How To Write Short Stories Part 4 – Go For the Feels!


First, sorry I’m so late in writing this installment. I’ve been kidnapped and kept blindfolded in the by home improvement projects and a cleaning frenzy. The good news is that my life will be much easier (probably) once this is done, at least at the “where is that thing I need?” level. The bad news is that it ate a month and a half, give or take.

The feels short story: in case it’s not obvious it’s a short story that is devoted solely to messing with your readers’ feelings.

Now, if you’ve read my other posts on writing and what writing is all about, you probably are saying “but Sarah, you assured us that writers don’t work in words so much as they work in feelings, that our work is to ensure the readers go with us through the emotional ride that is our story.”
Sure. It is. It’s just in the “feels” story it’s more so. Your story might not have a ton of anything else to hold it together, but by gum it will evoke certain feelings. And evoking those feelings I can become very powerful.

Take for instance Simak’s The Ghost of a Model T. It backfires slightly with me, simply because I have no particular nostalgia for the Model T. Partly because I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the metal. But I’m sure if I were of Simak’s generation it would punch me in the feelings. To the extent that it’s effective with me, in fact, is that I can extrapolate how I would feel if I were a member of that generation.

One of the short stories that is “go for the feels” and works with me every time is Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants”. (Mild Spoilers.) It shouldn’t have the effect it has on someone who grew up in another country, but I am happily married and know I would be lost without my husband, and also I have a soft spot for corny roadside attractions. If we don’t stop at every Giant Ball of Yarn! by the roadside it’s because my husband and the boys override me, or there’s a snow storm catching up with us (or in the case of an epic drive through Kansas, both.)

Now even if you don’t want to write a “feels” story (oh, come on. It’s great fun to cause total strangers to bawl like babies!) you might want to know at least some of the techniques. For instance, “The Cold Equations” is a short story that hinges on a moral dilemma relating to the limited weight allowance of a spaceship which needs to get to a planet with a load of medicine that will thwart a deadly plague vs. the innocent stowaway onboard and her right to life. Except the author piles on the feels like nobody’s business. For instance, instead of the girl being – say – in search of her lover or just wanting to run away from home, she’s looking for her older brother. There’s tons of stuff about her relationship with her brother, too, that any young woman who ever had a decent older brother will tear up. And there’s the description of her white sandals that emphasizes how young and innocent she is.

Anyway, so: starting from the beginning.

The first rule of writing a “feels” story is to pick something you’re fairly sure will excite “feels” in your audience.

A lot of feels stories aimed at boomers who grew up in the US misses me completely, with its reference to events that happened before I was born, and to brands or beloved products I might have heard of, once.
Also, you might have something that makes you tears up every single time – the anthem. No, seriously. Listen to the lyrics. – but doesn’t seem to have that effect on almost everyone else. I’m not saying you can’t sell it. I sold my unreasonable (ah! You only think it isn’t) patriotism fairly well here, but it takes more work than just hooking into something that makes people all mushy anyway.

So, if you want to have people go all teary eyed and you’re speaking to conservatives, you might want to write a short story which evokes Ronald Reagan. Or something about the founding fathers. If you’re speaking to classical science fiction fans, you might write something about Heinlein. If you’re speaking to Western fans, write about a family ranch in the middle of nowhere, that somehow thwarts all attempts at annexation/modernization.

Now, if you’re writing a feels novel, you can tackle more abstract things: the eternal survival of love, the quality of family loyalty, etc.

But in a short story, you want a more direct and less complicated “hit.” So if you’re writing a feels short story go for something immediate and obvious: kittens, something relating to childhood, puppies, innocence, etc. (Married love and innocent roadside attractions in the case of “The Man who Traveled in Elephants.”)

Because I’m lazy and want this to be really obvious we’re going to outline a (nonexistent) short story called Kittens and Spaceships. To an extent this outline could apply to at least one subtype of “Feels” short stories, the subtype we’ll call “Remembering your Feels.”

