Emotion: How to Get it Working for You
by Steve Hooley
We all learned how to “set off” friends or siblings as a child. If we were the eldest sibling, we quickly learned how to manipulate younger siblings to flare their temper, get them in trouble, then watch in amusement as they became truly infuriated for the injustice of being blamed for something we engineered.
If we were the youngest, we instinctively learned how to get an older sibling to hit us. We then shouted to a parent with exaggerated pain, and watched with glee as the older sibling received their just rewards.
And then, we grew up and learned to behave as adults…until we joined the work force and saw the office curmudgeon blame everyone else for mistakes, or the ladder-climber take credit for everyone’s successes.
Now, as writers, we need to take those lessons from childhood and the office drama, dust them off, and add them to our arsenal or toolbox of skills for controlling emotions – in our characters and, even more importantly, in our readers.
Why? Because we are told that emotion is the glue that connects our readers to our books.
Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain, p. 41: “How do you make readers care about what happens in your story? They must care, you know. Otherwise they won’t read!…A story recounts events. But those events can’t or won’t stand alone. They need to be explained, interpreted, evaluated, made meaningful. Above all, they must be translated into feeling.”
So, what are the techniques used to create emotion in our readers? That’s a big question and a big topic. As I reviewed multiple books, I found multiple opinions. Broadly, I found two basic approaches taught:
- Creating emotion in the characters with which the reader can identify.
- Creating “big emotional experiences (for the reader), engineered by circumstances.” Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, 132.
Maass divides #1 (above) into two subcategories: showing and telling. Telling, where the writer goes “inside the mind and heart of a character to observe and feel story events just as that character does.” And showing, where the writer “puts the reader through a character’s experience, provoking emotions in the readers; don’t spoon-feed them emotions.” pp. 1,2.
So, actually, we have three basic approaches.
Maass goes on to explain category #2 (above) by writing, “Fiction writers are asking the wrong question. Showing and telling are fine as far as they go, but the emotional experience of readers has little to do with that. The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?” pp. 2
In reality, hopefully, we can learn from all three approaches, find what works for us, and blend them into our own unique brew to get readers drunk on our book.
Under category #1 above, James Scott Bell discusses ways to create an emotional bond between our reader and our lead character using “four dynamics—identification, sympathy, likability, and inner conflict.” (Read more in Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell, pp. 64 – 68.)
- Identification: “…the more the reader can identify with the lead, the greater the intensity of the plot experience…”
- Sympathy: “In contrast to mere empathy, sympathy intensifies the reader’s emotional investment in the Lead.”
- Likability: “…someone who does likable things…not selfish…people we like to be around.”
- Inner Conflict: “Bringing your Lead’s doubts to the surface in your plot pulls the reader deeper into the story.”
Under category #1 (telling), Jodie Renner discusses getting it right, in Chapter 4, “Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions,” Fire Up Your Fiction. “Readers want to escape into your story world…and vicariously experience what your protagonist is experiencing…If your character’s reactions feel natural and believable to the reader, they will quickly suspend disbelief and become emotionally invested.”
Jodie quotes Jack Bickham and reviews the “stages of response.” (pp. 18 – 22, Fire Up Your Fiction) First show the stimulus, then show the reactions in their natural order:
- Visceral response
- Unconscious knee-jerk physical action
- Thought process
- Conscious action
It’s not necessary to show all the reactions, but get them in the right order.
Okay, there’s the outline of three approaches. Now it’s your turn. I did this mini-study because there is so much I need to learn. I hope you will share what you have learned and fill in the specifics.
- What other approaches should we add to the outline?
- What works for you?
- What techniques have you discovered to turn up the volume and intensity of the emotional response of your readers?
We all want to use our books to control the hearts and minds of our readers, to stir their emotions, and to keep them reading into the wee hours of the morning?
Please share your knowledge!