Writing the Short Story 7: Development of Emotions

Fiction that does not touch upon love, anger, tragedy or humor is of no more than passing value. Real literature is builded upon an appeal to the emotions.

One can not discuss the subject of fiction writing without prefacing the statement with a warning against sentimentalism. Sentiment is sure, is pure, only when it is aroused by the true and natural evolution of the story itself. To excite the reader's emotions with paltry and showy effects or to set out deliberately to produce spontaneous sympathy by mechanical and tricky writing, is to lapse into sentimentalism.

In general, the appeal to the emotions of a reader is the proof of the story. Just as some fiction intoxicates and some other depresses, so does real literature appeal to the sympathy by its confidential treatment of love, anger, tragedy, humor, etc. Before one begins to write, therefore, he should study the method of approach to the end of his emotional element.

The Love Element

Love stories, long and short, rule the world. A good tale of sentiment, woven about a strong and holding plot, is the most salable commodity in the author's possession. A study of current fiction indicates the demand.

The theme resolves itself into several general divisions. There is the love of the young man for the young lady; there is the love succeeding marriage, ranging from the newly wed couple to the gray-haired sweethearts; there is the parent's love, the children's love; there is the love for a child who redeems a barren life; there is the one-sided love, the illicit love, the love of man or woman for dumb animals and objects. A still more searching analysis shows the many qualities that ally themselves with sentiment, sacrifice, selfishness, jealousy, redemption or damnation of character, and the like. He who aspires to write a love story should be clear in mind as to the general field and as to the specific path he is to follow. More work is ruined by the author's lack of previous conception of his subject matter and method than by any other example of carelessness or oversight.

A love story demands characters that are lovable. It will be seen, therefore, that the first requisite is a hero or heroine whom the reader can respect and like, with whom he can rejoice when love's climax is reached, with whom—to revert to first principles—he can sympathize in every act, thought and word. Here, then, is the starting point of a successful love story—proper characters.

The tale of sentiment demands plot and action. There is no market for the story in which the hero and heroine meet, love and marry without hindrance of any kind. Tersely put, the element of love in no way offsets the need of a sequence of events leading to the climax. The second essential, therefore, is plot or story.

It is with the third requisite that the author must concern himself—the handling. Characters and plot are necessary, but one might have both and lack the vital quality. A man and a woman come together—say, an accident forces a meeting. They are strangers. There is no reason why they should love. Now, the author's task is to show that reason, to trace, step by step, before the reader's eyes, the development of mutual love. Just as in life we are attracted by a face, a form, an exquisite sweetness of character, so in the story must the charms be shown and dwelt upon until the reader, as well as the character, becomes imbued with it. Love at first sight will do for the amateur, but it is simply a snap-shot desire of possession, fleeting and wholly unsatisfactory. There must be a broader emotion, something to cherish, to revere; something that gives zest and purpose to the fight for winning.

There are no specific rules possible. One must live to write, and in life itself is the only recipe. But until the writer can trace, not by cold and judicious analysis, but by appeal to the emotional sympathy, the development, wane, wavering of sex for sex, he can not write a successful love story.

Perhaps a few general rules will aid:

1. A love story must possess characters, plot, setting, etc., plus the love interest.

2. Love scenes must be depicted largely by suggestion. To describe caresses and quote speeches in full is often to decend to the ludicrous. The climax of a love story, indeed, is sometimes left entirely to the imagination.

3. Love stories need not deal with the growth of sentiment reaching a climax in a proposal. The best love stories, perhaps, are often of other periods of life.

4. As in the sequence of events, the emotional plane must be constantly ascending toward the climax.

5. A love story may be written without any direct reference to sentiment, dealing with the meeting, with the elimination of other characters, etc. Many a good story leads simply to what is clearly suggested as the beginning of the development of love. A man may save a life, rescue a lady in dire distress, offer a kindly courtesy—and the only mention of future happiness be suggested in the twinkle of an eye, the smile, the promise to call, the determination deep in the heart, or some other apparently trivial rooting of the love-herb.

6. Love at first sight is generally the delusion of the amateur who has neither loved nor written.

7. It takes a master to handle the erotic, the breaking of social and moral laws. One may reach this height of ability by long roads, but the beginner is wasting time upon a theme he can not handle and producing a story that no matter what its merit can sell only to two or three markets in the country.

