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History writing and emotional 'Emplotment'

Olivier Rieter

Bisociation, Arthur Koestler tells us, is the combination of two or more old concepts to create something that didn’t exist before.[i] An example is the animated movie combined with the fairy tale in Disney’s Silly Symphonies and in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

This article is an attempt at bisociation, a phenomenon which has been updated recently in the theory of ‘conceptual blending’. [ii] My goal is to link the ideas of the philosopher Hayden White in his classic Metahistory (1973) on historical emplotment (or ‘the deep structure of the historical imagination’) to the insights of the literary agent and fiction instructor Donald Maass in The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which was published in 2016.[iii]

White (who uses bisociation himself) describes 19th century ways of history writing as types of fiction: satire, comedy, tragedy and romance. The choice of emplotment has ideological implications. Satire according to White, is a liberal mode of dealing with the past, whereas comedy is conservative, tragedy is radical and romance anarchist. White says of the modes used by historians that they are: ‘….in reality formalizations of poetic insights that analytically precede them and that sanction the particular theories used to give historical account the aspect of an ‘’explanation’’[iv]

The historian is different however from a writer of fiction because the latter hides his poetic strategies, otherwise the effect would be spoiled, whereas the historian should make them very clear, because his or her scholarly effort should be open to critique.

My opinion is that present-day historians can learn from recent insights in modern fiction. There has been a wealth of new insights in the craft of fiction since 1973: from neuroscience to the Campbellian Hero’s Journey and from stylistics/word painting to theories on the emotions that readers/viewers experience.

In my attempt at updating the ways in which fictional emplotment can be used I will focus on the rhetoric of emotion. The question I want to answer is how ideas about the emotional craft of fiction can be used in future history writing. I am aware of the fact that the use of emotion in history has moral implications. Can it be jusfified to ‘manipulate’ readers/viewers emotions? Another question is whether history writing should be emplotted at all. White has been criticized for being a relativist, because the historical facts seem to him to be less important than the type of book a historian wittingly or unwittingly writes.

These last two somewhat ideological questions I will try to answer at the end of the article. Most of my attention however will be focused on the way emotion can be ‘used’ by the historian. What I offer is not so much a cookbook, as some recipes for the historian, spiced with the insights of Maass and others.

Before describing the emotional craft of history I will go into two related topics that must be dealt with in order to provide my discussion with a context: namely the link between history and emotion in general and the role empathy plays in crafting historical works or productions.

History of Emotions and Emotional History

For a long time the history of emotions has been somewhat neglected, but in recent decades there has been attention from emotional historians for topics like romantic or familial love in the past, fear, aggression, altruism or nostalgia.

Scholar Barbara Rosenwein states that a history of emotions ‘must not deny the biological substratum of emotions, since it is clear that they are embedded in both the body and the brain. At the same time, a history of emotions must problematize the feelings of the past, addressing their distinctive characteristics. Even bodies (and, as we have seen, brains) are shaped by culture.’[v] What Rosenwein makes clear is that culture, neurology and biology are linked. A study of emotions in the past must ideally be interdisciplinary, bridging ‘the two cultures.’[vi]

Here my concern is not so much with the study of emotions or emotional communities (also a term coined by Rosenwein) in the past, but rather with the use of emotions in present-day depictions of the past.

Nostalgia, not the historical emotion but the way the phenomenon functions in the present, seems a candidate to provide a first historico-emotional recipe . But I hesitate. Nostalgia is an extensive topic. It has been both heavily criticized and applauded as ‘a sanctuary of meaning’, depending on the definition used.[vii] In the scope of this article I can’t describe all the different nostalgias and the ways these different versions provide ways to colour historical texts. That would merit another article.


Instead I first want to deal with another topic: empathy. It is necessary to discuss this also huge topic, because it plays a role in both fiction and history writing.

Most would agree that empathy in both literature and history writing is very important. History is more than the placement of facts in a chronological order, even the most traditional historian would agree. The reader has to have a connection with the people described.

To write literature without empathy seems to be very hard: it is the insight in the mind of others, which in real life is not (yet) possible that makes reading so rewarding. The emphatic writer is capable of creating real people by means of ink on paper, people with different voices and thoughts. For a better understanding of what a reader experiences while reading, the fiction writer, and I think also the historian, must be emphatic.

Fiction writer and literary theorist Emy Koopman claims that literature is no ‘empathy machine’ but her research into reading about human suffering resulted in the tentative conclusion that a reader’s contact with original use of language about people can contribute to a better understanding of others.[viii]

Based on other authors and her own research Koopman describes cognitive and emotional empathy: “cognitive empathy” is the ability to understand someone else’s perspective and “emotional empathy” is about feeling similar emotions to someone else. The basic form of cognitive empathy has been called “Theory of Mind” (ToM, see: Baron-Cohen, 1991; Premack & Woodruff, 1978): attributing mental states (what someone thinks, feels, wants or believes) to others. The most basic form of emotional empathy is “emotional contagion,” the automatic mimicking and experiencing of someone’s emotional state.’[ix]

Reading may improve our understanding of otherness. Literary critic Harold Bloom states that reading ‘is the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates otherness.’[x] Which is why for understanding the otherness of history empathy is important. The past is a foreign country is a classic book about heritage and history. It takes effort to understand the past, but the effort gives you something back: a connection with all those people who lived before us. In a sense studying the past is about being respectful of all those forgotten lives before us.[xi]

So empathy is about both understanding others and feeling what they feel. According to public historian Jerome de Groot historical empathy is: ‘understanding through sensual and bodily engagement with the past.’[xii]Apart from individual empathy Philosopher Roman Krznaric mentions ‘mass empathy’. He sees this as a phenomenon with good effects, e.g. the empathy for the fate of the slaves in the US and Britain as a cause for social change, because the abolitionists tried to feel and experience what their enslaved fellow humans were feeling and experiencing. Krznaric sees historical empathy as the cure of practically anything. Empathy, according to him ‘has the power to heal broken relationships, erode our prejudices, expand our curiosity about strangers and make us rethink our ambitions. Ultimately empathy creates the human bonds that make life worth living.’[xiii]

Not all commentators are as positive about empathy. Sometimes people feel empathy for evil persons, thinking: ‘Hitler loved his dog, he had some decency in him’, or similar thoughts. The brilliant performance of Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Der Untergang may have left some people confused: how could they feel a little sorry for the most evil man in history? Empathy is not just empathy with the good, but also with the bad and the (morally) ugly.

And this is very much human, because all humans have the capacity for both good and evil. That’s what can be learned from history.

Empathy is about (more or less) understanding someone else’s emotional life. This what fiction gives the reader and this is what history writing should give too.

Theories on the Creation of Fiction, Applied to History

Before going into the theories of Maass I want to discuss some other methods of writing that could be used by the historian.

The Writer’s Journey is a book about universal mythic structures underneath all storytelling, based on the ideas of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. According to its author, Christopher Vogler, it is about ‘…. a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical word.’[xiv] He discusses the journey of the fictional hero, who is called from the ordinary world, who refuses the call and meets his mentor, crosses a threshold, after which he is tested. Then he approaches the ‘inner cave’ for an ordeal, after which he is rewarded and starts on the road back, resurrected to return with new knowledge.[xv]

Vogler himself admits that his description can be seen as formulaic, male centered and culturally imperialistic. Still, it’s not necessarily nonsense. It is fiction based on heroism (the Star Wars franchise being its most famous example). Heroes (and villains!) are important for history writing. Maybe biographers can learn something from The Writer’s Journey by providing a described life with more thematic coherence than it originally had. That might mean that a life could be described in heroic phases. E.g. the youth as ‘the ordinary world’, the educational life as multiple meetings with mentors, the road to being a grown-up as the crossing of the threshold (possibly by marrying), then the struggles of life with inner demons and adversaries and then some kind of catharsis and coming to terms with the world and possibly with death. Formulaic, but it might work in some biographies

