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Guiding the Reader Emotionally

I’ve done a lot of emotion-centered posts in the last week or so, and that’s because I am coming around, more and more, to the idea that the reader’s feelings are paramount in writing good fiction. If you can’t make the reader feel (this comes in large part from first being able to deeply feel your own story), then you are sunk. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t novels, per se, they are 400 solid pages of feelings (longing, in the same of Twilight, desire/curiosity/revulsion in the case of Shades). For me, both of them sunk their hooks into me (and about 40 million other people) so deep that I would constantly look up from the books, thinking, “This is such crap…and I can’t stop reading it!” Why? Feelings.

This brings me to today’s point: You are the curator of your reader’s feelings. How do you cue your reader’s emotions? With your characters’. Via their Interiority (thoughts, reactions), you lead your reader’s own thoughts, reactions, and feelings along the path of story that you’ve constructed.

A big pet peeve–and what inspired this post–is a character saying “I didn’t know how to feel right then” (or the equivalent). This is a cop-out. Guide the reader. Sure, “not knowing how to feel” or “feeling lost” is a valid emotion, but it’s a missed opportunity if you lean on it too hard. Instead, conjure up two or three really specific feelings that, when mixed together, convey a sense of being lost without ever dropping the emotional ball for your reader. Always be guiding them, and always keep in mind the emotions you are creating from moment to moment and scene to scene.

Does this make you feel like a puppet master? Good! That’s called “writing.”

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  1. Curtis Stafford’s avatar

    I definitely concur. Many fantasy fans (including myself) felt the Sword of Truth series was heavily derivative of Jordan’s Wheel of TIme but it was wildly popular because of the primeval emotions evoked, even I admit grudgingly.

  2. Amelia Kynaston’s avatar

    Do you think it differs for the male audience? Just curious. Do you see the “hooks sink in” the same way among the young men as it does among the young women who are reading emotional characters?

  3. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    As always, a direct hit on the bullseye with your example. “I don’t know how to feel” is indeed a missed opportunity. The character *is* feeling something–confused, persecuted, conflicted, pressured. It depends on the context.

    Now, if the character says out loud to other characters, “I don’t know how to feel right now,” that’s maybe a different thing. In some situations, that ratchets up emotional tension in a scene because the character is holding back, or challenging someone else, or veiling other emotions behind a verbal smoke screen.

    And this is why revision is so important. So much of weak writing is actually missed opportunity for strong writing.

  4. Cara M.’s avatar

    I’ve found that any “I didn’t know..my own mind” moments are very dangerous. “I didn’t know what to do,” kills the agency and the forward momentum. “I didn’t know what to say,” .. and then the character says something – means the author was filling time before she figured out how to put it. And of course “I didn’t know how to feel or what to think,” is a cliche meaning ‘I was lost or confused.’ Since all of these have been recently pointed out in my own writing, I’m reminded of the instruction that is said to be given to improv actors – say yes. Never reject interaction, always respond. Respond. Never say you don’t know what to do.

    it seems like good advice for characters too.

  5. Franziska’s avatar

    But those books/writers then must surely be good at writing/expressing emotion for them to be so addictive? I haven’t read either but I would love to know if that’s the case. Do they portray the characters’ feelings well?

  6. Curtis Stafford’s avatar

    In the case of Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, yes he connected with emotions very well – and he was a male writer. (by the way of clarification, since this is a kidlit blog, many readers of Goodkind and Jordan were young adults even though the books are not marketed that way.

  7. Connie B. Dowell’s avatar

    I’ll admit, in the very beginning of Twilight I too was thinking “This is such crap…and I can’t stop reading it!” But I’m afraid after I read the 100th “perfect face,” a phrase I’d been struggling to ignore the whole time, I just laughed and laughed. It was over for me. Emotions just can’t cover all sins.

  8. Dale’s avatar

    Mary, I think this is a very subjective thing and really a matter of taste. What connects one person emotionally doesn’t connect another. Some people were gripped by Twilight, others were left scratching their heads. Same thing with 50 Shades. I read Wonder and really connected to it, but a good friend did not. You liked “How to Say Goodbye in Robot” and I was bored.

    So, Mary, what’s the real secret sauce?

    Making the reader feel is all well and good, but what does it mean in a practical way? It’s like saying “make sure you write a good book.”

  9. Carolyn’s avatar

    A good friend of mine bought Twilight at the beginning of the mania. She described it as, “The worst book I couldn’t put down.”

    I haven’t read it, but my guess is that’s a pretty damn good description.

  10. Kari Cowman’s avatar

    The advice is wonderful as always! Do experts still recommend limiting or even eliminating adjectives in young children’s literature? Tricky to apply feelings without adjectives. Do the illustrations convey the feelings in those cases? Did I get bum advice before? No answer required, just reflecting…

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