What’s the big deal?
Why should I care?
You think you’re the only one asking those questions?
Think again, every time a reader picks up a book that’s what’s
in the back of their minds. As the writer it is your job to make sure
the answers are on the page because that is what keeps them turning.
Think of it like this: if you’re at a party and
someone starts to tell you a story you don’t care anything about,
what do you do? Yeah…you either make an excuse to walk away
or you tune them out, making meaningless sounds of acknowledgement
from time to time to make it seem like you’re actually listening.
Readers are the same way. If they don’t care they don’t
keep reading (unless it is school work…then they get the cliff
notes and read those).
Face it, you need the reader to CARE, and since we relate
to the world through our emotions that means there needs to be some
emotional connection made between the reader and what is happening
on the page.
Sometimes excitement will do it on its own, but not
for long. You can’t really maintain constant action in a story
without losing…well…the story, and the reader for that
So, how do you inspire an emotional connection without
giving a running commentary on how each character feels? Glad you
Visible Physical Cues
Yeah…you’ve heard it before: “Show,
don’t Tell.” It is the easiest, least obtrusive way to
inspire a response in your reader because it draws on their own experiences
to provide the content that connects with the physical effects of
emotion…the shudder, the clench, the frown, etc. For example:
Tammy was angry.
Simple enough. Definitely clear. But lacking something.
To what degree was she angry? How did she respond to the feeling?
How did she express it?
Tammy’s lips pursed and her forehead tightened
in a scowl. She glanced away, not meeting his eye as a muscle in her
See, the first example gives us information, but it’s
flat, there is no dimension to it. Whereas the second example resonates;
it calls up memories of how the reader might have felt faced with
a like situation, when they may have reacted in ways similar to the
character. There is an intensity to such memories that transcends
a mere statement of fact.
Most people reveal emotions by what they do before they
even say a word, in fact, often the physical cues are more honest
and informative than anything they tell you. Not because everyone
is dishonest, but because we typically grow up with two understandings:
emotions are vulnerability, and emotional displays are impolite. Because
of these we don’t always let our emotions loose. (Yes, I know,
this doesn’t go for everybody. Some people thrive on emotional
displays. But it’s true enough.) Because of this, we have learned
to put more faith in the physical signs of feeling, those unconscious,
sometimes uncontrollable indicators. In gambling they call it a “tell”.
Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes subtle.
Since this is the way we interact with our world and
gauge our encounters with others, employing that in our writing establishes
a connection between the reader and the characters.
Emotions are messy.
(Yeah…tell you something you didn’t know,
Because of that, for various reasons, we internalize
a lot of how we feel. Repression has become quite acceptable when
applied to emotions. With that in mind you can set the tone for your
reader by addressing the emotional and related physiological responses
a character may have to a situation in the narrative or the inner
monologue, writing in such a way that it is clear the character is
aware of the reaction, but those they are sharing the scene with are
not. For example:
Carl smiled. “You’ll do it. You have no
Tammy stared at him a moment. “No, I don’t think so.”
Without another word she turned and walked away.
There really aren’t any emotions in this exchange.
A smile is an action that could have many different emotional motivators.
This is statement of facts and actions with no clues as to what the
characters are feeling or how the reader should feel about them. Let’s
give it another go:
Carl smirked. “You’ll do it. You have no
Tammy felt a sharp jab deep in her gut, brutal and cold. Swallowing
a gasp, she locked down her expression, refusing to let her features
betray her as he just had. “No, I don’t think so,”
she answered, her tone deceptively calm. Despite the cold tinges running
the length of her body, threatening to grow into uncontrollable shudders,
she silently turned and walked away, holding her heartache deep inside
until she reached the privacy of her room.
Thanks to Tammy’s internalized responses we know
how to react to the scene and we also know that Carl is not aware
of the emotion he has inspired in her. Maybe he suspects, or maybe
he assumes, but he doesn’t know, which sets the tone
for the encounter and the relationship between these two characters.
Can’t you just hear the reader asking what’s
the deal? Where is this going? People respond to emotion. True…in
their own way, colored by their own experiences, so you can’t
really predict what reaction the reader will have absolutely, but
there are some universals that you can be reasonably sure with resonate
with the reader, particularly the physiological responses to emotion,
if not what inspires said emotions.
Don’t be afraid to get into the character’s
head—and heart—and give the reader a peek.
In fiction, characters are not the only ones with emotions,
sometimes writers need to set a scene, they need to build a tone that
will culminate somewhere down the line. Because of this we need to
be aware of the emotional impact of words and descriptions that motivate
responses, rather than just describing them. Mostly this deals with
building some sort of tension or mood in a scene that puts the reader
in the right mindset or emotional state for the pending action.
For example, a character moving from one place to another
can be a simple statement of fact, an action completed and nothing
more, such as:
Chrissy stood in the doorway. Anthony moved across the
Or an act can be a part of the emotional climate:
Chrissy stood in the doorway, her face pale and her
dress torn. Frowning, Anthony hurried across the room.
This is a simple adjustment that layers the detail and
implies the emotion, rather than putting it right out there. The reader—drawing
on their own inherent responses—has to interpret the actions
and events based on the cues you provide and the context surrounding
them. Not only does that draw the reader in and help provide them
with the “why” behind the “what” but it also
further immerses them into the story, connecting them to it almost
without them realizing it.
The Roles of Emotions
Emotions are a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox,
adding depth and impact to any prose, particularly if properly utilized.
Keep in mind that there are subtly different roles that feelings can
play in a story.
Communicate – emotions and how characters react
to them tell the reader and other characters about their personality,
their character, and motivation.
Relate – emotions provide—with hope—a
common ground and a basis for understanding.
Affect – emotions draw a response from others,
sometimes predictable, sometimes not, often changing the course of
Manipulate – emotions, in the wrong hands can
be tools or weapons, putting pressure on characters to change their
stance or act against their nature.
As both readers and individuals we are often left wondering. That’s
frustrating in life. In fiction it is extremely dissatisfying. Let’s
assume we don’t have much choice about life; the book, however,
we can put down and forget it ever existed.
What you need to remember is that the reader isn’t
the one the character is trying to hide from, so keep that in mind
as you are writing. Share with the reader, give them a glimpse of
what’s going on inside. They will love (or hate) your characters
for it even more. But most important of all, they will care.
If you leave too much for the reader to infer or figure
out on their own you are relinquishing way too much control over your
story. Tug here, jerk there…guide them through the world you
have created and inspire them to see it from your perspective, through
your emotional filters, or you never know what they will get out of
the story…if they even finish it.