A very different approach is taken by literary agent Lisa Cron, who uses insights from neuroscience and evolution science. Her Wired for Story is not about stylistics and metaphors. According to Cron a protagonist has to have a clear goal. He or she should be tested by the plot so that a story with a pattern of cause-and-effect comes to life and the reader is feeling something. Cron states: ‘anything conceptual, abstract or general must be made tangible in the protagonist’s specific struggle.’[xvi] This is what a conceptual historian can learn from Cron: to give specific examples from history to make abstract thought understandable or meaningful. Important in Cron’s book is the attention for the effects of writings on the brain, from an evolutionary perspective.

A third approach is suggested by writer Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting. A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. She writes: ‘Good description, like most powerful things in the world –a salty kiss, a dancer’s leap, the fine brown hairs on a lover’s arms, accomplishes more than we are consciously aware of. We may not notice its power until our blood begins to simmer or cool, the Windsor knot in our stomach tightens, our breath shifts to quick hard pants. This is due, in part, to description’s root in the physical world. Good description almost always employs specific, concrete detail so the reader can ‘’see’’ what is being described, or experiences it through one of the other senses.’[xvii] Important here for the historian is the use of concrete details. Sometimes the details of the past are remembered better than its essence or they even become the essence: like the proverbial nose of Cleopatra.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction

Donald Maass is the author of several works on writing. For our present purposes his The Emotional Craft of Fiction is the most important. Maass seems to be somewhat conservative, but he offers an unique insight in the ways in which an emotional effect/affect is created in readers. He doesn’t so much discuss the representation of character emotions[xviii], as the way emotions in readers are created. Maass is of the opinion that a book that doesn’t communicate emotions is a failed book: why bother reading if you aren’t moved? He is not alone in this view, of course.[xix]

Maass writes that the language of emotion: ‘…makes a difference to readers’ experiences. Plot, too, can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones. As a writer, you are on an emotional journey as you write, as well, a journey that informs and influences not only the story you are creating, but also your voice and your very identity as writer. Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s why readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook or outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings. You may curate your character’s experiences and put them on display, but the exhibit’s meaning is different in thousands of ways for thousands of different museum visitors, your readers.’[xx]

The reader of a historical book can be seen as such a visitor to the exhibition the historian created. The reader in the end makes his or her own judgement on the emotional and moral implications of what is ‘exhibited’ in the book. It may be a good thing to see the historian as a provocateur of feelings and opinions, rather than someone who just describes how the past was or should have been.

Some people criticize emotional fiction as overtly cheesy, manipulative or clichéd however, so the use of emotion is not without risk. There is still some disdain for the emotional in academia.

Maass, who founded a literary agency in New York in 1980 and apparently sells over 150 novels every year to major publishers, writes that certain types of stories create high moments ‘and these moments are ones that move our hearts. They’re ones we always remember. Of those highly emotional events these are the durable ones: forgiveness, sacrifice, betrayal, moral dilemma, and death.’[xxi]

In what follows I want to give some suggestions as to how these five emotional events can be ‘used’ by historians.

Forgiveness: a history of the Truth Commissions in South Africa

A Truth Commission is established to both deliver the facts on wrong-doings in the past and to contribute to reconciliation. The most famous Truth Commission was set up in South Africa after the end of Apartheid. Most people in South Africa who asked for amnesty, didn’t get it. But the commission had a symbolical value. In the South Africa of Mandela it was more important to contribute to healing than to punishment that would contribute to more hate.

A study on forgiveness could go into topics like the Jewish and Christian Bible and the difference between the God of the Old and New Testaments. Such a study could also discuss the fact that many war criminals in Germany after the Second World War weren’t punished by the German authorities/judicial system. Did the Germans forgive themselves, instead of being forgiven by the victims?

Emotional Arc of Others

Maass describes two main emotional arcs in fiction: some persons can shift from tension to energy and other persons from energy to tension. Maass writes about polarity swings e.g. from impatience to intolerance (tension to energy) or from the ability to lead to the ability to teach (energy to tension):

‘Forgiveness’ can be seen as a polarity shift from righteousness to the showing of mercy (energy to tension). Persons who forgive stop looking for punishment and start building connectedness. A historical research question on forgiveness could deal with such psychological change in the past. Is forgiveness different in different historical periods?

Sacrifice: Jan van Schaffelaar, a Hero from Dutch history

Jan van Schaffelaar was the leader of a Dutch late-medieval militia who seized a tower in the small town of Barneveld. His enemies besieged the tower. They promised to spare the lives of his comrades if they would throw Van Schaffelaar off the tower. They didn’t want to do that. But then Van Schaffelaar just jumped off the tower to his death. The other soldiers were spared.

Jan van Schaffelaar is sometimes compared to another ‘hero’ from Dutch history: Admiral Van Speijk. To prevent the ship from getting in the hands of the adversaries: the Belgians, Van Speijk sacrificed the crew of his war ship by blowing it up. In other words: he sacrificed other people for a deluded view on personal heroics. Van Speijk is still remembered in street names, ships and monuments, but his ‘sacrifice’ seems to be a war crime seen in present-day light. It might be anachronistic to judge him this way, but his case makes clear that topics like sacrifice and heroics have a strong moral dimension.

A study on sacrifice could compare heroism and faux heroism from the past, both in history and literature (think of the friend of Achilles, Patroclos, who in a way sacrificed himself for the goals of the Greeks) Such a study could go into the difference between self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others (e.g. in the Bible or in Aztec culture), sacrifice for one’s country or for one’s family. Rene Girard’s theory on the sacrifice of the scapegoat should be analyzed with the help of examples from different periods.

Emotional Journey of the Reader

Readers like to read about change, because they would like to have this capacity themselves. Maass: ‘Change is a turn away from self-pity and toward understanding of self and others. It brings maturity and perspective, and elevates one to higher consciousness.’[xxii] A history of sacrifice could show a shift from the need to sacrifice others to the understanding that one can also sacrifice oneself for others.

Betrayal: the Invasion of Sudeten Deutschland

‘Peace for our time’, said the British PM after he had had a meeting with the Nazis when they had invaded Czechoslovakia to put the Sudeten Germans ‘Heim ins Reich’

When he arrived back in Britain Neville Chamberlain said: ‘The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: " ... We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.’[xxiii]

The Munich agreement is known in Czech as ‘Mnichovská zrad, The Munich Betrayal.‘ It was agreed by the British and the French that it was okay for the Germans to seize the Sudetenland, part of another country.

Betrayal is all over the history books. In Germany after the First World War there was the so-called ‘stab in the back myth‘ that the Germans lost the war because they were stabbed in the back by fellow-Germans. A discussion on betrayal could be on nationalism and the betrayal of allies or colleagues, or on teachers who look the other way when pupils are bullied (or who even contribute to the bullying).

Emotional Plot

Maass writes about the emotional plot which makes readers feel that they have been through something and because of that they see themselves as emotionally competent: ‘A story causes what psychologists call cognitive evaluation in readers, which in plain English means having to think, guess, question, and compare. Making us think not only makes a story intriguing, but medically speaking it’s necessary for our well-being and mental health’[xxiv]

A historical book on betrayal could show for instance that betrayal could be rationalized, but that it is always emotionally false. The reader knows this and judges those who betray.

Moral dilemma: The Cambridge Spies

What does it mean for someone to be a spy? It is a question of loyalty. In the West spies who betrayed the communism of their home countries were applauded as true heroes and those who betrayed the West for communism were seen as evil. The old but true cliché is that the victor writes history.

Maybe it could be interesting to describe the moral dilemma of the famous Cambridge spies: they thought that their (ideological) beliefs were more important than nationalism. They may have been wrong, but in a sense they were idealists who were loyal to their belief systems instead of loyal to Britain. Was their choice in a way not justified, if they really believed in Marxism? Could they even be called heroes, because they risked all for (what they thought was) a greater cause?

