There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers. The first is to report what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too. This is inner mode, the telling of emotions.
The second is to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. This is outer mode, the showing of emotions.
The choice between inner and outer modes is a central one. Some story types, such as romance fiction, necessarily rely on inner mode. Others, like thrillers, either have no time to dwell on characters’ feelings or their authors regard such passages as artless and possibly repellant.
The third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel. This is other mode, an emotional dialogue between author and reader. The reader reacts, resists, and sometimes succumbs, but thanks to the author’s skill, she can never escape the churn and ow of her own feelings.
All three paths to producing emotional responses in readers are valid, but all three have pitfalls and can fail to work. To successfully use each, it’s necessary to understand why each is effective when it is. Once you know the underlying cause behind the surface effects, you’ll know whether the approach that you are taking on a given page will reliably move readers’ hearts.
Outer Mode: Showing
Outer moments in many manuscripts can feel small and self-consciously “written”; in other words, arty more than artful. How can that be? Nothing is more valid and vivid than what we can see and hear, right? Human action is also driven by need. That need is sensed in subtext and revealed through what people say and do. That in turn should stir our own imaginations and churn up our feelings, shouldn’t it?
That’s not really true. When outward actions stir us, it’s not the actions we read that have stirred us but that we have stirred ourselves. Action is an opportunity for us to feel something, not a cause of feeling something. The distinction matters. It explains that when showing works the thing we should look at is not why it works but when.
Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook is a novel featuring a protagonist, Pat Peoples, who is certifiably crazy. Pat begins the novel in a neural health facility, from which he is released with the help of his mother. Quick knows the trick of making a mentally ill protagonist enjoyable to read about: Make him funny. Pat Peoples amusingly refuses to give up his dream of reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki, and is convinced that their “apart time,” as he calls it, will end. All evidence is to the contrary, of course, as we see when Pat returns home:
When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the replace.
I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. “Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures?” I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. “Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me?” I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because it’s apart time.
Notice that Quick does not try to convey what Pat is feeling in this farcical passage. There’s no need. Pat’s delusional refusal to accept that Nikki is not coming back to him is plainly evident. This objective, wry, reportorial approach serves Quick’s purpose well because if we were asked to swallow the inner emotional life of Pat Peoples, we couldn’t. It’s too crazy and painful.
The painful emotional lives of such characters need to become tolerable for readers. Humor and objective showing create a safety zone. In that zone readers can process their own response to emotional conditions that are extreme.
To put it simply, when character emotions are highly painful, pull back.
Inner Mode: Telling
Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it?
Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing. Here’s an example: His guts twisted in fear. When you read that, do your own guts twist in fear? Probably not. Or this: Her eyes shot daggers at him. Do you feel simmering rage? Meh. Not so much.
Such feelings fail to excite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived—they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions.
Skillful authors play against expected feelings. They go down several emotional layers in order to bring up emotions that will catch readers by surprise. There’s always a different emotion to use. A story situation is an emotional elephant. There are many ways of looking at and feeling about what’s happening at any given moment. Stop your story at any point, ask the point-of-view character what she is feeling, and it’s never just one answer. Ask two characters what they feel about what’s happening and neither will ever say the same thing.
Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable. Our emotions can be profoundly trivial or so elevated that they’re silly. What we feel is inescapably influenced by our history, morals, loyalties, and politics.
With so much rich human material to work with, it’s disappointing that so many manuscripts offer a limited menu of emotions. The feelings that writers first choose to write are often obvious, easy, and safe. These are the feelings writers believe they ought to use if their stories are going to sell. They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view.
So how does one create emotional surprise?
Here’s an example from a master of secondary emotions: Ray Bradbury. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a futuristic fireman who burns books. He enjoys his job until he meets a seventeen-year-old girl who awakens his mind. After his transformation begins he’s called to help burn a house full of books, and Montag secretly takes one. The house and its contents are then doused with kerosene. The woman who lives in the house is warned to leave but refuses and holds up …
An ordinary kitchen match.
The sight of it rushed the men out and down away from the house. Captain Beatty, keeping his dignity, backed slowly through the front door, his pink face burnt and shiny from a thousand res and night excitements. God, thought Montag, how true! Always at night the alarm comes. Never by day! Is it because fire is prettier by night? More spectacle, a better show? The pink face of Beatty now showed the faintest panic in the door. The woman’s hand twitched on the single matchstick. The fumes of kerosene bloomed up about her. Montag felt the hidden book pound like a heart against his chest.
A careless writer would have focused on Montag’s horror at what was about to happen. No! Don’t do it! Bradbury, however, knows that the obvious emotion will not have the desired effect. Instead he portrays a feeling that we don’t expect: Montag’s excitement. Remember that Montag is a reman who has enjoyed starting fires. He knows the thrill of watching books burn. The expression on the face of his chief, Beatty, ignites that feeling again, briefly, even while Montag’s heart is changing. Because Bradbury goes sideways from an expected feeling, we cannot help but feel something ourselves. In this horrific situation we are forced to measure Montag’s emotion against our own. How can we not? Is his excitement what we would feel? No. Or maybe yes, if we were Montag.
None of readers’ emotional experience of a story actually comes from the emotional lives of characters. It comes from readers themselves. Yes, showing and telling are part of what provokes readers to feel, but they are only a part. Other things on the page also provoke readers, and these things are the greater part of the equation.
It might seem that you shouldn’t worry about what readers feel; they’re either going to feel what you want them to feel or not. But that way of thinking surrenders too much to chance. It leads to the erroneous idea that emotional effect is accidental. While it’s true that you cannot control what each reader will feel while reading your work, what you can control is whether they will feel something in the first place and how strong those feelings will be.
What is actually happening inside readers as they read? Each reader has a unique emotional response to a story. It’s unpredictable but it’s real. Readers read under the influence of their own temperaments, histories, biases, morality, likes, dislikes, and peeves. They make judgments that don’t agree with yours. So how can a writer predict, never mind control, what readers feel?
Psychological research can help us, to a point. Research shows that consumers of entertainment are seeking, more than anything, to have an experience. That should come as no surprise. Does “an experience” sound simplistic? Yes, but it’s also important. An experience, sure, but what kind of experience? Research shows this: Readers expect their experience, naturally enough, to be a positive one.
But is that what authors want, too? Sometimes, but not always. Authors want to challenge readers. Research shows that readers want this, too. Entertainment works best when it presents consumers with novelty, challenge, and aesthetic value, which in turn cause cognitive evaluation. In plain language that means thinking, guessing, questioning, and comparing what is happening to one’s own experience. Medically speaking, this is actually necessary for human health and well-being. When readers chew on a story, they are getting not only what they want, but also something good and healthy. This chewing effect has another benefit: Readers are more likely to remember a story when it has made them chew.
What all that means is that readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story, but about themselves. They want to feel like they’ve been through something. They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience, or believe that they have.
Do you hope that your fiction can change people or maybe even history? Your hope is not in vain. It actually can. That power, however, cannot exist unless and until a story has a strong emotional impact.
To learn more about how to make a strong emotional impact in your fiction, check out The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass.