Thursday, May 06, 2021

How to Punch Readers in the Feels: A Case Study

By José Pablo Iriarte, @LabyrinthRat

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: The best stories do more than just tell a tale. José Pablo Iriarte shares tips on how to pull more emotion from your plot.

As luck would have it, my newest published short story hit the world this week: "Proof by Induction," in Uncanny Magazine, a story about grief and about mathematics. If you want to see an example of what I mean when I talk about short fiction craft, I hope you'll check it out. (Content warning: death of a parent.) You can find the issue online here, or go straight to the story here. You can read the story for free online, but if you like what you see at Uncanny, I would encourage you to subscribe to them through Weightless Books or Amazon, or support them on Patreon. You can also buy this individual issue here. If you're a reader of this website, you know that good fiction is worth supporting, so that magazines like Uncanny can keep on publishing it.

In light of the timing of this post, I thought it might be worthwhile to use this story as a case study, in how a couple of vague impulses turned into a pro-level publication in one of the most prestigious magazines in speculative fiction. In particular, I want to focus on one of the things I'm best known for—crafting emotionally evocative stories. (So spoilers ahead.)

Last month, at a spec fic con called Flights of Foundry, I did a panel on short stories where I was asked if there was something I thought short stories were especially well-suited for. After thinking about it for a bit, I concluded that short stories are uniquely good at delivering an acute emotional experience, and that this is, in fact, why I love them both as a reader and as an author.

All stories can and should deliver an emotional experience, of course, but in the case of a novel, you have tens of thousands of words as an author with which to get me invested in the emotional stakes. Like a chain of dominoes, you can subtly get me to understand the larger meaning that every event has for the protagonist. At the end of a long journey in your character's mind, I can't help but feel something.

With short stories, you don't have the luxury of the slow burn. You've only got a few thousand words—sometimes less!—to make things mean something to the reader, and to get the reader caring. While that sounds like a limitation, in art limitations often can be turned into strengths. I find, as a reader, that when a story does reach me on an emotional level, the impact is more acute, because my guards aren't up. It's almost like a gasp, like a frisson, as the story slips into my heart.

But how is this done?

Theorem One: Layered Writing

I don't claim that what works for me is the only way, but the secret ingredient that started getting my stories more notice was layering. I try with every story to have a clear, tangible goal that is typically what readers most notice, and also an intangible, often unstated emotional goal. I find that readers may not find a story entertaining or engaging if it lacks that tangible goal, but that actually it's the emotional goal that quietly makes the story actually stay in readers' hearts and minds.

Telling one story in a few thousand words is hard enough—how can you tell two? (Or more?) The key, for me at least, is to brainstorm the thematic connections between the A story and the B story until I find the angle from which working on one is also simultaneously working on the other.

What I mean by this is that I am accustomed to a Western style of storytelling, where a character has a goal, strives to achieve that goal, experiences a setback or a partial success, regroups, and repeats the process again, try-fail-try-fail-try, until ultimately they succeed, or, if I'm writing a tragedy, they fail. 

If you are trying to write try-fail cycles for both a tangible goal and for an emotional goal, if you alternate these in different scenes, you will have a difficult time fitting your story in a tight wordcount. Beyond that, though, your story will have a very artificial feel, like a Brady Bunch episode where we're focused on Bobby's problems in one scene and on Jan's in another, while the two storylines feel completely disconnected from each other.

So the solution is to find a way to make the A goal symbolize the B goal for the protagonist, whether they realize it or not. (It's stronger if the protagonist is not conscious of this, I think.) In "Proof by Induction," Paulie's goal is to prove an unprovable math theorem, salvaging his tattered professorial career and making himself famous within mathematical circles. 

But his emotional goal (again, I say, spoilers) is to earn the esteem of his father, something he has never enjoyed. Paulie can't see this, but his wife Gina can. But I don't have separate scenes pursuing one goal or another. Instead, Paulie believes that proving this theorem will be what it takes to at last impress his father. He is pursuing his emotional goal while he pursues his tangible one. The same scenes work on both.

(Here’s more with Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers)

Theorem Two: Complex Resolutions

Having layers in your story also increases the complexity of the endings you can come to, which gives you more tools to make a story linger in readers' minds. Instead of merely having the protagonist win or lose, you can have more subtle outcomes. Win both? Lose both? Achieve the tangible goal but walk away emotionally defeated?

Actually, with layers, even "winning" versus "losing" is too binary. I've heard some authors say they like an ending that gives a character what they need but not what they want. I interpret this as giving the character a victory on the emotional front but not the tangible one. As a reader, on the other hand, I find it powerful when a character actually has victory in their sights, but must choose between their goals—the character who pursues a goal for thousands of words only to choose, at the end, to let it slip away because now they've come to realize that something else matters more to them.

In "Proof by Induction," Paulie never gets the parental approval he's been seeking, but it's not a "loss," exactly—at least, not in my mind. Instead, he's come to understand that he's been chasing a mirage, while he's got loving family and supportive colleagues who are there for him, if he can just shift his focus away from what he's chasing.

I think complex endings that challenge simple notions like "success" and "failure" are a big part of having your readers continue to think about the story once it's done.

(Here’s more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

Theorem Three: Your Personal Connection to Your Work

So how did this all come together for me on a creative level?

Usually for me the tangible premise and storyline come first, but that wasn't the case with this one. I wrote what for me is the heart of this story in one single middle-of-the-night session very shortly after my father died. My father had been a university professor of Computer Science. As a student, I'd double-majored in Mathematics and Literature. When I chose literature instead of math for graduate school, when I stopped short of getting a Ph.D., and when I continued to pursue writing well into adulthood, he was Not Impressed. 

Every time I achieved something new in writing, I tried to share it with him hoping he would see that I wasn't being foolish to believe I had it in me to be an author. When I got offered agency representation. When I made my first sale. When I was nominated for a Nebula Award. None of these things ever did the trick—there was always a "yeah but." Yeah, but is it a novel? Yeah, but are you making enough money to quit your day job?

So I wrote a version of the current hospital scenes and the Coda scenes as just conversations with my father. Things I knew we could never say now. The race had ended before I'd had a chance to win it.

This story was raw and painful and way too personal to share with anybody. I couldn't send it to my critique group, because they would see all the ways it was not fiction, and I could not bring myself to be that vulnerable before them with a draft. So I trunked it.

Have you heard the advice to put a new manuscript away for a few months so you can gain some distance on it? Well here is a time when that advice served me well. In fact, I put it away for something like two and a half years.

(Here’s more with 3 Ways to Tell if a Manuscript Is Worth Going Back to)

As time passed and I gained perspective, I came to feel that this story might actually be sellable, if it had a more tangible goal for its protagonist to be pursing. Enter the Perelman Conjecture.

When I'm not writing fiction, I teach high school math. People who aren't math majors think that means I'm extremely knowledgeable about math. People who are can probably understand how it just means I have enough perspective to understand how shallow my expertise really is. (Do a google image search for dunning kruger graph to understand what I mean.) But many of my friends couldn't understand why I, a science fiction writer (more or less) seemed to never write about mathematics, the area about which I know the most.

While writing a story about math intimidated me, the challenge also motivated me. So since mathematics was an area of overlap between me and my father, I decided that this was the story where I would try to do this. I thought about high profile math problems that caught even the attention of the non-mathematical public, like the Millenium Prize Probems or the astonishing proof, early in my teaching career, of Fermat's Last Theorem, and decided this was what Paulie could be trying to do.

Now I had my tangible goal to pair with my emotional goal. I rewrote the Coda scenes so that Paulie wasn't simply confronting his father, but rather working with his father toward his tangible goal—but his emotional needs were still there, of course.

Very late in the process, I realized I had the perfect thematic connection between the two. A proof by induction is a type of mathematical proof where instead of directly proving that something is true, you focus on the relationship between successive cases, or iterations, and prove that if one link in the chain is true, that the next one will be also. Then all you have to prove is one specific case, instead of the whole theorem. While you can think of links in a chain or rungs on a ladder or dominoes in a line as metaphors, here it hit me that between Paulie's father, Paulie, and his daughter Maddie, I had that same kind of linking, and so I had my metaphorical connection between the two stories.

Is it still terrifying to share this much of myself, even after layering the emotional heart of the story underneath a search for a mathematical proof?

Yes, it definitely is.

But I think this is my third secret ingredient to making acutely emotional short fiction: not being afraid to plumb your own emotions. That does make it hurt more when somebody hates one of my stories, but I think it allows me to write more genuinely about the feelings inside.

In a couple months I'll be back to more broadly focused posts on short fiction, but I thought the chance to talk about the genesis and evolution and workings of one particular story, right as it hit the "stands," might be valuable. Thanks for sharing this bit of the story with me, and if you liked "Proof by Induction," tell your reading friends!

José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher who lives in Central Florida. José’s fiction can be found in magazines such as LightspeedStrange HorizonsFireside Fiction, and others, and has been featured in best-of lists compiled by Tangent Online, Featured Futures, iO9, and Quick Sip Reviews, and on the SFWA Nebula Award Recommended Reading List. Jose’s novelette, The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births, was a Nebula Award Finalist and was long-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

Website | Goodreads | Twitter


  1. Thank you for sharing the journey you took with your short story. I couldn't agree more with your approach. As a writer of fantasy fiction, I've always believed that the fantasy part was for my imagination to conjure, but the fiction part had to be removed from my heart, which is where the greatest magic is, anyway. You've given me new, invaluable perspectives that speak to my heart, which aches through each story I write.

  2. Thank you for an interesting post. I always struggle with creating those story layers and adding deeper emotions. But I see how it really enhances the story.

  3. I had happened upon "Proof by Induction" on Uncanny's website and for some reason, didn't realize why the author name sounded so familiar! This was a fascinating case study, and I found myself with that sort of sun-peeking-out-from-behind-parted-clouds feeling as you explained these different layers. Definitely will be trying this in my own fiction.

    Lastly, many thanks to you for the effort and vulnerability in sharing your personal story both in "Proof by Induction" and here in this post. I've always shied away of writing stories that are "too personal" but it might just be where I need to go... Anyway, thanks a bunch!

  4. I'm really flattered to read this, Anon! Thanks!