Edie here and I am beyond excited (and having a little fan-girl moment). Today I'm thrilled to share a guest post from one of my publishing heroes, C.S. Lakin. I've been a fan of hers for years and cut my writing teeth on her site, Live, Write, Thrive. This year she was part of the faculty at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and I got to meet her in person. She's also launching a new online video class, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. Today she's sharing her expertise with us. So please give her a warm TWC welcome (and sign up for her class!!!)
Slow Your Story to Move Readers Emotionally
by C.S. Lakin @CSLakin
by C.S. Lakin @CSLakin
We writers need to face this truth. Our #1 objective when writing fiction is to evoke a response from readers. Readers read to react. If our scenes don’t move our readers at all, we fail as writers. That’s a sobering fact.
The reaction we’re intending will vary from moment to moment. But whether we want our readers to feel worry, fear, exhilaration, hope, or amusement, we need to learn how to elicit that response masterfully. It’s not easy to do.
I have critiqued and edited hundreds of manuscripts, and most of them fail when it comes to masterfully showing and evoking emotion. While there is no magic method or simple secret to move readers emotionally, there are some specific techniques writers can employ to achieve targeted emotional reactions.
This is one small element that impacts evoking specific emotions in your readers, but it's important:
Slow It Down
One sure way to lose a reader’s engagement is to rush. Characters, like real people, need time to react, to process what they experience. If dialogue and action move quickly without any insertion of character reaction, it’s likely the scene will fall flat emotionally.
However, even with “showing” emotion effectively in characters, if scenes fail to allow space for readers to react and process, they cheat the reader of the opportunity to respond fully to what they’re reading.
Let’s look at the end of Terri Blackstock’s opening scene from her thriller Predator. Krista’s sister has been missing for weeks, and a body’s been found. The tension builds as Krista arrives at the site and watches workers excavate the body.
Krista waited, willing back the numbness, certain she wouldn’t recognize the girl. As the first raindrops fell, a man in a medical examiner’s jacket took in a gurney, and Krista watched as they pulled the body from its shallow tomb. She saw the pink-striped shirt that Ella was wearing that last day. Blonde hair matted with blood and earth.
Her knees went weak, turned to rubber. She dropped and hit the ground. At once, a crowd of police surrounded her, asking if she was okay. She blinked and sat up, let them pull her back to her feet.
She heard footsteps pounding the dirt.
“Aw, no! No! It can’t be her!” Her father’s voice, raspy and heart-wrenching, wailed out over the crowd. She wanted to go to him, comfort him, but it was as though her hands were bound to her sides and her legs wouldn’t move.
As they brought the girl closer, Krista saw the bloody, bruised face. Ella’s face.
The search was over. Her sister was dead.
Blackstock punches readers with emotion at the end of this scene by using techniques that help readers respond emotionally. She creates beats.
Beats or pauses in a scene can be created in many ways.
- When our characters pause and process, that provides a beat.Show tiny details they notice around them, which helps slow time in the scene. Krista blinks and sits up. It’s a small insertion that provides a beat.
- End chapters with action.That allows space for your reader to think about what just happened. Blackstock could have shown Krista weeping and wallowing in her thoughts as the gurney passed by, and that might have been a strong ending as well. But ending with the punch of action allows space for the reader to emotionally react.
- Use short words and short sentences. Use one-line paragraphs. “The search was over. Her sister was dead.” Short, to the point. Powerful.
- You can show an expression or gesture. Instead of saying “the news slapped her like a hand striking her face” you could say “Jill swallowed. Blinked. Reached a trembling hand to grasp the edge of the table.”
Want to move your readers by inserting beats? Try doing the following:
- When you read novels, look for the beats. Moments when the character stops to process. Moments when the author provides space for readers to react and process. Study the technique used and write it down.
- Look at one of your scenes in which something happens that’s important to your plot. A place where a beat is needed to give time for the character and reader to pause, react, and process what just happened. What kind of beat can you add here?
- Find places in the story or novel you’re writing to slow time. Have your character notice small details around her (a ticking clock, a smell or sound).
- Examine your scene endings. Do they pack a punch by ending with action? If not, consider how you might rewrite.
- Look for ways to punch moments home using short words, short phrases, stand-alone sentences—not only at scene endings but in key moments in your scene when you want your reader to react.
Evoking emotion from readers is a difficult skill, but learning to add beats will get you one step closer to becoming an “emotional master.”
Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers.