In college, I majored in communication, and the first thing I learned is that communication is a two-way street—it needs a sender and a receiver. As writers, we are senders, and our readers are receivers. But what are we communicating?
Stories, at their core, are a medium for communicating many things, but chief among them is emotion. That means one of the best ways to hook your reader is through emotion.
In this post, you will learn how to hook your reader with emotion, how people experience emotion through reading and three tips to cultivate that emotion through your writing. Then, we'll end with a creative writing exercise you can use to apply these lessons right away.
Your Writing Communicates Emotion to Readers
When you read, you are not passively soaking up information. This is especially true when it comes to fiction. As you read stories, you experience events, face challenges, and feel emotions. Though you may appear to be sitting still, you are in virtual motion.
A skillful writer ensures that tension underlies every page of the story, drawing the reader in and pulling them along. With every increase in tension comes a greater need in the reader to discover what will happen next.
The readers themselves provide much of the impetus for this tension by the quality of their own imagination and emotional state.
But there are things you should do, as a writer, to facilitate the transfer of tension from your words to her mind.
How to Better Communicate Emotion
Here are two ways you as a writer can better transmit emotion to your reader:
1. Get Readers to Care About Your Characters Sooner Rather than Later
First, readers need to care about a character before they will invest emotionally in what happens to that character, and so getting your reader to care should be one of your first goals in your story.
I recently watched the first season of The Umbrella Academy. Honestly, if I hadn’t had so many friends and family members telling me what an intriguing show it was, I wouldn’t have made it past the second episode. Sure it was wacky and interesting, but I didn’t really care what happened.
Events at the end of the third episode finally engaged me emotionally, and I happily finished the first season and started into the next. I don’t know why it took so long to hook me, but take this as a lesson:
2. Show Pain to Boost the Emotional Stakes
“Life is Pain, Highness.”
Are you flashing back to Westley in a mask that makes him look like a raccoon? If not, I suggest you immediately watch The Princess Bride. It's a great story, packed with so many storytelling lessons for the astute observer, chief among them, the importance of pain for our stories.
Pain is one of the most powerful ways to increase the emotional stakes in a story because both the inflicter of the pain and the one who suffers it, take on more substance, become more real. An important thing to keep in mind is that your reader will not necessarily feel what the character is feeling. The goal, here, is to tap into the reader’s own emotional well so he can experience something unique and significant to him.
The key is intensity. In his very helpful book, Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card points out that: “The intensity of the characters’ feeling, as long as it remains believable and bearable, will greatly intensify the reader’s feelings—whatever they are.”
Note the boundaries of believable and bearable. Stretch the reader outside those limits and you’re liable to lose her. Also, be judicious in the way you apply the pain to your character. Repetition of the same pain point leads to diminishing returns and it’s often more effective to show the causes and effects of the pain rather than overtly referring to it and describing it again and again.
3. Crescendo With a Sacrificial Choice
Another powerful way to optimize the emotional stakes in your story is by sacrifice. The thing that takes sacrifice a step beyond mere pain is that it is made by choice. A character chooses to give up something precious, their lives for example, for the sake of a greater good.
That is heart-wrenching. That resonates.
This pain-by-choice always has greater intensity and more dimension than pain on its own. It usually carries with it the crux of story conflict—the need to choose between the best of bad options or between two irreconcilable goods.
Communicating Emotion Case Study: Les Miserables
I recently watched a movie version of Les Miserables. There are few better examples of a showcase for pain and sacrifice than Victor Hugo’s epic and heartbreaking tale. It begins with the undeserved misfortune of Jean Valjean, who spent nineteen years of hard labor in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children.
We see his pain, as a result of his sacrifice, but that’s only the beginning. There’s a whole lineup of characters making difficult choices and suffering the consequences. The bishop who sacrifices his worldly possessions to give Valjean a second chance. Fantine, who sacrifices her hair, her teeth, her virtue, and her life to care for her daughter. Eponine, who suffers the pain of wanting what she cannot have and yet sacrifices her own happiness for the sake of the very one who takes it from her.
Marius Pontmercy suffers the pain of being torn between pursuing the woman he loves or standing with his brothers in a momentous revolution. The common peasants sacrifice their furniture, even prized pianos, to create a barricade for the rebels. And little Gavroche, who valiantly faces down the French army and surrenders his life for his comrades.
Of course the hero, Valjean, makes a whole series of sacrifices throughout the story, increasing the tension and driving the viewer (or reader) to concentrate on learning what happens next. And the villain of the piece, Javert, acts on his own imperatives that require sacrifice and pain, involving us emotionally on his part, as well.
Emotion is the Key to a Reader’s Heart
Genuine and intense emotion is the key to a reader’s heart. Remember that a story, presented effectively, communicates that emotion, allowing the reader to undergo something unique and meaningful.
As much as we might hope to avoid them in real life, pain and sacrifice are desirable additions to a story. They add dimension and richness to this two-way process between writer and reader, making for a satisfying experience all around.
How about you? Have you used the principles of pain and sacrifice to enrich your own writing? Experienced it in your reading? Tell us about it in the comments.
Let’s practice choosing between best bad options and irreconcilable goods. Choose a prompt below and write a scene where the character wrestles with the choice and makes a sacrifice.
- Jane must choose whether to cheat on the math exam or give up her scholarship
- Darren must choose whether to defend his mother from his rich and nefarious father or side with his father and gain a wealthy inheritance
- Sven must choose between marrying the woman he loves and marrying the girl he grew up with and always expected to marry
Write for fifteen minutes. When you are finished, post your work in the comments and don’t forget to provide feedback for your fellow writers!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.