Your Story Path: The Emotional Connection Between a Story and its Readers
Have you ever encountered a novel that left a lasting emotional imprint regardless of how well you remember any of the finer details? And if so, why do you remember those?
Every once in a while, a novel comes along that strikes into the human psyche and causes readers to feel the story in such a way that the emotion itself becomes an unforgettable, yet intangible, thing. Why? The novel is an experience.
If you want to develop a novel that reaches readers on a deep, emotional level, you're not alone. But the question then becomes how?
This article explores a few ways to bring emotion into your work to forge lasting reader connections.
You've probably heard the phrase "show, don't tell" when it comes to crafting fiction stories readers want to read. But this doesn't mean painting images for readers of your characters' facial expressions or the particular sag in their shoulders so readers feel those emotions, too. In fact, over-describing emotion can strip your novel of emotional authenticity.
Your reader won't feel what your character feels. Readers will tap into similar circumstances of their lives and how they felt under those conditions.
Your challenge is to create an emotional experience without telling readers what they should experience.
The quickest way to do this is through subtext. If your character is experiencing a huge emotion, pull back and concentrate on the minutiae instead. After all, the fight about the laundry isn't really about the laundry.
Compare these two short passages of a disgruntled stay-home partner:
Spent all day cleaning the house, having his best suits pressed, systematically checking off all the errands on the weekly to-do list, and he doesn't even notice all the care I put into maintaining our home. It's enough to make me want to explode.
The once-gleaming countertop is now scattered with crumbs, the carpet soiled by his dirty shoes, the dry-cleaning plastic discarded on the bedroom floor. Hours of time spent and nothing left to show for it.
The first passage tells readers of the stay-home partner's frustration, while the second passage approaches the same emotion through subtext and showing.
It's a no-brainer to you that crafting emotional stories requires, well...emotion. But novels that skim the surface of human emotion often leave our readerly glasses feeling half-empty or worse.
Humans are complex, layered beings. Our anger is often undercut by shame, frustration, or grief. Fear is often counterbalanced by anger, followed (hopefully) by relief. Love may accompany whimsy, self-acceptance, even adrenaline. And beyond simple layering, how we feel each day changes as quickly as the phases of the moon.
When writing or revising scenes, allow your characters to feel the range of human emotion tied to their immediate feelings based on their values, principles, past triumphs, and traumas. Let your characters reflect on plot points that may alter, or threaten to alter, their worldviews.
Compare these two short passages of a nervous parent or guardian:
The second the clock rolled over to ten p.m., she began to pace. Bobby's house wasn't far; Cole knew the route, knew how long it took, knew curfew was 10 p.m. sharp. Cole was never late, and Becky's nerves were as thin as razor wire, especially after she thought about Charlie's disappearance last summer from only two streets down.
As the clock rolled over to ten p.m., Becky's pulse pounded double time. She pulled back the curtain to watch the drive, as she had done every time curfew arrived, and especially since Charlie's disappearance. In the yard, glistening with dew in the moonlight, was Cole's old baseball glove, forgotten in the yard like so many adolescent toys.
The first passage tells readers of Becky's nervousness, but the second passage piles nostalgia and a sense of childhood lost on top of the nervousness she feels.
Connecting the Outer and Inner Journeys
In the course of your story, your protagonist goes on a journey from the beginning of the plot events to the final plot event and the resolution. But beyond the physical events that make up the character's outer journey, your protagonist must also experience an inner journey, one that is informed and shaped by the outer.
Plot events are simply a list of things that happen. But the inner moments your protagonist experiences are what gives those things meaning and can lead a reader on their own inner emotional journey.
Each time your protagonist is part of an outer plot event, they should go inward. When there is movement on the inner journey, the protagonist will make something happen in the outer world. When writing or revising, remember to connect the inner and outer journeys of your protagonist.
Consider these two short passages about a challenged novelist:
I hang up the phone and sit back, stare at the receiver in disbelief. Ten years. Ten long years, and I've finally sold a novel. Under a pen name. Under a name that isn't mine. An identity I don't own. I sold a novel as a person who doesn't exist, and I wonder if that means my novel exists a little less, too.
When I hang up the phone, I let out a held breath that whined like a sigh and stared down at the first contract I'd received for my novel, Buried Papers. Fairly standard, as contracts go, so my agent said. But in the upper right-hand side where my name should have been were the words "John Briar." A pen name. A fiction under which Mary Shole was buried. I sign it "M.S."
In the first passage, the outer plot point in which Mary received a contract causes an inner monologue where readers learn of her anxieties. In the second passage, the outer plot point leads to inner observation, which results in an outer action of defiance.
Write a scene in which your character is at a place of extreme poverty. This could mean a wintry time when resources are difficult to find or other money troubles, or it could mean a period of significant illness or isolation.
How does your character feel about their current state?
Do they wish to change their reality?
What obstacles stand in their way?
How can they forge ahead?
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Happy writing and editing!