Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TTYU Retro: Heightening emotional impact

How can you get your reader to feel emotionally moved by your story?

Well, first off, you can't just tell them, "you should be emotionally moved." This is obvious, I think. I had been thinking about the topic of emotional involvement and creating intensity at particular points of the story, and then I ran across this article by Lydia Sharp, where she gave the following quote from Donald Maass:

You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because they [the characters] feel it. Only when that emotion is provoked through the circumstances of the story will your reader feel what you want them to.

Lydia then asks:
"So what does this mean? For starters, it goes back to the age-old advice of "show, don't tell." Where emotions are involved, it's best not to simply outright tell your reader what the characters are feeling. Let the reader experience it.

"And how do you do that? By not being obvious."

All of this, I agree with. If I were to take the Donald Maass quote and give my own take on it, I would have to say that our impressions of the emotional experiences of characters grow more out of our own emotions in a particular part of the story than the other way around. In other words, it is our own emotional understanding of the story that deepens the character's experience, rather than the character's emotional state deepening our own.

In a way, this makes sense. Because the character inhabits the story, he/she is limited in his/her ability to grasp the entirety of the story. The reader usually does not have these same limitations. I'm going to come back to the idea of the entirety of the story in a moment, but first let me address Lydia's advice.

Lydia suggested we should let the reader experience what the characters are feeling, rather than telling them, by not being obvious. An excellent point. There are a number of ways that emotional states can be shown. One way is to describe the internal physical sensations of a person - adrenaline surges, feeling hot or cold, and many different kinds of metaphorical descriptions of pain, fear, embarrassment, joy, etc. can be of use for internal points of view. Another way is to show the external behaviors of a person feeling an emotion. If the point of view is external, you can show facial expressions; this is awkward to do with internal points of view, but you can still show actions of rage (as one example) like throwing things across the room, or pacing, stomping, etc. Still another way is to have the emotional state of the character in a scene be reflected somehow in the way that person perceives things around him/her, by including a sense of rage or other emotion in the surrounding descriptions of setting, descriptions of the actions of others, etc. There is a descriptive passage in Snow Falling on Cedars where the destruction wreaked by a storm is treated in intensive detail...and that reflects the inner state of the protagonist, Ishmael.

All of these tools are at our disposal. All of them fit with the idea that comes from qualitative anthropology about field notes - as I've discussed here before - that a researcher should not try to lay out any deductive conclusions in field notes, but simply observe the details of what is there, write them down, and let the reader taking in those details formulate the same conclusions that the researcher did. (I consider this a very extreme form of show-don't-tell.)

But if we're talking about overall emotional impact, this isn't everything. Here is the point where I return to the idea of the entirety of the story.

Anyone who writes with the thought of story arcs in mind knows that there are large-scale patterns in a work. Small points link together across the story to form this larger structure. We talk about character arcs, and plot arcs. I suggest we also think about emotional arcs for the reader. By seeding small details one after the other, we can create an impression that builds up in a reader's mind.

I'll give an example of a situation that I created in my novel, For Love, For Power. This one was very difficult because the situation was so awful it made me sick. I knew what that situation was, but I also knew that my viewpoint character wasn't going to be in the room with it - only listening in from outside. I realized pretty quickly that there would be no way for a simple emotional description of the pov character's reaction to have impact unless readers knew what that situation was. However, I needed the impact to hit all at once. No time for lengthy description (which would defeat the point anyway because it would come across as strenuous). So I had to set it up by seeding it earlier in the chapter.

This is tricky because the list of elements is long, and it's not like reading the text itself (obviously) but I'm going to do them as bullet points, and insert my own commentary in certain places. Critical elements to piecing together the unseen situation are marked in red.

