The greatest criticism you can say about a story is that it’s boring.
But have you ever wondering why that’s such a criticism? Why is it that when we encounter a story we don’t like our reaction is to call it boring? Why not just say “not to my taste” or “poorly put together” or “badly written”?
But no, the universal default criticism of a story is almost always that it is dull.
The answer to this, of course, is pretty simple – stories are about emotion. Stories we like are ones that stimulate our emotions, while stories we don’t like are the ones that leave us flat and uninterested.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, stories offer readers five things: Skills, Perspective, Information, Creativity and Emotion. But if there’s one of those that a story won’t go anywhere without – it’s emotion. Stories need emotion like people need food, air and water – it’s essential.
So, how do you play with your reader’s emotions?
There are many ways, but in this article, I’m going to focus on five techniques that writers have been using for ages to bring out the emotions of their readers and keep them coming back.
Before I do, though, there’s one little thing that makes all these tricks work, so we have to talk about that first.
Do (or imagine) the following – stand up and jump into the air.
Now also do (or imagine) this – stand on a chair and jump off that chair into the air.
How did it feel when you landed? When you jumped from the ground and landed it was a small impact, but when you jump from a chair which is much higher up, it’s a much bigger impact, right? (I hope you didn’t hurt your real or imaginary self!)
The lesson from this (as every child knows) is that the higher you are, the harder you fall.
This applies to emotions too! The bigger the emotional change, the more it will impact the readers. And readers want things that impact them emotionally because that’s what stories are all about!
So, let’s look at five ways to use this principal to give your readers a real emotional roller-coaster!
First Trick: Treat your readers like an emotional ping-pong ball.
Whatever emotion you make a reader feel something, follow that up by making them feel the opposite emotion for the best impact. If they’re feeling hopeful, hit them with despair. If they’re feeling peaceful, hit them with anxiety. If they’re feeling fear, make them feel confident. If they’re feeling negative, then give them some positivity. By going from one emotional extreme to the other in a deliberate and careful way, it makes the other emotion much stronger and turns the story into an emotional roller-coaster ride that they don’t want to get off.
You might think this just applies to plot twists, like where a character has good fortune followed by bad luck, but this applies to characters as well. For example, if you make the audience love a certain support character because they’re so funny and witty, and then that character betrays the main character later in the story, the betrayal will hit much harder because the audience is the one who has been betrayed too. Similarly, if a character the audience is made to hate suddenly turns out to be sympathetic, it can make the audience pity them even more.
Second Trick: Keep them emotional!
Following up on the above trick, as you write your story think about how to keep the emotional feeling of your scenes shifting and changing. If you have a sad scene or chapter, follow that up with a happy scene or chapter. If you have a scary scene, follow that up with a lighter scene. Don’t let them rest emotionally, and always keep them moving in one emotional direction or another.
The key here is that it’s easier to go from love to hate, or hate to love, than it from disinterest to love, or disinterest to hate. When they’re at one emotional state, getting the audience to the other one is so much easier! People are either calm or emotional, and once you’ve got them in the emotion zone your job as a writer is to keep them there! As soon as they feel calm, you risk losing them. So, you want them feeling happy and peaceful (which are emotions) not calm and detached (which are unemotional states).
A good horror movie or thriller is a textbook example of this, because once they have their audience feeling emotional, they purposely keep them off balance all the time. They alternate constantly between fear and relief, suspense and revelation, and funny and scary to try and keep the audience always on their toes. If the audience yawns, they’re done, so they never give them the chance to yawn until the final credits start rolling.
Third Trick: Don’t hurry love.
A great trick for getting the audience to like a character a lot is to have them initially dislike that character a bit. Not hate, because that’s too strong, but making a character seem distant or a little unlikeable when they’re introduced can cause the audience to like them even more when that character shows their soft and sympathetic side. This is actually human psychology, as we appreciate the things we feel we earned more than things that are given to us freely.
A textbook example of this can be seen in the book and movie The Devil Wears Prada. In this story, a young woman achieves her dream of working at a high-end New York fashion magazine, but quickly discovers the chief editor is a cold and demanding boss. Like the main character, the audience initially dislikes the chief editor (played by Meryl Streep to perfection in the film version) and wishes she’d stop being so mean to the main character. However, as the story plays out and the boss is revealed to be a flawed and sympathetic human being, the main character (and the audience) comes to like and respect her much more than they would have if she’d been nice from the start. The whole movie works based on this trick.
