"I couldn't put it down!" Authors love to hear readers say those words. We live to hear them. So do our publishers. But what, exactly, is this mysterious literary essence that hooks a reader? What holds them so hard, they simply must keep reading, often long into the night? To emerging writers who want to break in, and published authors who want to produce a break-out book, I offer this one-word answer. Emotion.
Sound simplistic? After all, you work hard on the many complex facets of our craft. You slave to hone your story structure, and distill theme, and chisel out perfectly sculpted sentences . Certainly, as writers, we must all do this work of craft. But structure and style are not ends in themselves. They're merely tools to produce the result we want: a meaningful emotional experience for the reader.
When characters in a story move your reader to pity or laughter or loathing or dread or just the simple warmth of fellow-feeling, that's what makes them keep turning pages. They crave to know: What's going to happen to these people? They care. The fine details of craft drift past the reader like mist unless the hand of emotion reaches out to snag them and hold them.
Here's what famed mystery author Raymond Chandler had to say on the subject: My theory was that readers just thought that they cared about nothing but the action; that really although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The thing they really cared about, and that I care about, was the creation of emotion."
The wise writer learns to use this knowledge to best effect. When I mentor writers, I use the word "manipulate." Good writing means you're manipulating your reader. It's not a trick. It's anything but shallow. It is, instead, a bonding with humanity's deepest consciousness. What moves us, imprints us. The evoking of emotion is what turns the writer's craft into art. Here are three powerful ways to do it:
1. Conflict. A main character who has no problems, no challenges to overcome, is a boring character and is living in a non-story. Conflict does not mean combat. It simply means what problems does this person face in trying to achieve their goal, be it a Maeve Binchy heroine launching her catering business in the face of her mother-in-law's disapproval (Scarlet Feather) or a Robert Harris colonel seeking justice against a cabal of generals (An Officer and a Spy). Conflict for your character is the most powerful tool you have to evoke emotion in your reader. Conflict makes us care.
2. Close Relationships. Ever notice how many compelling stories are family stories? War and Peace. The Grapes of Wrath. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Godfather. The Goldfinch. Readers live in families, too, so they instinctively empathize with the intense currents of familial relationships, be they supportive or toxic. Buffet your characters in these shifting currents. Your readers will feel it on a deeply visceral level.
3. Choice. No matter what a character says or how they conduct themselves, the only way they truly reveal themselves is by making choices under pressure. Choice under pressure reveals a person's real nature. The quiet, meek guy nobody notices who goes off to war and reveals the courage that saves his platoon. The loser, druggie kid living on the streets who gets pregnant and reveals herself to be a loving and competent mother. The rich, comfortable CEO who has everything, then reveals his tortured self by embezzling from his company. Extreme choice bares the soul. Force your characters to bare their souls.
When a reader says of your characters, "Oh, I felt so sorry for him" or "Bitch! I hated her!" or "That was so freaky it gave me chills" or "I had tears in my eyes" you know you've done your job. You've produced a page-turner.
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About the Author
Barbara Kyle is the author of ten novels with over 450,000 copies sold in seven countries. Her latest book is The Traitor's Daughter. Her master classes and manuscript evaluations have launched many writers to published success. Barbara's "Crafting the Page-Turner" Writers' Symposium on 17-18 October 2015 will bring in top industry professionals to give workshops, seminars, and pitch sessions. For more information and to register see www.BarbaraKyle.com. You can find barbara on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @BKyleAuthor.