Emotion in Storytelling: If Only!

Arthur Hacker - In Jeopardy 1902

I’ve been taking notice of the stories which evoke a strong emotional response in myself, hoping to find some patterns. Sure enough, there are patterns. The ‘If Only’ story resonates especially. The ‘if only’ story evokes the emotion of regret.


Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word similar to English ‘regret’. It’s pronounced a little like ‘sour-DA-jay’.

But English doesn’t have an especially rich vocabulary around the emotion of regret, nostalgia and longing, and saudade is a little bit different. You can feel saudade for someone, something or a place. The object of saudade can be anything at all. Various explanations of saudade:

  • Saudade is the love that remains after someone or something is gone. (A particular kind of love experienced in absentia.)
  • Saudade is a recollection of pleasurable feelings. Saudade now triggers those senses and you relive them. (Close to nostalgia.)
  • Saudade contains the repressed knowledge that you can never have that exact thing, that exact person, those exact pleasant emotions again. (I can’t think of an English equivalent for this. Regret is a negative feeling which often includes culpability and guilt.)

I’m sure I experience saudade when a pleasant holiday or overseas experience comes to an end. I remember a conversation with a fellow exchange student as we were both leaving our year in Japan. We discussed whether we’d be coming back. My friend said, “Even if we do come back to Japan, it won’t be the same.” In her late teens she knew this already because she’d had a year travelling the European canals on a boat with her parents and sister. I was about to learn it. I did go back to Japan three years later, and she was right. It was another wonderful year, but not at all the same. If only we could make a good experience last forever. We can’t. Time doesn’t work like that. We all know this, but we repress it, until it’s made clear at crossroads in our own lives or in stories.

The limitation of time is what made the final episode of Six Feet Under so affecting. Yet an inverse-message movie like Groundhog Day teaches us that Ending is a necessary part of Life — if we did have the same experience over and over, that would be a life of suffering.



Perhaps you’ve seen the meme — perhaps on Pinterest — that goes something like, ‘I have experienced all kinds of foolish melancholy — I’ve been homesick for countries I’ve never seen, and longed to be what I couldn’t be’.

There have been various riffs on this line from Cheever: Judith Thurman, contributor to the New Yorker has said, ‘Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.’

There is a German word ‘fernweh’ which seems to translate to ‘wanderlust’ but apparently there is something of the above sentiment embedded in its meaning. It refers more to ‘a longing for far-off places’. The concept may well have been around for a long time. Personally, I feel this way about Canada and for that reason, I’m not keen to ever go there.

I don’t know if everyone has such a place. But it seems a lot of people pick Paris to be their fernweh place. Some people are even hospitalised after getting to Paris and learning that it’s nothing like the place they imagined. It’s called Paris Syndrome. Japanese nationals are particularly prone to Paris Syndrome. But before we laugh at these Japanese people for their grandiose, incorrect ideas about Paris, it has been observed that Tokyo and Kyoto seem to have become for young American writers what Paris was for Hemingway’s generation.

Case in point:

Tokyo was a place I’d canonised in my head as a pocketbook utopia (unfortunately a common reflex for sheltered white westerners) but the constant sound, visual stimulation and flashing lights from LED billboards and other stimuli were too overpowering.

Jonno Revanche

So it works both ways.

The “Japan” of writers is, of course, half-imaginary, and what is interesting is how, since the 1960s, this literary conception of “Japan” has changed — from the locus of enlightenment (for the Beats and other spiritual seekers) to an internationalized zone of decadence and self-destruction (for the Byronic heroes of contemporary novels).

Jerry Griswold

Whenever you visit a place you have imagined, it’s always different. It might not be worse different, it might even be better different, but your original longing is ultimately quashed, because the place no longer exists in your mind, having been replaced by reality.



Creating ‘If Only’ In Stories


Stories in which the main character almost gets what they want are more affecting than when a character never comes close. That ‘thing’ is often ‘love’.

