In a scene where your character gets angry, you want the reader to share that anger. If the character is scared, you want the reader to feel that fear. If a character being interviewed for a job feels nervous and his leg is bouncing up and down, it’s very rewarding to be told by a reader that their knee started sympathy-bouncing when they were reading that scene.
Putting the reader into a character's shoes by having them experience the same emotion is a powerful tool and a great way to form a connection between story and audience. But this isn’t always just a simple matter of describing what the character is experiencing and hoping the reader will be immersed into their world.
Moreover, not all states of mind are equally interesting to be immersed in. An insane character, a disoriented character, a bored character, these can all be accurately conveyed, but should they be?
It helps to keep in mind what the point of a scene is. Not the general mood you want to create but what's actually happening. If you put the mental and emotional aspects to one side and look at the scene in purely mechanical terms, is it interesting?
If it’s two people sat at a table talking, or a person alone in the woods, then simply adding a veneer of emotion won’t suddenly change it from dull to fascinating.
Let’s say my story starts with a man waking up in the trunk of a car. He doesn’t know how he got there or why. He’s confused, frightened and suffers from claustrophobia. If that’s all that happens in the opening scene I could write a fairly detailed depiction of what he’s going through, but how long before it goes from visceral to boring?
He’s trapped in the trunk, he’s tied up, the car’s on the move and he has to wait until it stops and his abductor lets him out before he can start working out what’s going on. Thirty pages and you’d really feel like you were in there with him. Too much? What about ten pages? Still feels a little long. How about a single page? How about one paragraph?
The thing is, when you’ve got nothing but a moment without context then the shorter the better. Once you understand the situation it doesn’t really add much to keep reinforcing the same point. Is there any advantage to having the guy in the trunk wake up with fifty miles still to travel?
While making the tone resonate with the reader can enhance a scene, the scene has to be worth enhancing. If you become too focused on the technical aspect of accurately portraying how the character is seeing things you can easily forget to make what they’re doing worth reading about, which should always be your first priority.
Back to our guy in the trunk. If he comes to, confused and disoriented, and then the car starts to be crushed in some kind of mechanical compactor, then his state of mind will become secondary to his need to get the hell out. He still doesn’t know how he got there or why someone’s trying to kill him, but that won’t stop him from taking the necessary steps to deal with the situation.
He can still be viewing it all from a particular perspective, one that you can pass on to the reader, but as soon as you give the character something to do it will quickly become clear where to focus most of the reader’s attention.
It also makes a difference where in the story the scene appears. If the reader’s had a chance to develop a relationship with the character, if they know where the story’s going, if they have some idea of what’s at stake, then they’re going to be much more tolerant of a scene where it isn’t immediately obvious what’s going on.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a scene that's more about style than content right at the start of a story—not being sure what's happening can work as a very good opening hook—but it’s worth being aware of possible drawbacks and using other techniques to keep thing moving.
Putting another character (friend or foe) in the scene can also make a difference. Characters alone with their thoughts are the hardest to keep interesting. Not impossible, but not easy, and hard to judge for a writer. Once you add a counterpoint to the main character, even if that counterpoint is only seen through the MC’s POV, it can help ground a scene.
Our guy wakes up in the trunk, bound and gagged, and as he struggles to get loose he realises he’s not alone in there. Behind him is a young woman also tied up. He has no idea who she is. He squirms around and finally manages to get the gag out of her mouth and she proceeds to call him every unkind name under the sun and then lists a number of objects she plans to insert into his rectum as soon as she’s free and able to visit the nearest hardware store. Our hero, with near superhero effort, manages to get the gag back in her mouth.
And a little humour can also help. This won’t be appropriate in all cases, but it can often help keep a reader engaged through the more challenging moments. Just because the character is in a particular state of mind doesn't mean the rest of the world will pause to let him work through his personal issues.
It's not just a matter of transferring the character's mindset to the reader, there's a number of other factors to take into consideration. How long the scene is, where in the story it appears, what’s happening to the character and what they have to do next all play a role in deciding how effective any emotional connection will be for the reader.
If a character is bored at work and writes a silly email which he accidentally sends to his boss leading to a hilarious sequence of events, then how long do you need to spend establishing the boredom at the start of this scenario? Not very long, I would suggest.
On the other hand, if a character is enraged by the murder of his wife and hunts down the killers for the whole of the book, his anger might not only be worth maintaining at quite a high level, you might also want to show different stages of that anger and how it helps/hinders his search.
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