Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Emotions Hook Readers (and Drive Productivity)

Emotion can drive not just the reading experience, but the writing experience -- so here are some thoughts on emotions.


Remember the beginning or Romancing the Stone, where Joan Wilder is overwhelmed by tears as she completes her book? This is played for laughs, but genuine, strong emotions are what fiction writing is about. (Ray Bradbury said emotions are what life is all about.)
 While you can get away with wit, slices of life, nostalgia and whimsy, and you can even charm the reader with lyrical passages, without a good balance of scenes that move the reader, there will be no sale (and no motivation to complete a work of any length). Without these strong, genuine emotions, your writing cannot go anywhere.

What are the strong emotions? Rage. Grief. Joy. Wonder. Terror. Passion. Disgust. These emotions hit you in the gut, make your laugh until it hurts, give you chills, raise your heartbeat – create real, physical responses. And they need to be genuine. Some writers are naturals at living the scenes they write so that, like Joan Wilder, they use up boxes of tissues as they work on novels. For others, the tools of the actor may be helpful. Sense memory exercises  evoke physical responses, and they are part of the work the reader expects the writer to do – whether they know it or not. 

You know the quote, "Sincerity is everything; if you can fake that, you've got it made"? Maybe. But I suspect you'll get caught eventually if you don't make the emotions genuine. 

I recently finished reading a set of contest entries—the first 20 pages of novels. These were supposed to hook me and keep me reading. A couple did, but most did not. 

The problem was not so much the quality of the prose as it was a lack of genuine, strong emotions. Curiously, I found a good amount of genuine, weak emotion. The writers were present for many of the scenes they composed. That's good. 

Unfortunately, they were concentrating on being clever, or their characters were irritated or mildly curious or calculating or, worst of all, content. These emotions are real, but they don't grab hold and refuse to let go.

 As experienced by the writer, they probably were involving during the writing session, but such weak emotions are diluted once they hit the page. The reader is not pulled in and the writer, probably, is not pulled back into the story. 

In small amounts in a novel or screenplay, weak emotions may work and even help with the management of tension. However, if you write 20 pages, especially the opening pages of a book, and you don't infuse that work with genuine strong emotions, the reader will stop reading.

 And you just might stop writing.



  1. Great article, Peter. You are sooo right.

  2. Thanks, Joy. Looking at "bigger" emotions (inspired by Flash Fiction work) moved me into exploring bigger plots, bigger characters and bigger stories. Bigger isn't always better, but the extra push can transform dull into marvelous. I'm developing a new talk about what I've learned.