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.