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How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness”

evoke readers emotionsHave you ever read a book for a second, third, even tenth time—just to experience the emotion the story evokes? Clearly the elements of the story aren’t a surprise. You know exactly what to expect. If so, you were benefiting from an author who knew how to evoke reader emotions.

Literary agent Donald Maass says that emotions are most effectively evoked by trickery–when readers aren’t noticing we are manipulating them. He says:

Artful fiction surprises readers with their own feelings.

I can honestly say that, as a reader, the best novels do just that. They evoke such emotions from me—unexpected emotions—that I am stunned by my own reactions.

We writers want to evoke emotion throughout our novels—big, small, expected, and unexpected—so that even when readers know what emotion is being stirred in them, when they see what’s coming, it doesn’t reduce the impact.

The Net of “Surprisingness”

C.S. Lewis said people go back and reread certain stories over and over not to be surprised (because the reader already knows what is going to happen) but for the “surprisingness.” It’s the quality of unexpectedness that delights us, just as it does children who want the same story read over and over. The fact that children know what is about to happen only makes them more excited. Like children, we savor the richness of a story again and again.


Lewis calls the plot of the story “the net whereby to catch something else.” That“something” is what he refers to as “much more than a state or quality.” Real life, he says, is a series of events, but if that is all it is, there is no deeper meaning or feeling of adventure. That net of the story, for a little while, transcends us and entangles us in the wonder and awe of living. That is what Lewis says the best stories will do.

When we can catch readers in a net of emotions—especially unexpected and surprising ones—that’s powerful magic.

Research shows when someone is surprised, dopamine increases and emotions intensify up to 400%. Heightened attention ensues, as does extreme curiosity, in an attempt to figure out what is happening.

Surprise also causes a shift. It forces a change in perspective. Your reader becomes hyper-alert, curious, in the moment, a perfect state for receiving the unexpected emotion.

How to Evoke Reader Emotions That Are Unexpected

art of racing in the rain garth steinWhen I began to read the chapter in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain in which Enzo the beloved narrator dog is dying, I just knew what was going to happen to me, what I was about to get into. Most people relate to losing a pet. Most people share that universal affection for sweet animal companions.

While I have met many readers who confessed they wept their heart out reading this joyously sad scene, I imagine some readers weren’t moved at all. But I bet almost everyone who read that book felt something. You don’t bother to read a novel told in “first-person dog POV” if you don’t like dogs. And it says something that this novel was on the NYT’s bestseller list for 156 weeks.

The key to its brilliance lies solely in neither the wonderful writing nor the universal resonance of “it’s so horrible to lose someone (person or animal) you love.” Rather, it’s the masterful execution of the scene as joyously sad. I chose that phrase to make a point: when unexpected emotions are evoked in us, it awes us.

Pay attention to that.

You wouldn’t expect a scene that has you watching a dog die—one that breaks your heart—to make you simultaneously happy even to the point of laughing. That’s what makes that scene so brilliant. The whole time I was crying in anguish, I was also laughing with joy. The scene was absolutely authentic in every way. It was utterly surprising as much as it was totally expected.

Don’t Try to Name Emotions

I can’t put a name to the composite emotion I felt when reading Enzo’s death scene. I could toss around a whole lot of words, but trying to name complex emotions is like trying to catch the wind with chopsticks. The secret lies in Hemingway’s brilliant advice:

Find what gave you the emotion . . . then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.

Think of it this way. You might not know what to name a particular color shade, but if you have a few tubes of paint and play around with the quantities, you just might be able to re-create the color. That’s what you need to do with the words on your palette to create the same emotion you wish readers to experience.

There is something to be said about building intimacy with characters. It might be hard to evoke emotion in readers for a character to whom they have only just been introduced. This is why Garth Stein placed his most powerful emotional scene near the end of the book, when readers are fully committed to Enzo and Denny, so it might pack the biggest emotional punch.

If you haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the power of “surprisingness.” Those of you  who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story. Note the universal feelings the old dog Enzo expresses that make you think, Me too!

Garth Stein does a brilliant job of not only conveying Enzo’s complex emotions, which are both expected and unexpected, but evoking so many emotions in the reader.

Finding a way to surprise your character and your reader adds micro-tension to your pages. This sparks those emotions in your readers that keep them engaged, whether it be something positive like amusement or negative like outrage or fear. Know how you want your readers to feel and lead them there.


Yes, readers love to be surprised. The unexpected surprises us. It might scare us, delight us, or move us profoundly. Yet, often a character’s reaction to a situation is wholly predictable and still it moves us deeply. Consider just about any love story that ends in happily ever after. Predictability really has nothing to do with emotional impact. It’s how the story is shown that matters—how those emotions are conveyed in a way that is believable, masterful, and moving.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in C.S. Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get half off using this link!