8. Love is the oldest of writer's themes, and unless there is originality and freshness of action and event, there can be no sale.

9. Love should not be dealt with as if it were a passing fancy. It is the love that is lasting, ennobling, all-powerful, that forms the prime ingredient of the story wanted by the modern magazine.

10. In appealing to the emotions, the reader's sympathies must be stirred by the emotions of the character and not by the author's comments or analysis. The author who talks of "poor, forsaken Nell, noble girl!" simply disgusts. True success lies in putting the reader in the character's place, and making him love and fight and triumph or fail.


The emotions are kindred, of course, and the general advice for the development of one applies to all. Anger is in many ways the antithesis of Love, although it may be momentary rather than lasting. It is cited simply because it furnishes the theme of stories of vengeance, parted friends, or is the obstacle that makes plot, etc. It may be divided into temporary and lasting, petty and blinding, and so on indefinitely.

There are a few points about anger, however, that are worth considering:

1. It furnishes a contrast that serves to emphasize love, or vice versa.

2. It may be the beginning, the obstacle or the climax of an emotional story.

3. It is a universal passion. The character who becomes angry with just cause is true to life. In a word, it is a necessary attribute.

4. In a normal person, anger is an interruption to the sane and natural course of life. It is artificial and abnormal. To depict anger that broods and leads to great tragedies is to portray a mild type of insanity.

5. Anger is a spur of action, a quality that shapes character, a means that hews destinies.


Tragedy borders close upon sentimentalism and melodrama. The first precept, then, is that it must be simple, natural and sincere.

Death is naturally suggested by the term, and in its broad sense it is an apt definition. But it means more than an ending of mortal life; it is the death of love, of hope, of ambition, the end of what has long been in one's heart. It is repression and denial.

Beginning with an understanding of the term, one is ready to study its importance to fiction. The death of a character offers a climax that for effect can hardly be surpassed. Dickens' "Death of Little Nell," is a good illustration. As it affects children, tragedy is wonderfully touching. Those of us with tender hearts have cried over a child's distorted views of life, both of its own and its parents'. Countless stories of a tragic conclusion have been rated masterpieces.

Because tragedy is a more moving emotion than any other, the beginning writer grasps at it, only to find his story quite worthless. To him must be offered the precept, Tragedy, purely as tragedy, is unsalable. It is only when it accomplishes some other end that it is effective. It is easy to recall fiction— deaths that have aroused pity and yet that from an artistic standpoint, possibly that other characters might be happy, were absolutely essential. Often a tragedy teaches a powerful lesson. Often it emphasizes some great truth of life. Bret Harte's stories of blunt and rough characters who endured hardships for a purpose, and Maupassant's grim, ironical tales that succeeded because of a study of the motives, are worth a close analysis. Almost always, also, tragedy" makes for character development. In cases of this kind, a tragic story has a chance of sale.

Pathos is so closely allied with tragedy that it has been considered under the general head. A pathetic tale may be enjoyable because of the sweetness and sympathy of the emotion.

A discussion of tragedy and pathos leads to these conclusions :

1. Tragedy must work for another motive than merely appeal to the sympathies.

2. Tragedy and pathos are so closely allied that the dividing line can not be determined.

3. Tragedy and the grotesque or humorous will not mix. The hero must not choke on a fish bone and expire, the heroine must not drown in the bathtub, the dying man must not be joking. Amateurs are in the habit of over-reaching the boundaries of good taste in details of this kind.

4. There are two dangers of lack of appeal to the emotions: the recital of bare, bald facts in a commonplace, emotionless manner, and the over-sentimental, melodramatic treatment. Somewhere in between lies the medium of success.

5. There is a sharp distinction between the horrible and repulsive and the pathetic and tragic. Here, again, good taste must dictate what is or is not to be portrayed.

6. Tragedy must be sincere. The note of pessimism or cynicism is fatal.


To attempt to teach one to write humor is an example of the unconscious type, and there's an end on't! If a writer can see life through waggish eyes, well and good! But if one is born without the sense of the ridiculous, any attempt to write humor will be a failure.

Humor in general is of two types, dependent upon the subject matter and upon the treatment. The theme may be laughable of itself, or -the writing may put into it a wholesome amount of fun. The rollicking note may be in the characters, the plot, the attitude of one toward the other. It" may be burlesque, which is difficult to classify, or wit, or humor, or satire, or irony, or some other delicate shading. Nothing is so exacting in its demands as the bright, light, frolicsome laugh-fiction ; and nothing sells as readily and for as high a price. The magazines never have enough humorous fiction.

