Friday, February 24, 2012

The Strongest Emotion You Can Evoke from Readers

I’m overly sensitive to books. Perhaps it’s because stories are my life, so they have a lot of meaning for me. This has caused me much grief. 

I’ll have trouble falling asleep because of a book, and I’ll even wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I can get disturbed to the point of needing to read scriptures to make myself feel better, and I can get sad enough to ruin my whole day.

Seriously, it’s a problem.

Peony in Love, for example, gave me many sleepless nights. I had to know if the main character would survive long enough to be with the man she loved. Even though I could guess how things would play out, I ached for it to happen differently. When it didn’t, I was upset both physically and emotionally.

Later in the book, an army attacked a city and butchered 80,000 people. The author described it in graphic detail. It bothered me, of course, but not nearly as much as what was happening to Peony. Why did I care so much about one girl’s happiness and not about thousands of lives?

Granted, I’m attached to the main character and I don’t know every person in the city, but my reaction to the book was too strong for this to explain it. The difference is one situation gives me something the other doesn’t:

Hope.

In the city, the people were dead before I knew they existed. With Peony, I spent a hundred pages hoping things would turn out alright for her. Tragedy is terrible, but it has little effect because it’s a fact of life. Hope, on the other hand, is the strongest emotion you can make your readers feel.

The Lovely Bones is a very similar story about a ghost watching the lives of the people around her. However, while I enjoyed it, I didn't get as consumed or upset by it as I did with Peony in Love. It's odd because in Bones, a little girl is brutally raped and murdered, whereas in Peony, her fate is mostly her fault.

The difference is I knew what would happen to Susie in The Lovely Bones as soon as a strange man invited her into his fort. There was no hope for her. After her death she goes on a fascinating journey, but she's mostly just seeing things happening around her. Peony, on the other hand, actively pursues her own happiness and influences the lives of the people around her. Readers hope for Peony throughout the novel; with Susie, the damage is done.

If you want readers to be gripped by your novel, give them something to hope for. Don’t make your characters perfectly at ease; then readers can’t invest any emotion in them. Don’t shower your character with tragedy to make the story intense; show the readers there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

If a story has the potential to go one of two ways – the character could either lose everything or get all she ever wanted – hope will drive readers forward.

6 comments:

  1. If a book actually affects your slept, that means its a good read. The author would be honored!:))

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  2. I hope someday that someone is as affected by one of my books as you are by "Peony in Love."

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  3. It's interesting you mention this. As I read your post, I immediately thought about The Last Airbender series. The one driving force throughout the episodes was the hope that Aang, the main character, brought to the world after over a 100 years of despair.

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  4. Wow, very good thoughts here. I've actually been contemplating the importance of this in my own writing. I couldn't really stand The Lovely Bones, maybe you just put your finger on WHY. Mostly, I felt we were drifting along, though we wanted to see the killer get his recompense in the end.

    Very few books affect my mood, but Jude the Obscure sent me into a two-day depression. And the hopeless ending had just about everything to do w/that.

    I'll definitely be back to visit your blog!

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  5. For being overly sensitive, you were brave to tackle both Bones and Peony.

    After reading this, perhaps I will, too, be brave, as these books are sitting on my shelf--waiting for that day when I can handle reading them.

    Love the hope message in writing.

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  6. "Don’t shower your character with tragedy to make the story intense..."

    I think that is the exact problem of many novels. At least those attempting to be overtly literary. Tragedy happens in life, of course, but this notion that writers have taken up that to be a truly moving piece of writing that can be admired by intelligent people it must be tragic at every step is for the birds.

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