A stand-out example of one such story is the Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler. Randy the Ram is first painted as a true underdog but then has a chance at happiness. Ultimately, though, he fails to achieve the required Anagnorisis that would allow him to lead a better life. He ends up trapped in a place of Slavery.

At various points in the second half of The Wrestler, the audience suffers through numerous If Only moments:

  • If only he had not gotten high and showed up for that one last chance with his daughter.
  • If only he hadn’t told his girlfriend to leave without him.
  • If only he could leave the exploitative industry of wrestling behind him.
    But stories which leave the main character in a place of Slavery are relatively rare. Far more often, our beloved main characters achieve a certain amount of Freedom.

Stories in which an older character looks back on a crossroads event in their early adulthood are affecting. Early adulthood is an especially significant set-up phase — on average, most of our major life decisions have been made by the age of 35-40. We’ve partnered up (or not), we’ve had children (or not). We gain work skills (or not) and life choices narrow.

When we look back at decisions we made in our twenties, we see with clarity how our lives could have been so different. The Anagnorisis of middle age is that we treated major crossroads ridiculously lightly. We didn’t understand the consequences because how could we?

In order to pull this trick off, the writer must have very tight control over their narrative choices. These choices are completely invisible to the reader. If they’re working, the casual reader couldn’t even tell you what’s going on. But as writers it’s worth taking a closer look at a master.

On Chesil Beach is a novella by Ian McEwan, about a couple’s disastrous wedding night and its longterm consequences for them both. The wedding night sex scene is depicted at a very slow pace — dilated, in fact, as Edward tries to prevent premature ejaculation by thinking of other things. Edwards wants to think about anything other than sex. This conveniently affords McEwan the opportunity to include the couple’s backstory.

During the wedding night scene, McEwan makes the choice to focalise equally on both the bride and the groom, creating a dual centre of consciousness. This way we see they are both good, well-meaning people. This double focalisation has the effect of binding them psychologically together to the exclusion of everyone else, and shows the reader that these two characters do share a wonderful bond. This perfectly executed choice of narration makes their tragedy all the worse for the reader. The sex part is a disaster and their marriage is subsequently annulled.

The novella concludes with a brief description of Edward’s life, and Edward in late middle age, looking back on that single night with a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. He realises how both their lives could’ve been different if only he had been different.

Sometimes in shorter works Anagnorisiss are left right out of the narrative. In a Katherine Mansfield short story, the Anagnorisis can even happen between the scenes on the page. But McEwan explains Edward’s slowly-gained wisdom clearly for the reader by way of narrative summary. He even uses the phrase ‘If Only’:

When [Edward] thought of [Florence], it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal [for a sexless marriage] was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience — if only he had had them both at once — would surely have seen them both through. And then what unborn children might have had their chances, what young girl with an Alice band might have become his loved familiar? This is how the entire course of a life can be changed — by doing nothing.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Now McEwan comes out of Edward’s head and the omniscient narrator gives the reader even more insight into Florence than Edward has. This puts us in reader superior position. Why does McEwan do this? Well, Edward is right there in the story. Of course he’s (hypothetically) feeling all of these emotions keenly. But readers need to be coaxed into feeling so strongly as a fictional character, and writers can use the entire toolbox of tricks:

On Chesil Beach [where the couple broke up] he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point agains the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan also provokes a hugely affecting If Only response in his novel (and movie) Atonement. He uses a similar technique, plus the extra technique of a massive reveal (called a reversal, because the reader must revise what we thought we previously knew). Although this blog is all about spoilers, I feel a spoiler alert is necessary here: The main character wishes she’d made a different decision when she was very young. The actions she take ruin a young couple’s life, which she imagines as quite different. As a fantasist/novelist she lays the couple’s ideal life down for the reader, but then reveals that this is not how their lives went at all. Reality was much, much worse.

Header painting by Arthur Hacker – In Jeopardy 1902

Home » Emotion in Storytelling: If Only!

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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