I’ve been striving to incorporate more emotional resonance in my writing. Writing teachers I admire agree that generating strong emotions in readers is the ideal.
There are a number of techniques that writers can use to achieve that ideal.
In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maas says readers’ emotional experience of a story doesn’t come from the emotional lives of characters. It comes from readers themselves.
Tidbits from his post, How to Produce an Emotional Response in Readers:
- …readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story, but about themselves.
- They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience, or believe that they have.
- Each reader has a unique emotional response to a story. It’s unpredictable but it’s real.
- Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.
I recently took a class from Susan DeFrietas, The Heart of Story. She generates reader emotion through story structure (the way the character grows and changes), by how story conflict is revealed to the reader, and through language (specific character thoughts that carry emotion).
In two recent posts, DeFrietas explores the importance of story stakes and character background and how to combine body language and character interiority to generate more impactful reader emotion.
As John Thornton Williams notes in The Indirection of Image:
- Revealing the interiority of a character in a way that feels natural, yet resonates powerfully within a reader is one of the most difficult tasks of the fiction writer.
- Considering how powerful that emotional connection between reader and character can prove to be, and how empty a story can feel without it, it's vital that the writer bridge the distance between reader and character in ways that are subtle rather than clumsy.
- Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted.
- [Using] indirection of image—[the character’s] interiority is simultaneously revealed and left, to a degree, ambiguous—that invites the reader to absorb such breadth of emotion. Even if the reader can't articulate exactly what [the character] is feeling, he/she surely experiences it on a level that is deep and resonant.
I’m reminded that emotions are complex and conflicted. When I explicitly label a character’s emotion (happy, sad, relieved), I flatten and limit what cannot be easily articulated, and leave no room for reader interpretation.
Another blogger, Robin Farmer, advocates using personal emotional truth in our writing to engineer reader empathy.
- Embrace the fear of vulnerability.
- I could not write [my] story with authenticity until I dug deep and understood why I had been stuck and what led to a breakthrough. My clarity informed and honed the behavior of my character.
- Collect bits of dialogue, favorite lyrics, phrases, discarded scenes, observations, and reactions—anything that provokes strong feelings and may feed your current or future story. Visit often.