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A Writer’s Main Objective

This post will be a short one but it strikes at, I think, the very heart of fiction. What is your number one objective as a writer?

To make your reader feel.

Whenever I speak about queries at conferences, I always have one request: Make me care. This is the same idea. I want to feel my interest piqued with the query. I want to feel something, even if it’s just a stirring of feeling or concern or nervousness or longing. Most queries fail to elicit even one feeling (other than boredom).

The manuscript itself, however, has to do much more than just make a reader care (though that’s an excellent starting point, and it will set you apart from most readers). When your character  — who is the focal point of our feelings and our gateway into the story — feels hurt, the reader should ache. When they fall in love, the reader should feel her heart quicken. When they think all is lost, the reader should reach for the Ben & Jerry’s.

If you’re not going to be manipulating your reader’s emotions and taking your audience on a journey of feelings, thoughts, and realizations, what’s the point?

How do you make your readers feel emotion? You do it through crafting a character with feelings and goals, and also by knowing your own feelings. At the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency I attended this July in Vermont, COUNTDOWN author and master writer Deborah Wiles said the following:

Allow your character’s heart to break. How? Know thyself. Feel what you feel. Allow yourself your heartache. Share it with your character. Heal together.

As your character encounters a thrilling roller coast of emotional ups and downs, of victories and disappointments, you must always be thinking of their emotions. How are they reacting to this event? How are they interpreting it? What is the emotional context? Where do they think they go from here? Use your character’s interiority.

More importantly, use your own emotions and thoughts as guides for what your character is going through. That will lend your writing truth. Pour your heart out a little bit. Always think of the character’s feelings (usually a version of your own) and the feelings you want to evoke in the reader.

Readers expect to pick up a book and be transported and transformed, not only to another world or time or unique point of view, but to emotional places own hearts, minds, and lives.

Last week, I watched The Notebook for the first time, just because it was so wildly popular and I wanted to see how it was put together. (I didn’t much care for it but that’s beside the point.) Has anyone ever recommended this particular movie to you? If you’re a woman and you have girlfriends that are crazy about it, what did they say to convince you to watch?

I bet it wasn’t, “You’ll really love the dialogue” or, “You should see how the filmmakers introduce the complication of the rich fiancé.” It could just be my own experience here, but the only thing anyone ever told me about The Notebook (and this came from about ten different people) is:

“It will make you cry your face off.”*

Readers couldn’t care less about the craft and framework behind a tale when emotions are in the mix. (You, of course, have to care very much about it, as the writer, but that’s another story.)

Emotion is going to be your reader’s biggest takeaway…and their biggest expectation when they’re considering reading a book. And if you do it right — if you write a book that’s not only cathartic for your character and your reader but for you, too — you will definitely give your readers a journey they won’t forget.

* My eyes stayed dry and my face intact, unfortunately. Incidentally, some things that do make me cry: Swing Kids, Titanic, the second half of the BBC Office Christmas special, the last scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (happy tears), “Levon” by Elton John, BEFORE I DIE by Jenny Downham, IF I STAY by Gayle Forman, LOVE, AUBREY by Suzanne LaFleur, WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the scene with Harry’s family near the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, etc.

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  1. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    Lovely post, Mary. Very helpful as I work on MG revisions. (And I wouldn’t peg you as someone who would like The Notebook….so no surprise there.)

  2. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    LOVE this! I’m so with you on this one. Gosh, if I love the characters to the point where I’m crying and laughing with them. The book is a winner in my eyes.

    Spot on!!!

  3. Stephanie Garber’s avatar

    Very well put, Mary! I couldn’t agree with you more!

    I remember when I read Scott Westerfeld’s Specials there was one part of that book where I cried so hard. It was in that moment that I knew I wanted to be a writer, because I wanted to make people feel like that… not necessarily cry, but care so much about a character that if the situation were right they would cry.

  4. Julie Daines’s avatar

    This is wonderful stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about story-versus-writing, and which one draws the reader in better. Obviously both are important, but I find I can more easily forgive sub-par writing if the story is compelling and makes me feel, and I’m less forgiving of beautiful language with a lame plot.

  5. Amber McPhee’s avatar

    Yes, I enjoyed this post too. I was trying to pin-point what exactly is was about the story that I’m reading currently that makes me read on. I mean, jealousy is a pretty ugly emotion, and yet I still care for the main character despite how green with envy she is. This post points that out what hooks me, it’s relatable–her goals are clear and admirable, and when she suffers I feel it too–I feel so jealous of that other character in this story, LOL.

    Thanks for the read, Mary.

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    “Most queries fail to elicit even one feeling (other than boredom).” Ouch. There was no character in this blog post, but you still made me feel!!

    Great info. This is what makes me wonder, though, whether people who have experienced great pain/joy/frustration are inherently better at portraying those emotions in their characters. Being able to empathize with others will obviously help a great deal if you’re writing about an emotion/event you haven’t experienced yourself, but could you do it full justice? I know there are some great examples of writers who’ve managed it, but I wonder if they’re using some similar experience to get into their character’s head.