In life you have the choice to be a by-stander or an activist, the choice between your family and your nation, between your ideals and your cynicism. A study on moral dilemmas in the past could go into choices in world literature set in history (e.g. Sophie’s Choice) and into the choices of historical figures (e.g. Socrates)

Emotional World

‘When characters show us that they are complex, we feel complex, too. We chew on them, and ourselves, as well’ writes Maass.[xxv] In order to build such a complex emotional world it is useful to give details when describing a situation: ‘Details have the power of suggestion. Suggestion evokes feelings in readers, drawing them out rather than pounding them with emotional hammer blows.[xxvi]

Those details could show where someone’s loyalty lies or has lain, e.g. give an insight in the books, art or memorabilia that are present in one’s home or office. In the story ‘The things they carried’ by Tim O’Brien he describes to great effect what soldiers on a mission in the Vietnam War carried with them.[xxvii] The description of these men’s emotionally ‘loaded’ belongings shows their characters. The reader feels for them as for real people.

Death: Life and Death in the Trenches of the Great War

A history of death could be on the stupidity of war. It could e.g. focus on life in the trenches of both sides in the first World War. Is it okay to sacrifice yourself for your country? Why would that be okay? What would your loved ones think of that choice? What in fact is wrong with deserting (if you don’t put your fellow soldiers at risk)? There are no easy answers to those questions.

A study on death could be on diseases and plagues, on the death penalty as entertainment for the spectators, or on ‘peace operations’ that contribute to war and death.

What can be learned by historians from films on history (like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory) or graphic novels (like Jacques Tardi’s work on the Great War)? These kinds of fiction show the everyday horrors of war in the lives of normal men. Thus they are more meaningful and interesting than descriptions of tactical maneuvers by generals or politicians, the so-called ‘great men’ of the past.


‘Once the audience decides what something means, they automatically feel emotions. Meaning evokes emotion’, writes story board artist Francis Glebas.[xxviii] When a historian is somewhat subtle he or she doesn’t always write what something means for a person from history; when the reader has to decide on the meaning of what is described by him- or herself this will result in emotions and a closer connection with a historical book.

For a reader to be moved by death it is important to show the person who dies first as a living, breathing person, with wants and needs, with emotions. Thus this person becomes more than a number in a list of casualties. Maass comments: ‘Cause us to love that character more. Does death pervade the novel? Make living beautiful. Fill the story with joy, and love.’[xxix]

This may sound like manipulation, but it is a fact that present-day consumers of historical books expect these kinds of technique, techniques they know from novels and films, to be used and they are savvy enough to miss this emotional rhetoric in dry unreadable books, fiction or nonfiction.

Toward an Emotional craft of History?

I think a creative historian can learn from fiction, as does Hayden White. I also believe that emotion is the element that breathes life into a text, whereas blandness makes it impossible to publish. But it is another thing to manipulate readers into feeling something and isn’t that what the recipes I mentioned offer: manipulation of the emotional world of the reader?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the reader is stimulated to feel something, because of the choice of topic and the way the facts are (re)presented by the historian. No, in the sense that these ways of incorporating emotion in history writing are already present in the texts of many successful historical writers, although these historians didn’t put emotion in those texts deliberately.

What I think is important is the awareness of this aspect of the historical craft. I also would like it if historians would state the rhetorical and emotional tools they use in the introductions to the books they write. Thus it becomes possible for the reader to come up with other interpretations. Hayden White writes: ‘ The master historians of the nineteenth century intuited that history could not become either a rigorous science or pure art until the epistemological and aesthetic concepts that underlie the conception of their narratives were clarified.’[xxx] I don’t think that the epistemological or aesthetic concepts of an art work should be clarified, better not in fact, but they definitely should be in rhetorically constructed (scholarly) science, of which history is the most important example.

