Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I wrote an article on the importance of creating emotions in readers, but I’ve noticed that writers are looking for specifics on how to accomplish that. So, this article complements that first one, presents practical tips on how to stir the reader’s emotions.
Readers like to be touched, moved, by story. They like to imagine themselves in worlds and situations that challenge them, that give them opportunity to do and be something other than what they do or are in their real lives.
Fiction, whether in book or film or games, allows people to not only step into other worlds, but to experience those worlds. To do what they can’t in the course of a normal day. To feel beyond their normal feelings.
Since readers want to immerse themselves in other worlds and other lives, what can writers do to make that experience authentic, to make the fictional world real for a few hours?
One technique the writer can make use of to create reality out of fiction is to induce emotion in readers, make them feel something of what the characters are experiencing. Writer and reader know the fictional events aren’t real, but the emotion can be. Readers can fear and feel joy and be excited and know grief. They can laugh and cry, shiver and rage. All from reading a story.
But how can a writer accomplish this? How does a writer make readers feel emotion?
1. Write in scenes, showing rather than telling. That is, don’t report that a character is afraid or giddy or grieving. Show the results of character emotions through the character’s actions. Show what fear or giddiness or grief does to him. Character action and response is a good place to focus.
This is a major key for rousing reader emotions. No one gets emotional over a report. They do get emotional when they can step into someone’s shoes and experience his or her feelings as if those feelings were churning inside them.
Delores was afraid to open the door to the basement steps. She stood at the far side of the kitchen, debating what to do.
Delores’s hand trembled as she reached for the locked doorknob. Tom had warned her not to open the basement door when he wasn’t around, but he was due home soon, so what could happen? She bit her lip and tightened her fingers around the cold knob. A shiver shook her. She inhaled only a shallow breath and then struggled for another.
And nearly shot through the ceiling when the microwave dinged, letting her know her tea was hot.
2. Make a character sympathetic, so the reader identifies with her.
If the reader can identify with a character—with her dreams or habits or choices—he can also identify with her emotions—pains and joys and sorrows. (Readers can also identify with the shared human condition, so sometimes a particular situation will resonate with readers even before the character becomes involved.)
Make sure the reader knows/understands/identifies with the character before trying to connect emotionally. The reader won’t be affected by a character’s deep emotions on page one, simply because he has no ties to the character. By chapter three, if you’ve put the reader in the character’s place in the story, what touches the character can touch the reader. By the novel’s climax, the reader should so identify with the lead character that the character’s pain becomes the reader’s pain, his triumphs, the reader’s triumphs. The reader may have a physical response—laughter or tears or shivers—as if whatever happened to the character had actually happened to the reader.
You know how this plays out in your own life. A death reported on the nightly news means one thing when it’s a stranger and something totally different when it’s someone you know or a relative of someone you know.
Help your readers know your characters.
Make your character believable and sympathetic so the reader wants to be that character, wants to go through everything he goes through for the length of the story.
3. Make a character unsympathetic, so the reader feels anger or repugnance toward him.
A character who is hated has already created an emotional response in your reader. I’m not talking caricature or stereotype here. I’m talking about creating a character who is soul ugly or evil or unfeeling, but one who belongs in one story and no other.
Your unsympathetic character might be no one of consequence in another book. But here, in this particular story, his actions/words are destructive to your protagonist or to someone close to him.
Cruel characters doing cruel things—cruel in the eyes of the protagonist or the reader—can affect the reader. If the character reacts to the cruelty, the reader can as well. Or, if the reader feels something because of what a cruel character does, you’ve already stirred his emotions.
If, however, your protagonist has no response to the cruel actions of another character, your readers may feel both bewildered and cheated. Show the reactions/response of characters to the actions of another character. Characters must do more than think about the evil of another character. They must have a response in terms of action and/or dialogue.
4. Don’t hold back. If you want to reach the reader’s emotions, you need to write emotion-evoking scenes. Killing or injuring a character’s child, pet, or loved one can touch the reader, if the reader has sufficient investment in the character.
If Sarah gets a phone call, with someone saying her son has died, readers won’t feel grief, even if you show Sarah grieving, unless you’ve created a tie between Sarah and the readers, unless you’ve prepared for the death ahead of time, showing Sarah’s love for her son, perhaps her fear for his life or her dreams for him.
If he’s never been mentioned and we don’t know how much he means to Sarah, an announcement of his death will have no emotional impact on the reader.
If, however, Sarah had been worried for his safety or has been sitting at his hospital bedside, the reader is connected both to Sarah and her son, and his death can shake up the reader.
Don’t be afraid of killing off someone close to your main characters or of taking away something else dear to them. If they are crushed, the reader can be as well. This is fiction; you’re not really hurting someone if you write them into a car accident.
Death or injury aren’t the only ways to hurt your characters. Misunderstanding, betrayal, and forced choices that hurt their friends are all ways to agitate characters. And when characters are agitated, readers can be as well.
5. Tease the reader with hints of what’s to come. You see this in romantic comedies, the backward and forward dance between a couple just falling in love. The tease, the delay, the anticipation makes the payoff dramatic and satisfying.
In mysteries and suspense, anticipation increases tension and therefore increases the emotional impact. Fear drawn out to just the right degree gives a satisfying snap when hell breaks loose.
6. Recognize that word choice can greatly affect reader emotions. Some words are triggers in themselves and can be used to set off the reader.
Putting an especially nasty cuss word in the mouth of a character who doesn’t curse can jolt the reader. It’s a strong signal that something is very wrong.