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Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you hope to evoke reader emotions by the end of your story? Tell us in the comments!

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About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C.S. Lakin is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (which includes more than 10 books in her Writer’s Toolbox series). Her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than 5,000 fiction writers improve their craft. To go deep into creating great settings and evoking emotions in your characters, and to learn essential technique, enroll in Lakin’s courses Crafting Powerful Settings and Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. Her blog Live Write Thrive has more than 1 million words of instruction for writers, so hop on over and level-up your writing!


  1. Pat McManus is one of my favorite short humor writers due to our mutual love of the outdoors and all things outdoorsy. He was also an instructor on writing and compiled some of his lessons in “The Deer on the Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor” which I’d highly recommend. One of the things that struck me with the book was his evocation of emotion WITHOUT abundant description. In his opinion, too much description removes the emotion.

    The eponymous bicycle is a case in point. Pat said numerous people wrote to him and said they had a bicycle “just like” the one described in the story. However, he points out, if you read the description, it is decidedly vague. You know neither the make, the model, the color, nor the size of the bike. Yet many say they had one identical to it.

    That’s the power of emotion in writing. It captures a feeling that transcends description. Excellent post.

    • Thanks for sharing that. I go in depth in the course on the way masterful writers follow the characters’ thoughts without ever “showing” emotion or having them think about how they feel. Using thoughts is the most potent of the three ways to convey emotion in characters.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Susanne!

    • Anne Andersen says

      Thanks for the post. This is exactly what I’m studying and struggling with.

      What the post offered was a new emotional impactful tool to think about.

      But, it gave a great taste for something but almost no concrete information, besides naming the concept.

      I feel like I’m being told to go read an entire book for the single example given. And, at the end of that I’ll still only have one example, like, one point on a line. Where to go next? What else should I look for?

      My example might be Pride and Prejudice or a few extremely emotionally complex scenes by Patrick O’Brian etc.

      But, is that particular scene a good example?
      What did that author actually show us? Or do?
      What are some of the things I should consider in analyzing or trying to actually write like this?
      Does this mean only one scheme at the end of the pool is the payoff for this principle?
      Or can this be done frequently in small ways?

      A little more information would go a long way.

      (Thanks for an awesome website.)

      • Hi Anne, this is why I put more than 6 hours of content and about 40 extensive passages from novels in the online course. Once you see example after example of how masterful writers convey emotion in their characters and evoke emotion in you, the reader, with the assignments given, you will learn how to master this too!

  3. This is my attempt at doing the same thing. I’d be interested to know what people think.

    Up to this point in the book almost everything Jane has done has worked out, so when she is battling to save Alan’s life there is an expectation that she will succeed. Previously they have discussed the wedding customs of Jane’s people, one of these is that the bride’s dress always contains a trace of green and gold.

    They had only had a very few dates, then Jane moved on to her next assignment. Alan has spent all his savings on an emerald engagement ring, and a ticket on a spaceship to catch up with her. Unfortunately he’s run into a sniper who was looking for Jane, and she’s attempting emergency surgery to get the projectile out of him before it explodes.

    Remember that up to this point everything Jane had done worked, so you expect her to save him. Also notice the way the sentence lengths change to change the pace:

    Alan’s eyelids began to flutter, ‘What happen…?’
    ‘Alan, listen to me, you’ve been shot. You’ve got the projectile inside you, it’s explosive and the fuse is running. I’m going to operate and get it out.’
    Alan’s eyes slowly fixed on her. ‘Explosive? Leave me—get yourself clear.’
    ‘No way.’
    Jane reconnected starline, and spoke to Morris, ‘I’m as ready as I’m ever going to be, what do I do?’
    ‘Get the teleportal switched on and running—you should be able to see the field, that looks right, now get your energy weapon and—’
    There was a dull crack. Alan twitched slightly and then his face creased with pain.
    ‘The bloody thing’s gone off!’ said Morris, ‘Not your fault, that was the timer running out, seen it before. I’m sorry, that’s it, there’s absolutely nothing more we can do. I’ll let you say goodbye.’ He disconnected from starline.
    Alan looked at her, his lips moving as he tried to form words. Then for a moment he seemed to be at peace. ‘Green and gold,’ he whispered.
    Jane laid her cheek to his. ‘I know. I found the ring. I’m sorry.’ No, sorry wasn’t enough. ‘I’m utterly ashamed of what I said to you. What I did was wicked.’
    There must be something she could do, some way she could stop this, drag him back to life so that she could put everything right, unsay what she’d said, give him all the things he’d dreamed about.
    But there was nothing, and at twenty-five minutes past midnight, on a cold, wet morning, while Jane knelt beside him on the bloodstained deck plates of her ship, Alan slipped from her and died.

