doesn't tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.” ― Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

Or Jane Austen? Pride and Prejudice is among the wisest portrayals of who we are:

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.”

How can you convey emotional wisdom?

~ Start with the plot. The inciting incident, climax, and resolution are the source of whatever you’d like readers to understand.
~ Resist the temptation to comment. For one thing, comments tend to oversimplify. For another? Stuffing the theme into a character’s mouth is still commenting.
~ Probe human nature. You can’t offer insights you don’t have. Why do people really do whatever they’re doing? It’s rarely obvious. Put some thought into it.
~ Surprise us. Every time you hit readers with something that never previously recognized, you hint at how wise you are—and how wise they are to be reading you.

Tip: We think of emotion and wisdom as antithetical. The more your novel implodes that, then the happier (and wiser?) your readers will be.

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