Verbs or nouns that are socially loathed or that remind readers of hated people or abhorrent practices can be used to instantly rouse the reader. Of course, you can’t use this technique too often because the reader will feel manipulated and feel anger toward you, the writer, rather than with a character or the story on the page. You can manipulate readers; you shouldn’t let them feel the manipulation.
Some words convey lightness or humor or passion. Other words have little emotional shading. Choose your words with their impact potential in mind.
Even common actions can be influenced by word choice. Do characters cross a room or lope or shuffle? Do they race across town or merely make their way through traffic? Do they demand or ask for something? Do they heave or lift or haul or pick up an object?
Know the power of word choice in eliciting emotions. Use words throughout a scene to express your exact meaning so a scene is cohesive and the emotion consistent. Don’t mix light and fluffy words into a dark, heavy scene unless you’re doing so for effect. That is, be aware of your word choices and what they can do to the scene and the overall tone of the story—increase tension because you choose the right word combinations or diffuse tension because you’ve used ill-matched words.
Note—Even though you want the words to create a tight scene, one with cohesion and consistency, this doesn’t mean that all characters in the scene will have the same agenda and speak to the same end. That is, you may have a character quite at odds with the other characters and what’s happening. Your antagonist may not care that he’s caused negative events in the protagonist’s life. He might not feel remorse or pain at what’s happened. And therefore he may talk at cross purposes with other characters. This, of course, creates a tension all its own and can set the reader on edge.
7. Create a situation that’s important, vital, or life altering, if not life threatening. Make sure there’s something at stake for the character, make sure his actions reflect the importance of this something, and make sure he tries to do something to change this intolerable dilemma. Produce in the reader both the emotion from the situation and the hope that the character can triumph.
8. Put your characters under time constraints to increase tension, to cause them to make decisions they might not ordinarily make, to set them—and the reader—on edge.
9. Force your character into making a decision between a bad choice and a worse choice. This kind of situation pulls the reader in whether he knows the reason for those bad choices or not. The reader feels for the character, for him having to make bad decisions that both character and reader know will cause even more problems.
10. Move the story. Don’t dwell so long on an event that the reader loses interest or the urgency wanes.
11. Write realistic scenes with realistic problems, problems that are conceivable for the characters and world you’ve created. Events, characters, and setting must be logical for your world. Don’t give your reader a reason to doubt the truth and possibilities of your story and story events. Don’t give them a push out of your fictional world.
12. Surprise the reader by turning the story in an unexpected direction. Keep the reader off balance, unsuspecting, so he can be blindsided and thus feel more unsettling emotions.
13. Write conflict into every scene. Conflict can be character to character, character to himself, character to events, and character to setting. An agitated character can pass that agitation to the reader.
14. Adjust the pace for the emotion you want to create. Use short sentences and paragraphs to speed the pace, to encourage suspense and fear. (Readers read faster and feel the story is moving at a faster pace when there’s more white space on a page.) Use longer phrases and paragraphs to slow the momentum, to ease off the forward rush, to create a sense of relaxation or calm.
15. Choose words with deliberation. Use harsh or sharp words for the harsher emotions, soft-sounding and soft-meaning words for gentle emotions. (Or, cross up your words and emotions to create confusion. But remember that you want the reader confused in the same way the characters are confused, not unable to follow what you’re saying.)
16. Reduce the use of unnecessary and unrelated detail to keep the focus on one emotion. Characters involved in chases don’t notice the flowers or the store fronts decorated for Christmas. Lovers in their first sex scene don’t notice every object in the room; they’re far more interested in one another.
Stay in the moment and only turn the reader’s attention to what’s important for this moment and this scene and the characters involved.
There are, of course, exceptions to this piece of advice. Yet, when you’re trying to build emotion, don’t dilute it or distract the reader with unrelated details. Use your details in other scenes, when it’s appropriate to introduce them.
Do use detail that will heighten emotion.
17. Use setting to influence the reader and deepen his emotional response. Paint your rooms, put sounds in your outdoor spaces, add smells to your attic. Imagine how these elements would influence your readers—dark rooms, dark colors, enclosed spaces, echoing spaces, wide-open fields, silence, the living room of a house where someone was murdered, the living room of the house owned by the lead character’s enemy, a courtroom, a boardroom, back stage during a concert, back stage three hours after the concert-goers have all gone home.
Play with setting so you put your characters in the best locale for each scene. Need to ramp up unease? Move the scene to a deserted office at night. Need something lighter than the bedside of a comatose patient? Take the scene to the hospital’s cafeteria. Or chapel. Or business office.
18. Use sense details to mire readers in the reality of the scene. What can the character hear and smell? What does a change in sound mean? What does the absence of sound mean for the character and the reader? When a character reaches into a dark hole and feels something brittle, does the reader break out in goose bumps? What if the character felt something soft and silky, something like springy curls? Does the reader’s pulse jump?
Play with all five senses to keep your readers involved, maybe off balance, but always interested in what’s coming next.
Use each of these methods, not just one, to raise an emotional response in your reader. Touch the reader often, noting that each scene doesn’t have to register higher on the emotional meter than the scene before. (Though emotions do rise through the climax, the rate of the climb isn’t consistent and emotional impact can be variable; both character and readers need variations in intensity. Downs are as important as ups.)
Don’t hesitate to mix emotions. A heroine in a suspense thriller can’t be frightened all the time. Use humor or lust or exasperation or anger or joy to change the type of tension for her and for the reader. Take the reader up and down and then up again. Readers like ups and downs, not a flat line of no emotion, of zero affect. Keep the reader engaged by making her feel. Stir up your readers.
Tap into emotions to give your readers a read that satisfies on all levels.