  7. Rebecca C.’s avatar

    Thank you so much for this post. This puts it all into perspective. This is WHY we’re writing.

    PS – Titanic makes me bawl my face off. The Notebook, a little teary, but Titanic… oh gawd.

  8. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Timely, as usual, Mary. As I revise other aspects of my manuscript, I keep looking for places for interiority (even put a Post-It note up at my desk in response to your interiority post). And it should be about emotion, shouldn’t it? Thank you.

    IF I STAY…I’m usually not a big crier, but I couldn’t freaking read the pages because I was crying so hard on that one. Talk about compelling emotion.

  9. Tracy Sottosanti’s avatar

    Thanks Mary! This is a good point to never lose sight of.

    And I think this is exactly why people usually say “The book was so much better than the movie!” There’s more opportunity in the book to make a reader ‘feel’.

    I get to write a character, not just on the outside like in a movie, but also on the inside (interiority), which can lead readers to have much more of an emotional investment in the character and in the story.

  10. Grmarlow’s avatar

    Over the Labor Day weekend, I picked up the first draft of something I wrote over a year ago and haven’t touched since. I kept having these intense emotional responses to what I was reading, really identifying with the character, and I thought I was too much in love with my own writing. But your post gives me hope! Now to finish those last three chapters and get the draft to my first reader to see if she agrees – or if I was on a wacky hormone trip, lol.

  11. Sally’s avatar

    Thanks so much…I want to say – where have you been all my life??? I just found your wonderful, helpful and easy to read blog. Thanks for the kick in the pants too :)

  12. Ari’s avatar

    Excellent point!
    It’s something that I constantly think about. There are just so many writers out there, so many novels, but you have to stand out; an important way of doing that is leaving an impression on the readers. And I think that’s done through evoking emotions, making them care and have compelling characters/story.

    Pity that you didn’t cry in the Notebook! I think I cried more in that than Titanic. I was really steeling myself for Titanic, and I’m normally a huge crybaby. I did cry at the end though.

  13. Adele Richards’s avatar

    You are a gem! Thank you so much for this post. I am sad to report that I teared up at ‘Happy Feet’ when the kids were watching it this weekend. I think I need a holiday….

  14. Carolyn’s avatar

    Awesome post, Mary! BTW – your voice now lives inside my head, and gave me one hell of a lecture the other day about a scene that kind of curled up and died at the end of it. “BO-RING!” said the Inner Voice Mary. IVM went on to talk about interiority, while making some excellent points. I, of course, rewrote the scene with IVM’s notes in mind. It’s better…still needs to be bigger, though…

  15. Jackson MacKenzie’s avatar

    Thank you so much for this! Really helpful post. I actually rewrote a chapter with this advice in mind. Emotion matters, and it seems to be very difficult with a young male MC.

    PS, The Notebook was wonderful and I cried my face off too :)

  16. Steph Sinkhorn’s avatar

    Ugh, The Notebook. I am a Notebook Scrooge. But I can most definitely see how it’s emotional ups and downs are attractive to its fans.

    Now, you give me a family reunited after a terrible ordeal, and I am a puddle of sobs.

  17. Karenof4’s avatar

    Ironic I read your post today. I’m still very much learning the craft and just a few hours ago, after reading a bunch of flash fiction, I realized that those that held my interest, made me feel something in less than 200 words. I decided I must work on feeling!

    Also, the Notebook. I had the same experience. Friends & reviews RAVING about it. I watched it expecting something emotional and great. I finished with dry eyes wondering if I had missed something important. Thought that I had perhaps fallen asleep. It was a good story, but it wasn’t moving for ME.

  18. Amelia Kynaston’s avatar

    First book I remember crying my eyes out: Bridge to Teribithia. Last time I cried my eyes out: Toy Story 3. The Notebook? I think I rolled my eyes a few times.

    Thanks for the post.

  19. Phillip A. Ellis’s avatar

    The same applies to poetry as well: what matters is the emotional content, how it feels to experience, see or think what the words say.

    It helps to remember that words don’t only have the dictionary meaning, the denotation, they also have their emotional meanings, their connotations, as part of the package, so that when we select the exact word for our writing we have to be aware of both types of meaning.

  20. Jade’s avatar

    Man, how did I miss this post?

    I read a lot of different books, but the those that I remember are the ones that made me feel. I swear my heart breaks simply by looking at a copy of Before I Fall. While I can enjoy a book without emotion, I certainly don’t connect with it.

    I think I might be one of the few people in the world who hasn’t seen The Notebook. I’m okay with that.

    Great post!

  21. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    Speaking of crying, I’ve written an 8,000 word (I want it to be published as a gift book) story which, EVERY time I tell about it to someone, I really blubber.

  22. Bonnie Chiantera’s avatar

    I loved reading this blog on “Emotion”. I find that if I cannot connect with the author’s story in an emotional way, I put it down. THE NOTEBOOK did nothing for me either, but you might want to try some other books by Nicholas Sparks… he is a local NC boy and some of them are really “teary”. Right now my “inner goddess” is taking me through “the trilogy”, so talking about emotion, OMG!!!!

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