The characters: Lady, Lady's servant, Husband, Husband's servant

The scene begins with Lady and Lady's servant in a room with her sleeping teenage son, who is recovering from a deadly illness. Previous chapters have established that both of them are exhausted and rather upset about this whole situation. This establishes a state of vulnerability which contributes to their reactions to the ongoing events.
  • Husband enters, and Lady instantly goes on the defensive; Husband embraces Lady and she goes stiff.
  • Husband and Husband's servant together try to force Lady to give up control of Lady's servant to them for political purposes.
This establishes that the Husband will not hesitate to threaten them even when they are in a state of vulnerability.
  • Lady's servant worries whether Lady will cave to Husband's wishes, but decides not to try to influence Lady because he would be punished for presumption
  • Lady takes charge and with Lady's Servant's help, denies Husband control of her servant.
Because of the early vulnerability and husband's threat, this is a point of triumph for the Lady. It also brings her closer to her servant and makes her servant feel that she cares about him. He cares for her more deeply as a result (this question of whether the two of them have a relationship of trust has been established over a large portion of the story to this point). This is a reader emotion arc going from sympathy to triumph on behalf of the Lady and her servant. Now we go into the next piece.
  • Husband leaves, angry.
  • Lady's servant realizes that the denial was presumption and punishment will be coming.
  • With Husband gone, Lady begins to relax and speak trustfully to her servant
  • Lady's servant confesses to Lady that Husband's servant frightens him.
  • Lady confesses to her servant that Husband's servant frightens her too. Says she hates his eyes.
  • Lady's servant says his watching is normal because of his servant's training.
  • Lady insists that this form of watching is not normal.
  • In conversation about an earlier life experience, Lady says she wishes she had taken action at that time, in defiance of Husband, even though she knew the consequences.
  • Husband returns with his servant.
At this point it should be pretty clear that he is back to deliver punishment, most likely with his servant watching, and that both the Lady and her servant know it. It should be clear also that the Lady has experienced this before. Because of what has been previously established, the Husband doesn't need to show anger overtly here; in fact, it's creepier (in my opinion) that he doesn't. On to the next piece, where I'll give some attention to the servant's emotional state (since he's the viewpoint character). I'm marking the causes of his emotional reactions in orange, and the reactions themselves in blue.
  • Lady's servant expects her to become defensive, but instead Lady is submissive and tells her servant to leave on an errand while she speaks to Husband alone. His expectations of her courage, and their mutual trust, are defeated.
  • Lady's servant is very worried leaving her alone with angry Husband, but must obey. He runs the errand.
  • When he returns, Lady is not there.
  • He searches for Lady, demonstrating signs of panic; a more experienced servant looks uncomfortable, tells him to be careful.
  • Lady's servant chastises himself for leaving her, can't understand why she would send him away when she knew she needed help.
  • Lady's servant turns on a speaker to hear what is happening in Husband and Lady's room, expecting to hear argument.
  • He hears "bestial, rhythmic grunting."
  • Lady's servant feels nausea and shakes with rage.
I'm not going to spell out anything more about the situation in the story. However, I think it's useful to point out a few things.
  1. When you're working to create an emotional high or low point, think about what kind of initial emotional conditions would contribute most effectively to the magnitude of the impact (in this case, the establishment of vulnerability for Lady and servant/threat and lack of remorse for Husband and servant)
  2. Make sure to include any necessary information that will contribute to the reader's understanding of what is going on. In this case, that includes all the red-marked phrases, including the Lady's dislike of the Husband's physical contact, the idea of punishment for defiance, etc.
  3. Make sure that the causes of your protagonist's emotional state precede the protagonist's emotional reactions. What should be happening is that the circumstances that cause the protagonist's emotional state will be causing a strong emotional state in the reader, a split second before the reader actually reads what you've written about the protagonist's reaction. If at that point the protagonist's reaction matches the reader's reaction, the impact will be magnified (which is what I was trying to do). If it doesn't match, then you'll get an entirely different effect, turning the strength of the reader's reaction into a judgment about the character who has the unexpected reaction.
A story contains innumerable links across it (arcs, patterns of repetition, etc.). The further you go in, the more the significance of each word or event depends on everything that has come before it. I often call this phenomenon resonance. When I get something right, I feel like I can hear the entire story ring like a bell. When you're trying to create emotional impact, this is an enormous advantage.

It's something to think about.


  1. This process is why is takes forever to do this kind of writing.

    To get the ability to elicit the emotion from the reader, the writer has to know exactly what is going on, feed it in precisely (like an IV drip), and manipulate the reader (manipulate in a good way) to be in the right emotional spot to absorb the carefully timed blows of the story, until the writer makes the reader fall over when the first domino is finally pushed over.

    You know what you want to do, but the doing requires time and care - and often doesn't show up until later drafts.

    Nice job, BTW - I didn't even see your words but your planning still packed a wallop. Words and plot are important, but timing is everything. It is the difference between hitting the nail on the head and pounding it in and bending the darn thing by hitting it off-center.

    It doesn't make for fast writing or editing, but I believe, as you obviously do, that it leads to quality in the results.

    1. Thanks a lot, Abe. Yes, this stuff does take a lot of time and planning. I find it very rewarding when I get to exactly the place I want (even if I know it could probably get better in revision!). I appreciate the comment.