|Polish your work 'til it shines|
So, what is emotional truth? Here's a good working definition: "A visceral, heartfelt connection that arises between reader and character or characters through the unfolding (and possibly the resolution) of an invented, narrated conflict." It's from the Fiction and History blog entry, "Working Definition: Emotional Truth." Put simply, emotional truth is an ah-ha moment that dawns like the sun on a late autumn morning, slowly but with clarity and no small degree of beauty.
Why is emotional truth important to a story? Because it justifies the work and the time and energy your audience spent reading it. Think of it this way. You don't mind spending money on an exquisite meal in a top restaurant, as long as the experience is good. A bad meal at any burger shack you'll remember forever — what you paid, the date and time you went — you get the picture.
How does one go about revealing emotional truth? Edit, edit, edit, then edit more. Essentially, select words with precision, eliminate unnecessary verbiage, pare dialogue to a minimum, replace vague language with clear concepts, refine characters, clear away underbrush from scenes to advance plot and reveal character, turn phrases inside out to eliminate clichés. Then put the work aside before reading it again.
How do you know an emotional truth when you see it? Here's an excerpt from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables:
"The glances of women are like certain seemingly peaceful but really formidable machines. Every day you pass them in peace, with impunity, and without suspicion of danger. There comes a moment when you forget even that they are there. You come and go, you muse, and talk, and laugh. Suddenly, you feel caught up! It is all over. The wheels have you, the glance has captured you. It has caught you, no matter how or where, by some wandering of your thought, through a momentary distraction. You are lost. You will be drawn in entirely. A train of mysterious forces has gained possession of you. You struggle in vain. No human succor is possible. You will be drawn down from wheel to wheel, from anguish to anguish, from torture to torture. you, your mind, your fortune, your future, your soul; and you will not leave the awesome machine, until, depending on whether you are in the power of a malevolent creature, or a noble heart, you are disfigured by shame or transfigured by love."
In this example, every phrase seems an emotional truth. And Hugo hast a lot going on with language. But for the sake of discussion, let's look at a phrase in the last sentence: "depending on whether you are in the power of a malevolent creature, or a noble heart". The phrase goes to the theme of Les Miserables, or one of them anyway — that the heart of the person you're dealing with makes the difference between life and death.
So, what is the emotional truth of your story? Whether you're writing a short piece or a longer one, review it for language that could become a log line — a one-sentence description of the work. Keep that concept in mind as you revise, and you'll find the result a greater whole than the sum of mere parts.
For more on emotional truth, see "Emotional Truth: What You're After in Your Book, After All" from the blog How to Write Plan and Develop a Book, by author Mary Carroll Moore.