Also, seeing a character show different sides that generate emotion can make a character seem much more real and deep than they might otherwise. People aren’t just one way – good or bad, but have many sides to us, and so do characters. Having a character generate different feelings in the audience can make that character more appealing and fleshed out than they otherwise might.
Fourth Trick: Get them on the tropes!
One of the things about tropes (standard story elements we see again and again) is that you can use them to generate emotions in the audience. All you need to do is give the audience a trope they recognize and that will trigger feelings because they “know” that means for the characters or situations in the story.
Let me give you a few examples.
- A police officer (who is not the main character) in a film says, “After this last case, I’m going to retire on a boat to Hawaii.”
- A character in a horror movie hears a noise, and goes down in the basement to check even after they discover the light switch doesn’t work anymore.
- In a dramatic scene near the end of an action movie, the hero’s friend says “I’ll hold them off, you do what you need to do!”
In all of these cases, anyone who has seen more than a few movies knows that these characters are probably going to die. The death flags these tropes raise are loud and clear, and make the audience start to worry if they’ve come to care about the characters. If they don’t want that character to die, but a “death flag” has just popped up, the audience is now uncertain and invested in finding out what happens.
Part of drama is telling the audience things the characters don’t know, and then letting the audience nervously watch as the characters walk into embarrassment, trouble, danger, or other tough situations that the audience knows are coming but can’t do anything about. Alfred Hitchcock, the infamous thriller director, uses a bomb as an example to demonstrate this when he points out how audiences would react to two characters sitting at a table with a bomb underneath it – a bomb only the audience can see. And “bombs” come in many shapes and sizes in stories.
Or, do the opposite.
Make it seem like a character is doomed, but then let them get out of it. Sometimes “subverting expectations” is the way to go, and having the hero fail to rescue the princess or the old lady going down into the dark basement turn out to be a blind martial arts master can bring an emotional surprise to a story or situation.
Either way, play with tropes and audience expectations to achieve emotional results. Foreshadow tragedy to make it sadder, and give them some relief when they’re not expecting it, and it will keep the audience emotionally invested.
Fifth Trick: When they want it – don’t give it to them
The fifth and final trick is about time.
If you’ve set things up well, the audience wants to know the answers to the dramatic questions that your story has given them. But if you want them to really appreciate the answers, don’t give it to them right away – make them wait for the answers. Suspense makes the emotional release much sweeter and stronger when the answer finally comes, and it has the extra benefit of keeping your audience paying attention.
A classic version of this is the pulp tradition of having the villain(s) tormenting or hunting someone who can’t fight back. A good pulp writer never had the hero show up to save the day right away, but made the audience wait to see what happened. They got every bit of emotion from the bad guys being bad, and the innocent trying their hardest to survive, play out to get the audience really emotionally worked up, and only then did they let the hero sweep in and inflict some righteous vengeance on the evil doers.
And there’s more!
The best pulp writers didn’t just have the hero show up, but had them show up in an unexpected way or at an unexpected time. They put in a little effort to put the emotional cherry on top of the big moment to make it a true winner.
It worked for them, and it can work for you too.
None of these tricks are new, and they’re the hard learned tricks that storytellers have passed on from one generation to the next for millennia. They’re rooted in human psychology, and since people don’t change, the tricks don’t either. They worked a hundred years ago in the pulps and movie serials, they work today in movies and streaming TV, and they will work a hundred years from now in immersive virtual reality experiences.
By following these five tricks:
- Treat your readers like an emotional ping-pong ball.
- Keep them emotional!
- Don’t hurry love.
- Get them on the tropes!
- When they want it – don’t give it to them. When they’re not expecting it, give it to them in a way they don’t see coming.
You can plan and write stories which will keep readers coming back time and again because they want to get more of the emotional experience you’re offering them. These might be tricky to master at first, but if you play with them, and try them out, you’ll quickly discover that you can play your audience’s emotions like a violin.
So, get out there and make them feel something! They’ll thank you for it later!