The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter: Bringing Emotional Resonance to Your Storytelling

January 9-February 6, 2024

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Deadline: December 5, 2023



Barbara Ashford



Live Class:

7 pm-8:30 pm U.S. EST
Tues., Jan. 9
Tues., Jan. 23
Tues., Feb. 6



Course Description

The best stories take readers on a journey that satisfies their hearts as well as their minds. But just having your characters cry or laugh will never get readers to share the emotions behind those actions. Effective storytelling is about creating drama on the page that arouses a variety of emotions in the reader: curiosity, anticipation, anxiety, surprise. It requires careful crafting from conception to execution to achieve that.

This course will take you from “setting the stage”–understanding the heart of the story you are telling–to “getting it on the page”–exploring techniques that will not only show the emotions of your characters but evoke the intended emotional response from your readers. Award-winning novelist Barbara Ashford will discuss ways to infuse drama and emotion into every aspect of storytelling–from setting and description to character development and plot events–and create greater emotional resonance by weaving these building blocks of story together.

Lecture, discussion, examples, and writing exercises will help you understand the implicit promise your story makes to a reader; deepen character complexity; create drama and emotional resonance in your scenes; use characterization and “beats” to reveal character emotions on the page; and avoid style choices that can inadvertently distance your readers from the story you’re telling.

The class will explore the writer-reader relationship, including ways of crafting scenes to elicit the “correct” emotional response from readers. Barbara will also examine how an author’s feelings can impact storytelling and offer practical suggestions for overcoming the discomfort that can arise when writing scenes of raw emotion.

The course is intended for all fiction writers, with an emphasis on those who write fantastic fiction, and is appropriate for writers of middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction. It will be most valuable for intermediate writers, since it assumes students already understand the basics of writing.

Each student will have a private meeting with Barbara. Students will also provide critiques of their classmates’ work and revise their work in response to feedback.

Our goal as a class is to provide a supportive yet challenging environment that will help students improve their writing. You must be ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and to work to strengthen them. You must also be ready to give honest, helpful feedback to your classmates.


Students will have some homework assigned before the first meeting, and will also be assigned homework during the course.

The first assignment will have a due date of January 8, the day before our initial meeting.

Homework will be assigned on January 9 and 23, with due dates, respectively, of January 15 and 29. You will also be required to provide critiques of some of your classmates’ work, which will be due on January 22 and February 5. Any student who misses a deadline for submitting homework or critiques may be expelled from the class and will receive no refund.

All assignments should be properly formatted and should be submitted in MS Word files or rich text files.

You should reserve a minimum of 5 hours per week to complete homework.

Assignments will include readings, critiques, scene submissions, and scene analysis. Barbara will provide feedback on your homework before the next class session.

The number of critiques students will be required to write is determined by class size; for a maximum class size of 14, students should expect to read and critique 3-4 submissions for each homework assignment. Students will also be required to reply to online discussion questions during the course.

Students are expected to follow the policies about assignments and class materials in the Odyssey Online Student Handbook.

Students will be required to read a lesson on critiquing before the course begins.


Students will be required to read scenes excerpted from various novels and short stories, as well as chapters on scene structure and story by such writers as Donald Maass, Bill Johnson, and Ann Hood. All required readings will be provided to students before the course begins.


Since we will have only 3 class meetings, attendance at every class is necessary for students to get the most out of this course.

You are expected to attend all classes, except in cases of emergency. In such cases, you should notify the instructor.

Classes will be recorded and made available to students for a limited time.

Any student who misses more than one class may be expelled from the course and will receive no refund.

It is your responsibility to find out what happened in any classes you missed and to complete homework by the deadlines.

Students are expected to follow the policies about attendance and behavior set out in the Odyssey Online Student Handbook.

Technical Requirements:

Technical requirements for all Odyssey Online Classes are covered on the Online Classes page.

Tentative Schedule:

January 9:
First class meeting. Introduction and orientation. The importance of emotion in storytelling. Emotion vs feeling. Getting emotion on the page. Scene studies that convey emotion, complexity, character, and conflict. Avoiding the cliché trap. Understanding subtext–the “river of emotion that flows beneath the words.” Calibrating emotion through sound, rhythm, tempo, word choice, and style. Character vs. characterization. Techniques to show character complexity. Creating compelling dialogue. Understanding how psychic distance impacts reader reactions. Stylistic red flags that can distance readers from your story and techniques to address them. Assignment of homework.

January 15:
Homework is due.

January 22:
Critiques are due. Homework is returned with Barbara’s feedback.

January 23:
Second class meeting. Discussion of previous homework assignment.
Understanding the heart of your story. Using your story’s promise to build an emotional connection with your readers and create story cohesion and drama. The importance of making a “down payment” on your story’s promise in your opening chapter/scene. Creating emotionally compelling scenes. Posing questions to engage the reader. Worksheets to help you analyze the effectiveness of your scenes. Establishing tone and voice. Using “beats” to fine-tune emotional shifts within a scene. Crafting hooks and prompts that arouse reader emotions. Understanding and revealing your protagonist’s true nature. Using inner conflict to add complexity to your characters and arouse an emotional reaction in your readers. Using backstory effectively. Assignment of new homework.

January 29:
Homework is due.

February 1:
Some students will have private meetings with Barbara between 7:00-8:00 PM EST.

February 2:
Some students will have private meetings with Barbara between 7:00-8:15 PM EST.

February 4:
Some students will have private meetings with Barbara between 7:00-8:15 PM EST.

February 5:
Critiques are due. Homework is returned with Barbara’s feedback.

February 6:
Third class meeting. Discussion of previous homework assignment. Exploring ways to infuse emotion and tension into setting, description, and world building. The emotional plot. Creating emotional resonance through your major plot incidents. Expectations and reversals. Stretching tension. Techniques for fine-tuning micro vs. macro pacing. Fulfilling the promise you made to readers. Creating an emotionally satisfying ending. Endings and the controlling idea. How our attitudes towards emotion can impact our storytelling. Tools to help overcome roadblocks in writing emotions. Acting and brainstorming techniques to help tap you into emotions.

Barbara Ashford

Instructor: Barbara Ashford

Award-winning novelist Barbara Ashford has been praised by reviewers and readers alike for her “emotional, heartfelt” storytelling. Her background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her most recent musical – Just Desserts – is currently playing in theatres around the country.

Barbara’s first published series was the dark fantasy trilogy Trickster’s Game (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s Fantasy Award for adult literature.

She drew on her musical theatre roots for her second series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. DAW Books released the two novels in an omnibus edition: Spells at the Crossroads.

A graduate of the Odyssey workshop, Barbara has taught for Odyssey and served on the staff of its Critique Service for more than a decade. She is also an independent developmental editor, specializing in speculative fiction. You can visit her dual selves at and