Make the Reader Feel Emotion

The other night, over a writer’s dinner, my friend Angie mentioned a writing tidbit she’d received from a class she’d taken with James N. Frey, of How to Write a Damn Good Novel fame. (Not the James Frey of A Million Little Pieces fame.)

It was this: make your reader feel the emotion, not just your character.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Simple piece of advice, and yet it was halfway mind-blowing, mostly because I could see in many books I’d read lately where the reverse of this applied.  In other words, just because you, or any other author, feel the emotion, doesn’t mean readers do. I thought of so many novels that had fallen flat for me and realized that this was the diagnosis.

The remedy for this is manifold, and encompasses many of the old familiar writing recommendations. However, as with so many things, viewing these old tenets through a new lens can make them more meaningful.

So how do you ensure that your reader as well as your writer feel emotion? Here are some suggestions.

–Show don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard this one before, probably a million times. But it is so often repeated because showing brings a story to life and makes us relate to the character. Showing makes it much easy to be certain your reader is feeling the same emotion you do. Most often, this means writing in scene.  Narrative summary most definitely has its place, but the bulk of your writing should be in scene.

–Use character types.  Make your character sympathetic, or conversely, unsympathetic. Either extreme will arouse emotion in the reader. Classic ways to make a character sympathetic include making them unjustly accused of something, making them good at something, making them physically attractive, make them actively trying to achieve their goal, make them sacrifice for another, make them courageous.

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

–Rely on the power of character wants, needs, and fears.  This technique has to do with motivating your character from the get-go. What motivates her? What does he want? What keeps her awake at night? Answer those questions–and then put your character in action to deal with her wants and needs and fears.  A passive character will arouse very little emotion in the reader, just as a  passive person often arouses very little interest in real life.

–Remember style. Word choice is important! And so is sentence structure and grammar. Don’t use gentle, serene words to describe a character’s anger and don’t indulge in long, flowery sentences to evoke it, either.  Neither will get your reader actually feeling the anger. Instead ,you’ll probably get him to close the book and wander away

–Ladle on the conflict.  Always easier said than done. We fall in love with our characters and hate to torture them. But torture them we must. Because, there is no story without conflict. And whether you realize it or not, the books that keep you turning pages are the ones that create tons of conflict–whether it is emotional or otherwise.

Again, none of this is probably terribly new for you, right? But think about each point specifically in terms of how you can ensure the reader is feeling the emotion.  Question yourself: is it just thinking this is a good idea for your character? Is it possible it is just you who is feeling the emotion? Are you going deep enough to make the reader feel  it, too?

I know this is something I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to in the future. Let me know if it resonates for you.

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