On Manipulating Reader Emotions

Photo credit: .bravelittlebird on Flickr
One of the first signs of a good book, to me, is when I begin to react to the story. Whether that first
reaction is a snicker, a gasp, or even a grimace, when I start to react to the words on the page, I know chances are good that I’m going to enjoy the book.

It’s these kind of reactions that I look for when reading my drafts aloud to my unsuspecting test subject (AKA: my lucky first reader). If my first reader laughs or gasps in the right places, I know the WIP is resonating emotionally, which is exactly what I want.

Before beta readers and critique partners, however, it can be difficult to determine whether or not your novel hits the right emotional chords. Truly, the only way to be sure that you’ve succeeded is with outside feedback, but there is a way to know whether or not you’re on the right track.

The answer is deceptively simple: it’s you.

A quick aside: I’m not really an emotional person. I’ve only ever shed tears over one movie in my lifetime (and I watch a lot of movies), and as far as I can remember, I’m pretty sure I’ve never cried while reading a book. I’ve come close, and I’ve definitely felt profound sadness over unfortunate events and losses in fictional stories, but I’ve yet to ugly cry over a book.

I tell you this, because despite my steely emotions, I pay close attention to how I’m feeling while I’m writing. As the creator of the characters and the world in your novel, it’s safe to say that you care the most for your story and its inhabitants, so if your writing isn’t affecting you emotionally as you write, chances are it’s not going to affect your readers, either.

As the lovely Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” 

You are the first indicator of emotional resonance (or lack thereof) in your novel. If you find yourself tearing up over a particularly heavy passage, or snickering over some great dialogue, chances are you’re on the right track to a great story.

Writers: what signs do you look for to check for emotional resonance in your novels? Readers: what books have you read that left particularly powerful emotional echoes? 

Twitter-sized bites:
The key to determining whether or not your story hits the right emotional chords? It’s you. (Click to tweet
Does your WIP resonate emotionally? Here’s one way to see if you’re on the right track. (Click to tweet)


Laura Rueckert said...

I ugly cried over The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and I highly recommend it. I've cried over some of my own writing, which I hope is a sign it is emotion provoking, but it hasn't gone through a beta reader, so I don't have feedback yet.

As for signs, I guess I'd look for the same as you: if someone tells me they smiled, laughed or cried.

Melissa Maygrove said...

Wow. You and I sound so much alike, it's scary. LOL

I outwardly show more emotion when I write than when I read or watch movies, but I think that's because I have to get so far into my character's heads to write their story. I have to see what they see and feel what they feel. By the time I'm nearing the end, they're as real to me as a member of my own family.

Sarah Anne Foster said...

I've never really cried over a book, but I have almost thrown one against a wall--not because it was bad but because what was happening upset me so much.

My WIP makes me crack up all the time, which I guess is a good thing. I keep expecting the ending to make me cry, but since I haven't actually written it yet, there's still hope. I think it's going to be more about the words I use rather than what actually happens, since I've pictured it so many times. It makes me a little sad, but not as much as I'd like.

Ava Jae said...

The Book Thief! I do have to add that to my TBR list. I've heard many good things about it. I've gotten teary-eyed over my writing (and over a couple books and several movies), but as far as I can remember...I don't think I've actually cried. But that's normal for me, sooo...

Regardless, beta readers are definitely a better indicator of just how effective the emotional pulls are. :)

Ava Jae said...

I completely understand what you mean about feeling as though your characters are family members. By the time you've reached the end of a draft, you've poured your soul out into those characters, and they feel entirely alive.

Ava Jae said...

I've raged over a book (to friends and just about anyone who will listen), but I've never thrown one, if only because I am OCD about not damaging my precious books.

I've found that when it comes to sad things, planning them ahead of time I'm always a little sad, but the actual emotion doesn't really hit me until I'm writing it. I imagine it's probably because in the moment of writing, I'm in my POV character's head, and as they're torn up about it, so am I. At least to an extent.

RoweMatthew said...

I don't really get emotions from a book, I've certainly never cried. I'm just amused by the events and I enjoy the places it takes me and the people I meet. Then, I'm not an emotional person either. I can't remember a time when I cried sober. Haha.

When I'm writing, I'm writing humour and so I'm trying to judge what is really funny. All jokes make me laugh when I write them, but if I still don't find them funny on my numerous edits then they get axed in favor of some useful description or something else. I don't really try to engage emotions, apart from the natural highs and lows of a three act story. Maybe I should try more, so if humour misses the mark, which it seems to with many of my crit readers, there's something else.

Ava Jae said...

Ah, I've heard writing humor is pretty difficult. I don't read a lot of humor myself (well, not genre humor anyway), but I would think that trying to engage more than one emotion would be a good thing. Humor would be your main goal, of course, but as you said, having more than one emotion would help in situations where the humor doesn't work as well as you'd hoped. Again, this isn't my area of expertise, but it sounds like a good thing to try to me. :)

Deanna Burkett said...

I cry easily. Movies, books, the Folgers commercial that comes on around Christmas time where the son comes home from college and surprises his family by making coffee. And while I was writing intensively lately, (and finally finishing some scenes I had been avoiding) I cried several times. So I don't know if I can rely on myself in the emotional department.

But I LOVE the part of the quote about "surprise," and that element of the unfolding of my novel has been encouraging. Things would happen in the story and I would be genuinely surprised, which is a strange and wonderful feeling to have. I look for this to happen occasionally so I know I'm not leaning on my own story too much and have let go into something bigger and probably more true than "me."

Thanks for asking!

Ava Jae said...

Ah. I can see how it might be a little more difficult if you're an emotional person. Still, I would consider it an encouraging sign nevertheless if you were reacting to your writing. :)

I love the Frost quote as well--it's an incredible feeling to have your characters surprise you and act in a way that you hadn't expected, or have the story unfold in a way you hadn't anticipated. That's when you know the story is really taking on a life of it's own.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Deanna!

Jim Lewis said...

Age 65 here and been writing for most of them. But it's only in the past decade that I decided the only books I want to read and write are the ones that move me, whether that means making me cry, bang my fist on a table (or through a wall), or roar with a belly laugh. Love the column. Love the Frost quote.

Margaret Alexander said...

I hate that you're always on the same wavelength as me. I hate that! And by hate of course I mean love, lol. I'm just like you, I'm not a very emotional person, so it's hard for me to convey emotion (on one hand). When I think about it, it's not so much difficult as it requires effort. I normally like to think about the originality of the plot and the characters more than emotions, and it sometimes does get lost, so I have to go back and rewrite lots of scenes. I simply think it's tougher for some writers to write it naturally than others, but it's definitely doable and a necessary ingredient to any novel. Great post, Ava!

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Jim! I agree entirely--the books that resonate emotionally are the ones that really make an impact and leave me wanting to repeat the experience.

So glad to hear you enjoyed the post and the quote. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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