Another tricky question is whether the facts are put in to create the emotional effect and not because they are important in themselves. This is the question of relativism, present in the work of White. The answer to this question seems to be that all historians manipulate the facts, the historico-emotional writer is only more aware of this. All historical books that are somewhat readable have an order: chronological, thematic or emotional. It is an act of scholarly honesty to mention the constructedness of what is represented, to give insight in the stylistic and rhetorical toolbox that is used. According to White the historian performs ‘an essentially poetic act’[xxxi]

The historian Ludmilla Jordanova has commented on emotion and the subjective: ‘The opposite of objective is subjective, which can carry pejorative connotations. It implies not just one person’s views, tinged with emotion, but a partial, insubstantial perspective that is not to be trusted. The common polarization of objectivity and subjectivity is unfortunate, giving too much trust to the former and too little too the later. It could just as well be argued that objectivity is faulty because it is cold and detached, whereas subjectivity is more warmly, honestly human.’[xxxii]

Jordanova has a point. The writing of history is a human undertaking and the fact that the historian is a human is an asset in writing about people, because the historian him- or herself feels and reflects. A natural scientist can’t comment on how it is like to be an atom, but scholars can and should comment on the emotional humanness of their topics. ‘I feel therefore I am’ wrote the neuroscientist Damasio. Feelings and reflections are interrelated and it would be unwise to not use the emotional aspect of humanness. Because this is in fact the most interesting aspect of being a human. Psychology, neuroscience (on memories and emotions), evolutionary theories, culture and history meet in the emotional. The historian should use that, acknowledge that, or else he or she may be a flawed scholar.

[i] A. Koestler, The act of creation (London 1964). In this book Koestler studies humor, discovery and art. See for a discussion of his main findings: M. Popova, ‘How creativity in humor, art and science works. Arthur Koestlers theory of bisociation’,

[ii] M. Turner and G. Fauconnier: The Way We Think. Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. (New York: 2002)

[iii] H. White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (1973) D. Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. How to write the Story beneath the Surface (Cincinatti 2016)

[iv] White, Metahistory, xii.

[v] B. Rosenwein, ‘’Problems and methods in the history of emotions’, Passions in context I (I/2010)

[vi] ‘The two cultures’ was an influential lecture (1959) by writer and scientist C.P. Snow who wanted to bridge the gap between intellectuals and scientists. There is a wealth of information on this topic on the website

[vii] J. Wilson. Nostalgia. A sanctuary of meaning.

[viii] E. Koopman: ‘Reading suffering : an empirical inquiry into empathic and reflective responses to literary


[ix] Koopman, ‘Reading suffering’, 19.

[x] H. Bloom, How to read and why (New York 2000), 19

[xi] The title of David Lowenthals book is a quote from literature: L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between.

[xii] J. de Groot, Consuming history. Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture (Abingdon 2009) 123

[xiii] R. Krznaric, The wonderbook. Curious histories of how to live (London 2011/12) 54.

[xiv] C. Vogler, The writer’s journey. Mythic structure for writers (Studio City 1998/2007) xiii.

[xv] Vogler, The writer’s journey, 6,

[xvi] L. Cron ‘Contents’: in Wired for story. The Writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence (Berkely 2012) No page number.

[xvii] R. McClanahan, Word painting. A Guide to writing more descriptively (Cincinatti 1999) 9.

[xviii] For that topic see: A. Hood, Creating Character emotions (Cincinatti 1998)

[xix] See e.g. D.V. Swain, Techniques of the selling writer (Oklahoma 1965)

[xx] Maass, The emotional craft of fiction, 3.

[xxi] Maass, The emotional craft of fiction, 133.

[xxii] Maass, 160.


[xxiv] Maass, 86

[xxv] Maass, 34.

[xxvi] Maass, 36

[xxvii] T. O’Brien, ‘The things they carried’, in: A. LaPlante, The making of a story (New York 2007) 131-147.

[xxviii] F. Glebas, Directing the story. Professional storytelling and storyboarding techniques for live action and animation (New York 2009) 299.

[xxix] Maass, 145.

[xxx] White, Metahistory, 429.

[xxxi] White, Metahistory, X.

[xxxii] L. Jordanova, History in practice, London 2000) 94.

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