When I was at my critique group this week, we got into an interesting discussion about emotion in fiction writing. One of my critique partners, Alicia Rasley, does a lot of teaching. She is always studying different writing styles and various genres in order to better understand the nuances of each. She dissects things in a way that I find absolutely brilliant. And as we discuss, I always discover a new way to view the craft of fiction.
We talked about how different writers evoke emotion, how it is used in character development, how to effectively create it, where and why it is most effective. One thing that came out as we talked was a comparison between commercial fiction (which almost always strives to keep emotion on a rollercoaster, using it connect readers to characters) and literary fiction which often the narrative delivery is more level. That’s not to say lack of description, for literary fiction carries much larger chunks of pure narrative; but it doesn’t strive to manipulate the reader’s active emotions in the same way commercial fiction does.
When writing commercial fiction we choose point-of-view, select scenes, and set up conflict in a way that draw the reader’s active emotions along the path of our characters’.
So how do we do it? This was a question that required more thought than I’d expected. I mean, I do it every day. But, I realized, I’ve developed an instinctive sense of how to create it and don’t spend a lot of time planning my attack step by step. I had to basically work it backwards to be able to tell you what I do to engage a reader’s active emotions.
Select the Proper Setting for the Scene You’re Writing
This is a great tool to set up mood. A sunny, well-populated street sets your reader’s emotional expectation in a much different way than a foggy South Carolina Lowcountry marsh late at night. Of course, I’ve boiled it down to the most drastic of contrasts here, but all scene settings should be chosen wisely with an eye toward the emotion they evoke.
Point of View Character Choice
I choose my point of view character for the scene (I usually write in third person). Whose feelings and interpretations do I want the reader to plug into? As people in any society, everything we do is interpreted by those around us, rightly or wrongly. This is a great tool.
However, if you’re writing in first person, as I am doing in my current novel (Whistling Past the Graveyard), that pov character is your main protagonist.
Some folks like to throw in additional povs even when writing in first person. This should only be done if it is essential to tell an aspect of the story that would otherwise be impossible. When using additional povs in first person, another choice must be made; Will those additional viewpoints be told in third person? Or first person? Multiple first person viewpoints is the trickiest and takes some practiced skill to pull of successfully, so choose wisely.
Another thing to think about when choosing first or third person narration, is the genre in which you are writing. Do your research, some genres are by general rule told in first or in third.
To ramp up the emotional response in your readers, take them through a scene actively via the point of view character’s senses and emotions. Have the character feel, don’t tell how they feel. For example, in SLEEP NO MORE my main character experiences a devastating house fire as a child which affects the rest of her life. Because the trauma of this event has an effect on all of her choices and decisions throughout the book, I chose to use a prologue in which the reader experiences the fire with Abby as a child (therefore showing her terror from an eleven-year-old perspective), instead of Abby simply recalling it from her now-safe adult point of view.
On the other hand, if you want a slow build, a simmering anticipation of what is to come, sometimes a fairly long passage of narrative works better.
Try to make your character’s plight relatable to the majority of people. Back to the scene with the fire in SLEEP NO MORE; clearly very few people experienced this as a child – but almost everyone has had an event in their childhood where they felt fear and panic. So I worked to make those emotions relatable, I tapped into the visceral reactions to those emotions. If you’re interested in taking a look, this scene is on my website as an excerpt: Sleep No More Writing Excerpt.
In writing successful fiction, it’s all about capturing your reader’s emotions, making them bleed with your characters, not just watch the show.
So here are my questions to you: As a reader, or a writer, what makes you dig in your heels and root for a character? As a writer, how do you get the job done? Do you see a difference in the way literary fiction handles emotion and commercial fiction handles emotion?