Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Making Readers Feel (and Care)

photo credit Al Bogdan
By Scott H. Andrews

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: A double shot of guest authors today. Writing a great story isn't always enough--we have to emotionally connect to our readers to really hook them. Please help me welcome Scott H. Andrews to the lecture hall to share tips on how to make readers feel.

Scott H. Andrews taught the Odyssey Online class "Standing Out: Creating Short Stories with That Crucial Spark" in 2018 and will be teaching the upcoming Odyssey Online class "Emotional Truth: Making Character Emotions Real, Powerful, and Immediate to Readers."

Scott writes, teaches college chemistry, and is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the six-time Hugo Award finalist online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Space & Time, Crossed Genres, and Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales.

Scott has taught writing at the Odyssey Workshop, Writefest, and online for Odyssey Online Classes and Cat Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. He has lectured on short fiction, secondary-world fantasy, editing, magazine publishing, audio podcasting, and beer on dozens of convention panels at multiple Worldcons, World Fantasy conventions, and regional conventions in the Northeast and Midwest. He is a six-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and he celebrates International Stout Day at least once a week.

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Take it away Scott...

I read over a thousand short stories every year, as Editor-in-Chief of Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine. Many of them have vivid, fascinating settings. Many have engaging characters, in situations--whether external plot or internal conflict (or both)--that are interesting or tense or entertaining. But the stories feel plain or ordinary. They don't hold my interest. They don't keep me reading.

Why? What's the problem? They have engaging characters or a vivid setting; what are they missing?

These stories aren't making me feel. They aren't making me care.

How does a story make me care? It makes me feel something, usually by making me feel the character's emotions.

All characters, of course, have emotions. Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn are speechless with joy to see Gandalf again; Araya is horrified to see her father... (no spoilers!); Red is brimming with hope at the prospect of seeing his friend Andy Dufresne again.

But to make me keep reading, the story can't merely show the characters' emotions. It has to make me feel them.

Which is a lot harder than it seems. Many writers use common turns of phrase ("they blinked") or metaphors of bodily sensations ("her stomach sank") to try to make readers feel emotion, or oblique references and ambiguous physical gestures ("she shivered"). Those conceits are an easy shorthand, which most readers understand how to interpret, and they show the characters' emotions well enough, but they don't make the reader feel them.

So how can a story do that? How can letters on a page make a person feel emotion, in their own mind or heart?

For me, it requires a clever and deft mix of carefully constructed prose and emotional honesty from the writer. It requires tapping into the writer's own experiences--what instances or flavors of that emotion you have felt yourself or you can extrapolate from ones you have felt. It requires filtering them through the character--how would that character feel and express and react to that emotion, which may be similar or may be different to how you would yourself or how you've experienced it yourself. Then it requires rendering all of that on the page in ways that feel emotive without ever breaking the illusion that the reader is seeing or hearing or touching that character in the flesh, not reading squiggles on a piece of paper.

Evoking emotion is the single biggest thing that makes me keep reading a story; that makes a story work for me. And failing to evoke emotion is the most common thing that makes me lose interest in a story; that makes me not care; that keeps a story from working for me, no matter how interesting the setting or plot or characters may be.

I think all writers would be well-served to look close and hard at the prose and the underlying inspiration they are drawing on when they attempt to make character emotion come through on the page. Avoid language that's cerebral, such as poetic prose or grandiose metaphor, and concentrate on the emotional. Emotion often comes through to the reader more honestly and effectively via surprisingly simple prose. Avoid common prose tics, like those clich├ęd descriptors and those vivid but emotionally empty bodily sensations, and dig for something more unusual and evocative. Inventing your own new and evocative descriptor will reach readers far more effectively. Avoid flinching away from the difficult or awkward or painful and capture honestly the hopes and fears that are at the core of that emotion.

Make the reader care--make your prose evoke emotion in them--and they will keep reading!

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