There are no rules for its conception. The world in general is a bit awry, and if one can see it that way, a-grin, with its hat on its side, and can make the world see it that way, the road to authorship is strewn with roses. But:

1. Don't force your humor. Be natural, spontaneous, quick at quip and waggish touch.

2. Don't be broad and vulgar. The more delicacy you employ, the more will your discerning reader smile and enjoy.

3. Don't think that the use of humor makes a story of itself. Here again it takes plot and characters and situations.

4. Don't fail to study the differences between wit and humor and satire and irony and fun in general.

5. Don't use an ancient jester situation. Be original; that, indeed, is the very essence of being amusing.

6. Don't attempt humor unless you were born with the funny touch.

Reading will offer a solution of minor points of difficulty that may arise. For love stories one has the current magazines and more than half the fiction in existence. To offer specific examples would be only to catalogue titles as they come to the mind. Kipling and London have done some capital stories of anger, particularly those of vengeance. 0. Henry produced the best humorous fiction among contemporary magazine writers. Dickens, Bill Nye, Mark Twain, and scores of others have produced capital humor; here, once more, the list could be extended indefinitely, giving a wide variety of fun in all its attributes. Tragedy has been Bandied by practically all the better known writers at some time or another. Maupassant and Dickens have been cited; Kipling and London have been mentioned in another connection. Any attempt to classify writers who have stirred the emotions is of course futile, for any writer whose work lives must have done this.

As in all writing, it is practice and study that makes for success. For this reason, the general discussion would be incomplete without some general exercises for the student:


1. Bring together two characters of opposite sex, who gradually fall in love with each other, marry, and "live happy ever afterward." This is narration without plot. Outline for the exercise the incidents—the introduction, the gradual growth of love, the realization in each character, the declaration, etc.

2. Bring together two characters of opposite sex, who fall in love with each other only to discover some apparently insurmountable mountain of the comparative strata of society, of religion, of former marriages, of condition of life, which is eventually climbed successfully. The obstacle has made this a short story, or narrative with plot.

(a) Vary the construction by making only one of the characters fall in love. The winning of the other's love will constitute the development of the story.

3. Write a story showing

(1) a man's pure love for a woman he can not marry,

(2) a man's love for another, resulting in sacrifice,

(3) a man's or woman's love for a child,

(4) the love of related persons, etc.

Vary the characters and conditions as much as possible, and the exercises will be of vast help in cataloguing the sentiment.


1. Write a story showing how anger parted friends and thwarted happy lives.

2. Write a story using anger as the obstacle to form plot, eventually sweeping it aside.

3. Write a story hinging upon the desire for vengeance, showing the growth from petty irritation to the desire to kill. Here, again, the previous outline of the various stages will be of service.


1. Describe the death of a character

(1) at first hand,

(2) as another relates it.

Avoid sentimentality and melodrama. Be simple and sincere and brief,

2. Turn to one of your "Scenes or Setting" exercises and work it into a sympathetic interpretation of character as affected by surroundings.

3. Write a story treating of a child's distorted ideas

(1) of the tragedies of its life,

(2) of the tragedies of its parents' or friends' lives.

4. Combine in one story the love and tragedy elements.

It would not be fair to end the lesson without warning the student that tragedy is a drug upon the market and must be of exceptional merit to win recognition. To the beginner, tragedy seems to offer a large field because of a certain crude appealing power resulting from the turmoil of emotions.


1. Select one of the first exercises in simple narration and re-write it in humorous vein.

2. Write a humorous story in which the appeal centers (1) in the humor of the principal character, (2) in the humor of the situation, (3) in the grotesque attitude of serious characters, (4) in pure burlesque.

3. Write simple exercises illustrating clearly wit, humor, satire, irony, etc. Be sure to understand the exact shades of meaning-

4. Write a humorous story of child life, utilizing the tragic view-point of your child in the exercise under "Tragedy," paragraph 3.

5. Write a one-act humorous play or vaudeville sketch. Howell's "Parlor Farces" will serve as examples.

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The Editor Company The Editor, "the journal of information for literary workers", was an American bulletin reporting on markets for writers, published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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