Mary Beth is a very important spaceship designer. She always knew exactly what she wanted to do, and that was to design spaceships. When you open the story, you should make it obvious that she has sacrificed everything, including social life, all hobbies, and even to an extent family life (she has no family, or perhaps she has a sister she never sees) to be the best d*mn spaceship designer you’ve ever even heard of. You can give the impression that her life is barren and constricting by describing her obviously ordered office, or whatever.

In outline: Character has sacrificed everything to a goal, at the expense of making herself/himself soulless and joyless. If he’s not aware of his problem (if he is, just have him realize it) you can convey the issue with a description of the surroundings, or an episode such as a friend calling and inviting him to a party/picnic/whatever and being rebuffed.

On her way into her office, she hears a kitten cry from inside one of the rain gutters. She doesn’t have time to stop, but she remembers her childhood cat had kittens, and she loved them, so she calls a cat-rescue organization and tells them about it. The man on the other side is sympathetic, but there’s a big storm blowing in, and he can’t possibly get out there, or send anyone out. Can she check on the kitten herself?

Well, Mary Beth doesn’t have time for that. She has a redesign to do on a spaceship…

In outline: Character gets a chance to do something good for someone, something that reminds them of what they’ve lost: love, friendship, whatever. They try to ignore it.

It starts to rain, and Mary Beth sees the drops against her window. She tries to concentrate on the spaceship she’s designing (yes, I know it’s a stupid occupation, but it’s a cool title. If I were writing the story I would flesh out what she does better) but she keeps thinking of that sad little mew. She tries to tell herself maybe the mother cat found the baby and rescued it. Or maybe it was just some creak and there was never a baby.

Someone in the office drops some papers by and asks if she heard a kitten cry up front in the morning, and how if it rains the poor thing will drown.

Mary Beth snaps and goes out to the rain gutter to look inside.

In Outline: pile on a couple of stimuli that will force your character to do something about what he’s avoiding. Make it clear part of what he’s trying to run away from is the feelings.

When Mary Beth looks in the rain gutter, there is a little sodden bundle of orange (hey, it’s MY story) fur. She hesitates. She has a lifetime practice of ignoring everything in favor of her job. But the bundle of fur opens ridiculously round blue eyes and cries at her.

In Outline: pile on the (ridiculously cute or sad) stimulus.

Mary Beth enlists the help of the curmudgeonly building maintenance person (you can add variations here, like she just borrows tools; or the maintenance person refuses to lend tools and she has to go buy them, all the while it rains more.) and gets the cutter cut and the kitten pulled out. It’s really small and people say it will never survive.

In outline: adventures and complications. The character does whatever he’s been resisting and realizes he’s just bought fresh complications.

At this point, Mary Beth is committed. She takes the kitten to vet (ignoring her work for once) and buys a bottle and formula and all that stuff, as well as maybe a warmed bed for the kitten.

In outline: dealing with further complications and explicitly ignoring what made the character’s life sterile and lifeless before.

Mary Beth comes back to a really late project and has to work late to finish it. But she has the kitten and is nursing it, and it purrs. And she realizes she’s never been as happy since childhood, as the little blue eyes turn to her in absolute trust.

Here you can add variants, such as, if she’s specifically regretful she never had time to marry and have children, the guy from the rescue she first called can come by and it’s obvious they’ll hit it off, because they both love the kitten. Or the building maintenance guy comes back and helps her rig a bed for the kitten and there’s a spark.

Payoff. Your character did whatever he had to do and now there’s – literally – kittens and purrs and love, and it soothes some internal lack and humanizes the character.

Now, yes, some of you probably hate kittens. So? This is just an example. Get out there and write the story that will mess with your feelings and make people like you (even if total strangers) cry. Write stories about puppies, or carnivals, fishing or beautiful autumn nights. And make us cry.