Let’s say that you have a work jam-packed full of powerful ideas, bristling with exciting and recognisable characters, and filled with attractive power - what could go wrong?
In brief, you could fail to sustain the above to the degree you need to in order to produce emotional commitment.
Average readers are stubborn beasts. Sensitive readers can be even more stubborn. They don’t just want the above - they want so much of it that they will then yield up to you their most heart-felt treasure: feelings. Once you have captured some of their emotions, they will forgive you many faults.
Think of the books that you admire deeply even when you can see that they are not perfect; think of the television shows or films you've seen which you love despite several irritating aspects. You can win as a writer if you can get enough of an emotional commitment from readers. And the good news is that this isn’t that difficult to do.
1. Do you experience problems getting emotional commitment from readers?
Of course, this means that you must expose your work to readers. Have they expressed any emotions at all?
The thing with emotional commitment is that it is usually a ‘slow-build’. It’s unusual to be able to capture genuine commitment from readers early on in a tale, without using melodramatic tricks like putting a child or animal in danger immediately in an opening scene. To generate real warmth and pull off an authentic emotional effect usually takes a sustained effort. In practical terms, that means that you probably won’t be able to gauge your success or failure on this score until you have produced at least one complete work and had several people read it.
So your main ‘problem’ here might be that you haven’t written enough in the first place.
2. Do you struggle to inject emotion into the story?
If, however, while you’re writing, you feel that you are having trouble generating emotion, then you may be trying too hard.
Emotion is a byproduct. Other things happen in Life and in fiction, and one of their effects is emotion. Only by understanding what those ‘other things’ are and having a mastery of them can you hope to guide and control what those emotions will be.
Stories in general have two broad emotional effects: they can be happy and produce a positive ending, or they can be sad and produce a negative ending. The genres of Comedy and Epic result in happy endings; the genres of Tragedy and Irony result in sad endings. If you can grasp what exactly those genres do to create their effects, you can begin to flesh out the emotion in your tale.
Just as a carpenter uses a standard set of tools in different ways to produce different items of furniture, so a writer uses a set of tools to devise stories which have different emotional outcomes.
3. Are you struggling emotionally with your work?
If you yourself are having emotional difficulties, you may find that these interfere with, rather than enhance, your writing. Creative writing can be therapeutic; writing stories that communicate effectively usually requires that the author puts some distance between himself or herself and the material. That’s why they can work as therapy.
It comes back to the first section on Ideas: if your ideas are stable and strong, the emotion you can generate can be powerful and consistent. If your own emotions are clouding your ideas, the result will be equally cloudy and opaque to most readers.
4. Does your fiction have healthy emotional content which works on readers?
The key word there is ‘healthy’.
‘Healthy’ emotional content doesn’t mean that the emotions in the story have to be entirely positive. A swift glance any piece of fiction that you personally enjoy or would recommend to another will show you convincingly that negative emotion has a fundamental role to play in any story. Writers throughout history generate wave after wave of grief, fear, anger, frustration and antagonism, or all of them, in their work; those writing in the genres of Comedy or Epic have the story work out so that these dark forces are overcome, usually right at the end; writers of Tragedies or Ironies plough on with the negativity, haunting their readers afterwards.
By ‘healthy’ is meant ‘Does the story contain enough emotion to generate a viable response from the reading it?’
5. Do you feel your emotional content is about right?
If you are the only person to have read your work, this question may be hard to answer. The way to measure whether it is ‘about right’ is to judge whether or not the reader makes a commitment to the story. That means that they will either continue reading it, or feel ‘bonded’ to it in some way outside what they consider to be any faults that it has.
Reader responses like ‘I loved this story, even though I felt that the way you described so-and-so doesn’t work’ or ‘This is great! I really felt for the characters! But the ending is disappointing’ mean that you have judged the emotional content more or less correctly.
6. Are you anxious about emotion in the story?
One of the ways that authors try to deal with any concerns that they have about emotional content is to attempt to be overtly emotional in their language.
The overuse of adverbs (‘wildly’, ‘sadly’, ‘joyfully’, ‘energetically’) or the replacement of the simple and undistracting ‘she said’ with ‘she appealed’ or the like suggest to the reader on a subtle level that the author lacks confidence with emotions. As mentioned, emotions are created and manipulated through the creation and manipulation of other factors. An author who is familiar with these other factors and has control of them has no need to inject emotion using adverbs or other obvious mechanisms: feelings happen, often unexpectedly, often intensely, when other things are shifted around.
What those ‘other things’ are is covered in great detail in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published!
7. Does your story contain hardly any emotion?
This might be a good thing, based on the above, if it means that the reader can’t find any obvious ‘emotionalism’ in the work.
Using emotional words can be interpreted by readers as an attempt to directly control their attention. It’s like saying to a reader or audience ‘Now you’re supposed to feel this’. Musical soundtracks in films are an example of this: happy and bouncy rhythms for when you are ‘supposed to’ feel cheerful or amused, sadness or building tension in the music when you are supposed to feel sad or tense. On the stage it would be as though a person stood on the edge of the scene and shouted to the audience what they were supposed to feel during the other characters’ actions and dialogue. It’s distracting and potentially bounces audiences and readers out of the work.
A magician doesn’t reveal the mechanics of his or her trick as the trick is done - the wonder of the audience depends on not knowing or not spotting how they were fooled. So it is with fiction writing: the emotion comes as the result of actions taken that are not necessarily seen or felt while the scene is unfolding.
8. Is it hard to make emotion work in your story?
If emotion seems difficult to make function in your fiction, it’s probably because you haven’t learned the way the tricks work. Once you know where the rabbit is hidden, you can pull it out of the hat.
9. Is the emotional level lower than it should be?
‘That depends what is meant by ‘should’. But drawing on all the above we can give it a very precise definition:
The emotional level of a work of fiction is that required for a reader to make a commitment to the work.
10. Is there an excess of emotion in the work?
See the answers above.
Excessive emotion usually results from a) a lack of familiarity with the things which produce emotion in fiction in the first place and b) an attempt to compensate for this lack of familiarity by injecting overtly emotional words and scenes into a work, as described above.
Remove excess emotion firstly by extracting any obvious attempt to create it in your language or tone; then become accustomed to the underlying realities which have emotion as their byproduct.