Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 5: Let Yourself Go

This is from October, 1940 issue of Writer’s Digest, which believed to be in the public domain.

TL;DR – Your readers will feel something while reading your work. So give them a protagonist to relate to with big emotions.

by James H. S. Moynahan

Roger Torrey, who does the Marge and McCarthy series in Black Mask, stopped over at the house one Sunday afternoon with Helen Ahern, and I asked Helen how she was doing on a story she’d been working on.

Roger winked at me. “She’s holding her own,” he said, mock-loyally. “She’s still on page 26!”

Helen joined in the general laughter. She knew that we all knew, too.

The casual quip started me thinking. Why do we strike those impasses, and what gets us out of them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important factors is this: We stall because we don’t feel our story. We have a few rough ideas, but no strong emotional reaction to them.

Steve Fisher, whose stuff you have read in Liberty, Cosmo, and will read shortly in the Post, puts plenty of study into this business of what makes a yarn tick. After I saw the Dorothy Lamour picture Typhoon, which carries story credit in big letters on the screen for Steve, I asked him what, in his opinion, did he consider the most important factor in selling his stories.

“That’s easy,” he said. “Mood is easily the most important essential. Back in the days when I was writing pulp, I used to fly in the face of editorial tradition in a lot of offices by turning in stories that had a strong emotional pitch running through them. You had to write action to sell, of course, but I always tried to include that other element, an emotional tone that held throughout the story. Hit that and hold it, and your story writes itself.”

The story we had been reading and discussing was a mood-picture of the war in France, held together by a mounting sense of impending tragedy that reaches its peak in battle and hospital scenes. In these it was not difficult to feel the impact of the writer’s emotional reaction to his material.

He didn’t just report them mechanically; he threw himself into the soldier’s stat of mind; his desperation, his fury, his resignation, his despair.

Such writing calls for telling in the first person, as you would set down your feelings in a letter to a friend. In a third person story the same emotional writing would seem forced and patronizing, as if the reader were too stupid to gather what the hero’s emotions must have been from the recital of the events themselves.

So there you have it. Unless, that is, you think Steve doesn’t know himself why he sells!

For my part, I think he’s got something. I’d like to go a little further with it, though.

l’d like to see whether we can’t examine this business of mood, and discover just how to evoke it in the reader. Steve feels it–and he writes it as he feels it. I think you’ve got to do that, ultimately, but maybe there are some steps that precede the writing. Let’s see what does move people,

I’m not going to be chump enough to try and get you dabbing at your eyes over bits lifted from stories. So, even if you weep at card tricks, l don’t think I’m letting you in for any emotional orgy. What I hope to do is illustrate a principle, and show you how you can use it to lift the pitch of your own yarns, this excerpt’s from The Blue Light, Private Detective, August, 1939, by Henri St. Maur. The detective, Fort, has just phoned his client that the murder mystery has been cleaned up.

He hung up, turned to Judy, (His office assistant) “Well, sweet, that’s how it is. Now if you’ll tell me what Stoughton did with the pistol-the little twenty-five he had when you conked him this morning-we’ll have him sewed up.”

Judy started at him. “I conked him?”

Fort said impatiently: “Stop it. Stop it! Are you asking me to believe that a timid kid like this Armitage girl wouldn’t run for her life if she saw Stoughton in my office? No, what happened, darling, was that you saw him going for her, and you conked him. It wasn’t till after he’d worked on you with that Tyrone Power act of his that you fell, What’d he do-promise you a cut on the take if you planted the card on my desk?”

Judy’s lips peeled back from her teeth and she clawed the little gun out from the bosom of her dress. Fort jumped at her, slapped the gun down.

“Don’t make it worse, you little fool!” he said. His voice held only bitterness. He twisted the gun from her singers, put it in his pocket.

“Get out of here,” he said in a low, controlled voice. “Get out of here.”

The girl looked pitifully at him, “Oh, Al, I-”

“Get out,” he said between his teeth.

She looked at him, lowered her eyes, went through the door.

Fort, blood dripping from his slashed arm, watched her take her hat and coat from the rack, go out without looking back.

Behind him the Armitage girl said: “Oh, Mr. Fort, do you suppose they’ll get my things back?”

Fort said, not looking around: “Maybe.” His lips were shut white. His fists were knots.

She said: “Maybe you could work on it for me.”

Fort didn’t turn. “Maybe I could,” he said slowly. “Maybe I could.”

In Roger Torrey’s Party Murder, Black Mask, April, 1934, a police Captain has just learned of the death of his daughter.Dal Prentice is the hero, a lieutenant of detectives. He is phoning.

He could hear somebody say say: “Hold it!” then: “You, Dal?”


“Dal! They just picked up the… what’s left of my girl off Aldena Boulevard. She’s been dumped out of a car.”

“Oh… my… good… lord!”

“Dal! Doc says her head was just beaten in. Let that go and come down.”

After some discussion, Prentice hangs up.

The phone clicked and Prentice turned a somber face to his audience, (His two partners and a prisoner).

“Cap’s feeling bad, They found his girl for him.”

