Friday 5 April 2013

Emotions Belong To Readers

When it comes to using emotion in a story, the person whose emotions should be most important to you is the reader.

An emotionally invested reader is more likely to go wherever the story leads, and also more likely to make allowances for parts of the story they aren’t too sure about.

You can still keep readers engaged through intellectual curiosity or general drama and action, but grabbing them emotionally is always going to be the most intense experience for them.

The simplest way to do this is to mirror emotions. The character in the story feel happy or angry or scared and the reader feels the same.

But you can also create scenarios that induce different emotions in reader and character. A killer taking great pleasure in his kill won’t engender the same in the reader. A daughter pretending she doesn’t know her own mother in front of her cools friends can make the reader weep while the characters on the page all behave with barely any emotion at all.

The ability to juxtapose characters in such a way as to spontaneously combust into emotion for the reader is a tricky thing to achieve but can be a very powerful an experience for the reader.

The cause of emotion rather than the display is where to focus. In order to do that effectively, you need to understand how actions create emotions.

This can be difficult since in real life we just feel what we feel and ascribe blame retroactively. I feel angry at Jack, therefore what Jack did must be worth getting mad about.

But that isn’t necessarily true. I could just be an over-sensitive whiner who likes to fly off the handle whenever challenged by a reasonable person. Judging actions by the emotions they create within you personally is not the best barometer.

You have to be able to step outside of your own personal feelings and view things objectively, see where the emotion is coming from (or isn’t) and adjust accordingly.

If a girl sees a snail on the way to school every day, and one day the snail is dead and the girl is upset, will the reader be upset too?


If the girl is bullied at school and ignored by busy parents, and uses the snail to confide in, telling it her fears and worries, even though the snail doesn’t respond in any way, when it dies will her anguish be felt by the reader now?

If the snail is killed by the school bully who drops a brick on it, can I switch sadness into rage?

If she takes the snail home and the mother is disgusted and throws it over the garden wall, and the girl retaliates by taking the mother’s pearl necklace and flushing it down the toilet, can I create sympathy for the girl? The mother? The snail?

Any given situation can be turned in any given direction emotionally if you understand the link between what people do and what they feel. How well it works is a matter of skill, but the emotion in the reader is waiting to be turned on. You just have to decide which switch you want to flick.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like your suggestions for the different directions emotion can take depending on what happens.
And I'd feel sorry for the snail.

mooderino said...

@Alex - just trying to show how upset the girl happens to be is not necessarily the defining feature in terms of how the readers react.

Nick Wilford said...

Lots to think about here. The interesting thing is not every reader will react the same no matter what you do, there's only so far you can try to tune things and then it's out of your hands.

Al Diaz said...

Ah, the terrible things that can happen to a snail for the sake of reader's emotions. (Quite useful)

Lynn Proctor said...

i think when we write it honestly even when it's fiction, it will touch those who want to be touched

L said...

Emotion is a bit like beauty - in the eye of the beholder.

mooderino said...

@Nick - that's true, but I think there are ways to make it easier for readers to get what you want them to get.

@Al Diaz - and then they get eaten. Not an easy life.

@Lynn - they say sincerity is the important thing. Once you can fake that...

@L - to some extent, but there are some kinds of beauty pretty much everyone can see. There's no harm in learning basic technique.

Margot said...

I always learn so much as I go out visiting in A-Z land. Thanks for sharing about the use of emotion. I've yet to try and write characters but I have inkling of a story idea that I my have to try to do for the next Nanowrimo. I have a lot to learn about character development between now and November.

Have a great A-Z, I enjoyed your post.

Margot at A Devotional Mosaic and Spark My Creativity

Kirsty said...

I am an emotionally reader and agree with the part about overlooking any negative aspects if it makes me feel strongly enough.

I do feel sorry for that snail and the girl but not the ones that ate my lovely sunflower last year.

Heidi Mannan said...

So very true! If there's nothing, or no one, to care about, why bother?

mooderino said...

@Margot - most people have an innate sense of story, so start writing asap!

@Kirsty - snails gotta eat.

@Heidi - well, there is intellectual curiosity, but oh those feels.

Eden Ashley said...

Mirroring emotions from character to reader is definitely the simpler way. The juxtaposition takes a little more skill, one I hope to get a better handle on with practice. Thank you for such an--for lack of better word--illuminous article.

Julie Daines said...

Very interesting and thought provoking! I might have to read this post again to let it all sink in.

Donna Shields said...

Great suggestions. Its opened my eyes more.

Unknown said...

Poor snail, so much controversy and danger... retweeted, great post!

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. And poor snail.

Unknown said...

Great post, I am following from blogging A to Z. I just added you on GFC.


Sonnia J. Kemmer said...

Great post. I'm your newest follower.

From A to Z Challenge,
Sonnia J. Kemmer

Shannon Lawrence said...

Getting to people's emotions is important, I think. At the same time, I try to avoid "emotional blackmail" or using emotions to trick people.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse

mooderino said...

@Eden - a good juxtaposition can work wonders.

@Julie - hope it still makes sense on the second reading.

@Donna - glad to help.

@J Keith - thanks for the RT.

@Kimmy - thanks for dropping by, followed you back.

@Christine - snails are people too.

@Sonnia - And I'm yours.

@Shannon - with great power...

Carol Bodensteiner said...

My emotions are easily triggered but I hadn't thought to parse out the sequence of steps/events the author may have taken to get me there. Thought provoking. Thanks.

D.E. Malone said...

Excellent post. New follower!

Sandra Tyler said...

So true. And the emotionally invested is most memorable.

mooderino said...

@Carol - Pleasure.

@Dawn - Cheers.

@Sandra - not necessarily the only way, but one of the most effective.

Border-breaking bound said...

Great analogy with the snail, it really gave me a fresh perspective on how to approach things from different angles!

Unknown said...

love the post and the examples.

mooderino said...

@Border - slow and steady wins the race.

@Wicked - cheers.

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