    • Lots of great stuff there. A nice balance of letting the action and dialogue convey much of what’s felt. And not too much showing physical tells, which can be overdone.

      • CS, this seems like a dumb question, but what do you mean by ‘physical tells’?

        • Hi Tricia, not a dumb question. A physical tell is a sign or indication of emotion by the body. You look at someone and see a grimace, clenching a fist, slumping shoulders. Those are all physcial indications that someone is feeling something. However, relying on just physical indicators to assess what someone is actually feeling is very limited. A frown can mean countless things. That’s why writers need to use thoughts and sometimes naming emotions to fill in a bigger picture of the complex emotions a character is feeling.

  4. Ms. Albina says

    I watched the movie 🎥. I cried in some of it. In my WIP, my character is the narrative it is her great great great granddaughters wedding, then she knows that coming bad is going to happen also my character fights the evil sea deity then she gets lunged forward blocking her great great great granddaughter from being hurt but it is the great great great great grandma who gets hurt.

    • Ms. Albina says

      Here is my example :I can smell the odor of sulfur. I can see the evil sea deity. The evil sea deity has green hair with black eyes without pupils. He is wearing a green tunic and leggings that are stuck to his greenish-blue skin. The evil sea deity is also a shape shifter. A staff appears in his right hand as he lunges toward me.
      I walk to an open field away from my family so they won’t worry because evil came here.
      Now I do all the skills I have learned when I was younger that I memorized into my brain.
      First I blocked my arm to the evil sea deity’s. I change my arm blocking about ten times. Then I ran and do three back flips and slam into the evil deity. After that since I am now on the ground I do another backflip again. Then I do my defense kicks I have learned when I had my training long ago. Then I take my ivory staff off my left wrist and flick it so it gets larger. I do fighting moves with my staff. Then I touch my ivory staff and wait about five minutes for my powers to become more heightened. Then the evil sea deity goes to the right and I am on the left side, he uses his waterpower toward me. I block him with my force field power as my hands begin to glow on my palms where the seashell and starfish is. Purplish-white light comes out of my hands making a barrier so the evil sea deity doesn’t get me wet. I do this power again when he does his waterpower. Then he tries a different power. I use a different power. I use my waterpower, I summon the water to come to me, the water starts to grow to almost high in the sky then it becomes vertical to horizontal. I make him wet. Then he does something else. Then I do my storm power, my sea green eyes flash lightening then they turn to storm gray. I become enraged. I float or fly up to the sky. Lighting of purplish-white now comes out of my hands striking the ground. I create a storm. My husband comes and finds me and he calms me.
      The evil sea deity does not live yet next he comes toward Deyanira. He pulls out a dagger that has a triple amount of poison on it. Now I know what he is going to do. I lunge toward blocking Deyanira from being stabbed. I am in front of Deyanira and now the evil sea deity jabs his dagger in my neck behind where my gills are. Now my sea green eyes blink then close and now I have clasped on the ground. The evil sea deity now leaves with his spies. Everyone calls my name over and over. Deyanira sees blood on her gown from me. Now tears are coming from her face. She holds me close. “My great-great-great grandma needs be moved to somewhere. Can you please help me?”

      Do you like how this is written?

  5. Surprise your readers, do not name an emotion…
    Who said writing was easy? Still, get it right and your readers will be moved.
    Great post, miss Larkin!

    • Thanks so much. There is so much more to mastering this, but I hope this post spurs an interest to learn more. The course goes deep and will give you a lot of technique.

      • I’m sorry, I just have to jump in here, but are you hawking your course or focusing on the comments? At this point in the comments I believe you’ve already made three references to your course.

        • Sorry, not my intention. But commenters are asking about more info and how to learn more on this topic. This is where the extensive information is.

          • Ms. Albina says

            Thank you for saying that I need to improve it. I have one question. Do you have to have chapter 1-24 or can you put numbers if you want?

  6. Thanks for this wonderful post. Excellent inspiration for going deeper during the editing process. The recollection of the dog friends I’ve had (and lost to old age) forced the emotions to the surface. I’ll use that as my challenge to keep editing until that state of emotion is conveyed to the reader.

    • Thanks, Grant. I teach methods in my course on how to mine your feelings and bring them up to be able to draw on them while writing certain scenes (in which you want readers to feel something specific). Much of this can be done way before the editing stage, as setting the emotional intention of your scenes before you write will save you a lot of time and effort!