Peterson (one of the police detectives) said: “I’ve got two and I could hear what was said…”

Let’s start with these two illustrations. Can you see what they have in common? Can you see how, in the complete story they might tend to evoke enotion in the reader? And why?

The explanation for the reader’s emotional reaction is this: empathy-or, if you prefer, sympathy.

Have you over wondered why mob will react so violently to things that its members, as individuals, might very well ignore? Or why a comedy is funnier in a full house? Or why you can read a headline: Thousand Chinese Slaughtered in Battle, with dry eyes, and yet weep over a dead puppy of your own daughter’s?

The answer is sympathy. Emotion is catching. A loud, angry, furious voice makes us irritable even if it is not addressed to us at all. Its mere sound evokes anger in us.

Thus, in the examples above, we take our cue from the characters’ emotional reactions. Had the writers made the characters meet these emotional crises with indifference, we ourselves should not be moved, but should find ourselvesmeeting the challenge of the situation with the same emotional indifference.

For example, in the first excerpt, substite for words like “bitterness” words like “amusement,” “boredom,” “indifference.”Watch what happens to the emotional tone.

For: “His lips were shut white. His fists were knots,” substitute: “He glanced down idly at his nails. They were clean and symmetrical.”

High spot in the Torrey excerpt is the point where Peterson says: “I’ve got two and I could hear what was said…” Just as Peterson, himself a father, is quick to respond with ready sympathy to the news of his chief’s tragedy, so the spectacle of a fellow human being responding thus to a situation tends to make us automatically respond in the same fashion. And note here that we might have responded with anger, with indignation, with despair, with indifference, or any number of shades of emotional reaction. Later in the story, when other characters become angered over developments, we find our own pulse rising, too.

Now the point, for you, is this. If you write a beautiful scene, full of menace, terror, and fury, and in it you show no character reacting to these stimuli as you wish have your reader react, what do you do now?

You take the yarn out, and carefully write in passages showing how the characters react to your menace. And remember: The more moved they are by story developments, the more moved your reader is going to be. Up to a point.

That point is incredibility. If you go too far-if you have your heroine throwing a wing-ding at his frown, like Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt, then you must expect your reader to say: “Sa-a-ay! What is this! Take it easy, will you!”

The trick is to force the emotion, to make your characters react as violently as possible or as deeply as possible to a given situation, but only up to a point which is still logical, and credible. Overdo it, and your drama will spill over into laughs.

Now not all this depicting of your characters reacting emotionally will be done by saying to the reader in so many words: “My hero is gritting his teeth. He’s biting his lips.” I think some of the biggest kicks a writer gets out of his trade is working out more subtle ways of showing these reactions without describing them in so many words.

For example, the way Fort, in the first excerpt, reiterates: “Get out of here.” We don’t say he’s obsessed with that single idea, but can it be done more effectively? We could tell the reader that the Armitage girl is a silly, self-centered little fool who misses entirely the significance of what his secretary’s treachery means to Fort. But her insensibility, so necessary here for contrast, is brought out in her complete preoccupation with her own lousy little “things.”

Note, in the Torrey excerpt, that the reader is not beaten over the head with adjectives, the distracted father is only a voice, yet we sense his controlled agony better than if we were having it described to us. You can do a lot just with the use of a person’s first name, as you see here. And note the grimness of Peterson’s “l’ve got two, and I could hear what was said.” We can just see this big, human cop holding back his feelings and resolving to handle this murder as if it had been one of his own two kids that had been the victim.

Instead of cluttering up your next yar?n with long descriptions of your characters’ emotional throes, try seeing how much you can do with dialogue alone. Try figuring out how many devices you can hit upon to do the work instead. For example:

“B-but I can’t g-go in th-there! Do you want me to be k-killed!”

“John. Please, now, John! He’s just a child. John, ple-e-ase!”

“Will you shut up!”

“I… see. A wise guy, huh?”

“Why you, you… !”

And so on. Repetition, stammering and stuttering, meaningful pauses, desparing wails, little intimate, impulsive appeals-give dialogue first chance at delineating these.

Where you do find the need for pantomime, use it as sparingly as possible. That is to say: One good effect is worth ten mediocre ones. For economy of effect, James M. Cain’s The Postman. Always Rings Twice will well repay any study you may give it. You will find numberless effects such as the part where the new helper, finding himself alone with the Greek’s wife, locks the door and comes inside carrying a plate and fork as an excuse to make conversation. When he says: “The fork on the plate was rattling like a tamborine,” he’s told you everything.

One more thing. Rules for writing are never of much use until their employment has become second nature and you no longer think consciously about them. Don’t expect these suggestions to help you right away. They may even confuse you and upset your writing for a while.

But here’s one rule for evoking emotion I can give you that you can put to work right away, and one that won’t give you any trouble. It’s this:

Let yourself go. When you’re writing about emotion, throw yourself into the feeling you want the character to experience, and write out of your own emotion. If you can do that, then everything I’ve told you above is just the malarkey, because you’ll do it instinctively so much better that any rules, no matter how effective, must necessarily step aside for reality. Because that’s what you’ll be writing.