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Writing Fiction For Emotional Engagement, by Sam Stephens

I believe even the greatest writer in the world can’t fully translate what is in their head onto paper. Something is always lost in between.

This is inevitable, when you think about it: the writer is living the world but the reader is simply reading about it. Sure, we do our best to draw the reader into our world but something is always lost and because of this we need to make sure that as writers we not only take the reader along for the ride but also point out not just the plot and the action, but also the fungus-infected sores along the way.

I found this out first hand a few years back: I had written a scene where a man was executed in front of a studio audience. I still remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I was writing it, and it affected me a lot more than I expected. But when I showed a few friends a funny thing happened: nothing. Nothing at all.

I was almost on my knees yelling, “How can you not be affected by this, you sickos!”

But I realised why it all seemed a little thin. It was such a hard scene for me to write that I skimmed over parts of the event. It’s not that I missed whole sections of the writing, it’s just that I didn’t paint the picture because I myself didn’t want to go there.

The problem with this is obvious: if we don’t go there ourselves, then the reader will never know that particular fungus-infected sore ever existed.

And this isn’t just for horror or dark thrillers – it’s for all genres. If you’re writing a romance, your heart breaks along with the protagonist’s heart, and you in turn have to break the reader’s heart.

It took awhile, but I finally dug into my boxed up little heart when I wrote “Daddy”. This was a short story about the pain, the love, the frustration, and the helplessness of fatherhood; the dark side that no one wants to talk about, but which every parent shares.

I wrote it for my own self-prescribed therapy. It took me a full day before I got the guts to tell my wife I actually wrote it, and then another day or so to show it to her. That story eventually won a short story competition, was published in Suspense Magazine and hit their top ten list for the year.

I still think it’s one of my best pieces of writing – not for its form, but simply because I cut a hole in my soul and let the contents pour out onto the page. Not just the rainbow coloured contents but the black sludge as well. I still think about that story when I’m writing, and I feel that urge to gloss over the painful bits. While the urge can even be subconscious, the reality is that unless we face the demons and embrace them, then our readers can never reach the heights that we feel when we write.

And for the curious amongst us, you can read “Daddy” here.


Sam Stephens bio page

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well written, Sam. It is really hard to write about things that are painful to us but oh so necessary if we want to make our readers feel. Thanks for putting this so succinctly.

    May 1, 2012
  2. Thank you Kathy, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    I totally agree – for our readers to feel, first we have to feel all of it.

    May 2, 2012

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