Heightening Emotional Impact

This post, by Juliette Wade, originally appeared on her TalkToYoUniverse site on 6/21/11.

How can you get your reader to feel emotionally moved by your story?

Well, first off, you can’t just tell them, "you should be emotionally moved." This is obvious, I think. I had been thinking about the topic of emotional involvement and creating intensity at particular points of the story, and then I ran across this article by Lydia Sharp, where she gives the following quote from Donald Maass:

You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because they [the characters] feel it. Only when that emotion is provoked through the circumstances of the story will your reader feel what you want them to.

Lydia then asks:
"So what does this mean? For starters, it goes back to the age-old advice of "show, don’t tell." Where emotions are involved, it’s best not to simply outright tell your reader what the characters are feeling. Let the reader experience it.

"And how do you do that? By not being obvious."

All of this, I agree with. If I were to take the Donald Maass quote and give my own take on it, I would have to say that our impressions of the emotional experiences of characters grow more out of our own emotions in a particular part of the story than the other way around. In other words, it is our own emotional understanding of the story that deepens the character’s experience, rather than the character’s emotional state deepening our own.

In a way, this makes sense. Because the character inhabits the story, he/she is limited in his/her ability to grasp the entirety of the story. The reader usually does not have these same limitations. I’m going to come back to the idea of the entirety of the story in a moment, but first let me address Lydia’s advice.

Lydia suggests we should let the reader experience what the characters are feeling, rather than telling them, by not being obvious. An excellent point. There are a number of ways that emotional states can be shown. One way is to describe the internal physical sensations of a person – adrenaline surges, feeling hot or cold, and many different kinds of metaphorical descriptions of pain, fear, embarrassment, joy, etc. can be of use for internal points of view. Another way is to show the external behaviors of a person feeling an emotion. If the point of view is external, you can show facial expressions; this is awkward to do with internal points of view, but you can still show actions of rage (as one example) like throwing things across the room, or pacing, stomping, etc. Still another way is to have the emotional state of the character in a scene be reflected somehow in the way that person perceives things around him/her, by including a sense of rage or other emotion in the surrounding descriptions of setting, descriptions of the actions of others, etc. There is a descriptive passage in Snow Falling on Cedars where the destruction wreaked by a storm is treated in intensive detail…and that reflects the inner state of the protagonist, Ishmael.


Read the rest of the post, which includes numerous specific, before-and-after examples, as well as some concrete tips, on Juliette Wade‘s TalkToYoUniverse.

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