I’m admittedly not a very emotional person. Even when I feel deeply about something, it takes a lot to move me to tears. I can count on my fingers the stories that have made me cry. Part of this is just my emotional makeup, but part of it is also because I realize the special power tears have. The stories that have pulled me so far out of myself that I’ve closed the cover feeling emotionally scarred—those are the stories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. The comedies and the fluffy chick flicks are quickly forgotten; only the stories that have given me the gift of my own tears, that have connected with me on a primal level, that have made me feel to the utmost the pain and joy and sorrow of our crazy human lives, only these stories can claim a special place as catalysts in my life.
A saw in the advertising world proclaims, “If they cry, they buy!” Why is this? Why is it that deep emotion solidifies stories and grants them that brilliant realism? And what’s the secret recipe for achieving this same effect in our own stories?
Emotional responses, like all of fiction, are subjective. Due to our distinctive psychological makeups and the varied influencing factors of our individual lives, we each react differently to emotional stimuli. We can never expect to tap into the tears of every single person who reads our fiction. But if you can figure out what it is that makes one person—yourself—emotionally responsive, you can likely tap into a universal reaction.
So ask yourself, what characters, actions, and themes affect you most strongly? What are the books and movies that have left the greatest impact on you? What is it about them that you found particularly moving? After spending this past week making my own lists in answer to these questions and querying others about their responses, I’ve come to the following revelations about injecting emotion into fiction and, in turn, eliciting it from readers:
- Tragedy for the sake of tragedy isn’t enough. In the July 2009 issue of The Writer, Jill Dearman pointed out that:
One of the biggest issues I deal with from my clients is the “So what?” factor. The idea is good. Check! The form is clever or classic. Check! But so what? What the reader needs is emotional and mental engagement with the work—exactly what writers must conjure up during the writing process.
- Readers often feel the grief of the other characters more keenly than their own. The fictional deaths that have affected me most are those not only of characters I loved myself, but particularly of characters who were loved by other characters. When I asked my critters if they were affected by the death of an important character in my fantasy Dreamers Come, their almost universal response surprised me. They said they grieved most strongly for the characters who remained alive rather than for the character who died.
- Conflict in relationships can magnify loss. In expanding upon the previous point, I also realized that sometimes the most poignant separations, in fiction as in life, are those that are either preceded or caused by misunderstanding. We grieve all the more for a death if the characters cared deeply about each other but were at odds and unable to put the relationship back to rights before it was torn apart forever.
- Deliberate action by a character, leading to his own suffering, for the benefit of others is extremely powerful. Speaking for myself, the single most gut-wrenching thematic element in any story is self-sacrifice. When characters make the “hard right choice,” when they deliberately surrender their own happiness, well-being, or even their very lives for the sake of someone else or a greater cause—nothing moves me more deeply. And judging from the responses I received from others over the course of this week’s research, I’m not the only one who feels this. Making characters suffer is one thing; making them choose to suffer because it’s the right thing to do is another plane altogether.
- Emotional honesty is the key. Although I could probably go on about this subject at length without exhausting its possibilities, I will end with the final thought that in eliciting any emotion, honesty is the single greatest factor in resonating with readers. In a response to a comment I left this week on her blog RX: Hope, novelist Candace Calvert said it as well as anyone:
…it… boil[s] down to having the courage to be honest. To dig deep for the emotion, risk being vulnerable: and share it with our readers. As a reader, I’m most impressed with an author who creates flawed, human, heart-on-their-sleeves characters that make me think: “Omigoodness, she’s writing about ME!” We all want to feel understood, connected. I think that’s what we must strive for as authors, to offer that blessing as best we can.
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For those of you who prefer to listen to the blog’s installments rather than read them, you can do so by subscribe to the podcast version by clicking the Wordplay Podcast icon in the sidebar or by signing up on iTunes to download the recording on your Mp3 player. We had a few technical difficulties with our first podcast last week, which prevented some of you from downloading the program. Apparently, uploads conducted through Mozilla Firefox aren’t always available to download in other browsers. So I’ve uploaded this week’s episode through Internet Explorer, which will hopefully solve the problem. My thanks to Jacob Parker for pointing this out to me.
Story by K.M. Weiland