Emotional Content is a term that I liked to use to describe the piece of a work that is either present or missing, which ultimately decides whether I continue reading, or put it aside.
We have all read something that has come across as flat and unmoving, finding nothing to compel us to turn the next page, and knew that it just wasn’t grabbing us. But, I’m sure everyone that loves to read can name off three books they say moved them to laughter or tears. This element is the Emotional Content, the force that pulls our souls into the writing and often gives us the most pleasurable or aggravating experience possible.
I bring this up because I read many works that have no Emotional Content. There are descriptions, dialogue, and well-crafted words, but they are flat, put together like a puzzle to achieve the best fit. I don’t feel the pain or the excitement, the loneliness or the glee, I just see a story that goes on, and I’m not compelled to turn the page. I need that Emotional Content, that thing that speaks to me on a level outside the words.
I always like to use the classic example of “Big Two Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway. It is a required reading for many college courses, and each time I look over that short story I feel the isolation and alienation of the narrator in his journey into the woods. He is in pain, broken by what he has seen and done in a war, and sets out to do a ceremony that will begin to mend the pain by walking into the woods alone, and fish the river. None of this is said, and it was not until later that I read about the history of the story. But what Hemingway was doing was putting his own pain, own trauma and isolation into a story, and that bleeds through the words.
I would say to writers to put as much of yourself into your work as possible. We are human, we feel pain and happiness, so you may be writing on something that you cannot personally experience, but you can relate that feeling into the work. I like to keep a collection of pictures on my computer, and each one invokes a feeling. I have one of someone I care for deeply, who is quite happy in the picture, but that is because someone else is there too, and that someone is not me. When I need to write something with the emotion of pain, sadness, isolation, I look to that picture and the feelings come to me, and suddenly new options open up in the writing. I feel the need to include small details, little things like a gesture, a posture, a look, something that conveys that feeling without stating it, much as the actions of Nick in “Big Two Hearted River” convey his feelings, with how he treats the camping trip, making the food, looking into the swamp. Put your feelings on that page, and your reader will feel them as well, and they will want to turn the page to keep experiencing that Emotional Content.