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Writing Like the Award-Winners

Good writing packs an emotional punch—award-winning author Martine Leavitt teaches how to throw one at full force.

When you sit down to read a book, what are you hoping for? A “book hangover,” where you wander around thinking about it for days afterwards? Or maybe you want to love the characters so much that they inspire you to write your own fiction. Either way, chances are the book’s author wants you to love it just as much as you want to. So, if you’re a writer, how do you write that kind of story? On March 15, 2024, award-winning author Martine Leavitt answered this question at the Department of English’s masterclass for creative writing students.

When it comes to her writing, Leavitt wants her readers to feel something. “I want them to be moved,” she began. “So, the next question is . . . what is the most powerful way to evoke emotion in your reader?”

Leavitt explained that the secret lies in how you convey your characters’ emotions to your reader. To that end, all the components of a story—characters, desires, obstacles, stakes—should be in service to the emotion of the story. But before you can know what to do, you first have to know what not to do, so Leavitt began by listing three things that aren’t effective when communicating emotion.

What Not to Do

When writing, avoid naming emotion, using clichés, and writing melodrama or “purple prose.” Each of these techniques creates distance between your readers and your characters, diminishing the emotional impact of your story. The phrases “My character was sad” or “her heart skipped a beat” act as written shorthands for emotion, telling you about what someone is feeling without making you feel it yourself. They don’t reveal anything interesting about how the character experiences sadness or surprise in their unique worldview.

A picture of Martine Leavitt
Photo by Martine Leavitt

Purple prose is a bit different—rather than using fewer words, it uses too many. “It’s trying to show off,” Leavitt said. “It draws attention to the writer. It wakes the reader up from the dream because we don’t believe it.” Still, the effect is the same: it interferes with your reader’s firsthand experience of the story. If a reader doesn’t have to invest effort to understand your characters, they won’t be invested in your story.

What to Do Instead

If you’re wondering what that leaves you to work with, you’re not the only one. As Leavitt finished with don’ts, she asked, “So how many of you are sitting there thinking ‘Okay, so if that’s not it, what is it, Martine? You’ve left me nothing.’” The trick is as simple to articulate as it is difficult to implement: you have to use metaphor.

Metaphor (and its accompanying literary device, the simile) compares one thing to another. Specifically, Leavitt talked about picking an object and using it to illustrate your character’s emotional state—a concept T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.” For example, you may write, “The moss had gotten to Marcille’s gravestone the way time had gotten to Faucett’s memories: blotting out all the important bits.” Or perhaps you’re writing about embarrassment, so you might try something like this: “The only explanation was that someone was slowly filling Vivan with lava. It was hot, slow, and getting worse by the second.”

While you may find it more difficult to write this way initially, it’s more rewarding for you and your readers in the long run. For your reader, the process of creatively tying two unrelated things together engages them; since they have to work to understand your meaning, they begin to co-create the story with you. And for you, the writer? As the class wrapped up, Leavitt said, “Sometimes the best writing I do is when I put my pen down, close my eyes, and I imagine my character and try to crawl into her body . . . One of the wonderful blessings of being a writer is that we do get to have that opportunity to really imagine what it is to be a human being. Which is something maybe all Christians should be good at, or try to be better at.”

Martine Leavitt is the award-winning author of 11 books. Her young adult novel Calvin won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for English Language Children’s Literature. She also teaches creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she serves as the Katherine Paterson Endowed Chair. You can find more of her work on her website here.