  7. Dora G Cividino says

    In the process of re-writing my ‘prof.edited MS’ I find that if I sink into the center of my own emotions I can more easily transfer the needed emotion to my character. I have to walk in his/her shoes, death, breaking vows, renewal and redemption are surprise elements done with passion at least in my story. Whether I succeed is up for debate.

  8. William Walls says

    Not to be a downer, but I would’ve appreciated a spoiler alert notice of some kind. Once I realized that what I was reading about was the climactic scene of the book, I was extremely disappointed. I would’ve loved to have felt the emotion of that scene by reading it anew and having the unexpected emotion hit me full force as the author doubtlessly intended. But now, I may as well not even bother.

    • Jo-Marie Barlow says

      This echoes my thoughts exactly! Especially when it was mentioned that this was the very climactic scene towards the end of the book… Now the surprise is out of the box. At least with a spoiler alert I would have made a conscious decision if that’s how I want to read this book.

      Otherwise great and informative post, it’s made me think, thanks!

      • She did warn us when she wrote ‘ Those of you who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story.’ So when you go to that link, you know you are going to read the end of the story.

    • My apologies, William and Jo-Marie. The book has been out for many years now, so one would have hoped you’d have read it or heard about it. In my online course, we read the full passage, but there isn’t room to do that in a short blog post. Going over dozens of passages fresh allows you to watch your reaction to the scene and see if the writer masterfully evoked emotion in you.

      Spoiler or not, it is still worth reading great novels to see how the writer worked the magic!

      • I think William and Jo-Marie are selling themselves short, as it were. How many favorite novels have they read more than once? Did knowing the ending keep them from reading it again and again? Of course not. Ok. They know the ending. Might they not be missing out by not knowing the rest? Having all the “background” to that final scene will add even more punch, don’t you think?

        • Good point, Kathy. But it is good to warn readers that a spoiler is coming. I should have done that.

          • But you did warn us when you wrote ‘ Those of you who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story.’ So when you go to that link, you know you are going to read the end of the story. So I don’t understand why William Walls was upset when he knew the climax of the story was in the link you posted.

        • Right, Kathy! And who hasn’t read a book after watching a movie they loved, or vice versa?

  9. Joan Kessler says

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Ms. Larkin. I’ve written C. S. Lewis’ definition of plot on the first page of my new notebook. I like the “surprisingness” quality. It’s a perfect example of the childlike delight of being in the moment, being present (which we want our readers to be when they are reading our work!)

  10. You’re welcome! I found that quote in one of his books years ago and it’s stuck with me!

  11. Rick, that McManus bit is a gem. Thank you.

  12. Three scifi book endings that surprised me with emotions I can’t describe portrayed:

    1. the least likely duo sacrificing their lives for everyone
    2. the most unexpected relocation and reunion that made perfect sense
    3. the lovers finding each other just after the reader was finally convinced the guy must be dead

    I hope to somehow evoke similar “reader emotions” (even though the circumstances in my book are very different), simply by mimicking the surprise at how perfectly everything comes together at the end, in unforeseeable and splendid ways. I hope I can give readers the kind of experience I had reading those amazing novels!
    Thank you for this great post! It’s inspiring me to sit down and write!

  13. I’m thinking one good way to evoke reader emotions is, as you said when the character’s emotions are evoked. If you remember Katie’s article about the LIE, you may find an excellent opportunity to do this when at the end the character is surprised by what he learns about himself and his new attitude toward what he thought he wanted.

  14. Moriah Snell says

    And… this is why I read this site. Stuff like this is needed.

  15. Mary George says

    Emotions are evoked when there is death, birth, a freeing revelation because someone had been lied to, or a betrayal or an unrequited love so deep it wounds the heart with irreparable damage.

    Going deep into the human heart is what must be done with the characters, if we are to tug at the reader’s heart. Now, to take this and amend it so there is a twist – an emotional twist – is not only clever, but somehow the reader knows instinctively how plausible that reversal of emotion happened. It’s one of the ways the adage “Never take the reader where they want to go” makes a story richer.

    In my case, a man falls in love with a woman, but moves away because she rejected his proposal. When they meet again he reveals something that she assumed his mother had done – it was a simple gesture early in the story she mistook as something only a woman would do – but when he admits it was him, it shakes her into the realization that this is the kind of man she should not have let go.

  16. you are a wonderful writer no doubt. you have the ability to bound peoples through your writings


  1. […] Stories are wired into the human brain. Robert A. Burton says our brains tell stories so we can live, Kathryn Craft reminds us to give our reader an experience, and C.S. Lakin tells us how to evoke reader emotions with “surprisingness.” […]

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