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The Heart of Your Story

What’s the one simple thing that readers want from fiction?


Emotion comes in many guises: we might read science fiction because of the exciting sensations of new ideas; we might read romances because of the soft fuzzy sense of well-being we get from them; we might read Westerns because we admire the tough spirits of the protagonists. But at the end of the day, and at the end of any book, the prize we like to carry away is emotion.

We read non-fiction largely for rational reasons: we want to learn something, to vicariously experience something perhaps, as in travel writing, or to find out how to improve something. There’s often an emotional factor in non-fiction too, but it’s primarily about Reason.

Fiction isn’t really a rational thing. Complete strangers invent stuff in their heads, making up people, adventures, settings, events and everything else that goes into a story, and we read the results and enter into a kind of trance in which we sort of believe it all to be happening in front of us. If the fiction writer is successful, we actually feel something — a perception change, a shift, a set of sensations, an undefined resonance, which for some reason we value, almost above all other things.

Readers are often hard put to describe the emotions that a story can evoke. That’s to be expected: emotions often defy descriptive language, which, in terms of breaking down a story into components, is an attempt to reduce emotion to rational expression. In a sense, if a reader is asked to delineate exactly what a story did to them emotionally, the only correct response is ‘Read the story’ — as the story itself is the experience captured as closely as possible in words.

All this tells us something fundamental about our own writing: to be successful, it has to have an emotional heart. People buy emotionally and justify their actions rationally. When you buy a book, you probably have a raft of rational reasons why you are doing so, but underpinning them is the emotional want or need which motivates you in the first place to take out your purse or wallet.

You can overdo emotion in a story, just like you can put too much sugar in a cake. I look at some of the winning stories over the last two years and see heavy doses of sugar in them. Too much emotion can trigger a reader’s subtle mechanisms — mechanisms which create something resembling guilt. A reader likes to think that he or she is being fooled into reading something which is not so glaringly pressing his or her emotional buttons. Just as we try to avoid eating the sweetest and most starkly unhealthy sugary products because we are aware of the devastating effects they can have on our physical health, so, as readers, many of us tend to skip past the books which are too obvious in their emotional appeal — the formulaic romances, the two-dimensional pulp epics, the melodramas and the goofy slapstick comedies. We’re looking for the more carefully prepared emotional meals, the ones that have a multiplicity of flavours or which yield an emotional effect that we didn’t quite see coming.

I remember reading War and Peace for the first time and suddenly feeling overcome with grief when a secondary character died in the first third of the book. That made me sit up and take notice: how exactly had Tolstoy sneaked up on me like that? War and Peace is often a dry treatise on war and human nature, with long chapters devoted to military history and philosophy — almost a work of non-fiction, in parts. But Tolstoy’s construction of character, based on close human observation, means that the novel is also full of emotional traps for the unwary. The cumulative effect of dozens of these lends weight to the more arid passages of philosophy and results in an overall grand prize of ‘potentially life-changing book’ by the end.

Most of us can only aspire to that prize. In the meantime, take a look at your own work through the spectacles of emotion: what does your fiction yield in terms of feeling for the reader? They don’t have to be simple feelings; you don’t have to even be able to describe them lucidly. But they do need to be there, if you expect readers to reach for their money.


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