Today, I hosted a chat on the 10 Minute Novelists’ Facebook page, entitled “Crafting a Haunting Story Using Emotional Resonance.” I enjoyed putting the material together, and the discussion which followed. I’ve posted a transcript here of my points and questions, including links for source material. It’s always fun to do some deep thinking about the craft of storytelling. If you haven’t joined the 10 Minute Novelists, you can find the website here and the Facebook group here.
-3.the senses/vivid description
-4.MRU to give emotional reactions more impact
-5.Show don’t tell
-6.Empathy vs exposition
P1/Q1: First of all, what is emotional resonance? It’s when you create a story, a world, a character readers identify with on such a deep level, they do more than understand the character. They see themselves in them. Reading is a profound way to feel empathy. It’s one of the reasons for literature to exist – the ability to live a different life, someone else’s experiences. But to be able to frame them with your own experiences, that’s emotional resonance. Once readers put the book down, they can’t forget about it. And they want more of it.
So how do we create this resonance? There’s several levels to it, and we could pinpoint empathy as the primary weapon. But it’s not the only one. I’ve tried to structure this so we begin macro and move inward, from exterior world to interior feelings. None of these are set in stone, and you can pick and choose a variety of them, weaving them into your own story as you see fit.
What’s a book or series of books that jumps out at you, something that has stuck with you for years and years? I could name so many, but the first one that jumps to mind is a Stephen King story called “The Long Walk.” And a character I come back to, time and time and time again? Rincewind, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
P2/Q2: Starting macro, let’s talk universal themes. The human condition is widely varied, but there are things that all of us can readily grasp. The value of love, good vs evil, hardship and triumph. If we can choose something which people can identify with, half our work is already done.
I’ll use “The Long Walk” as an example (spoilers if you haven’t read it). The prevailing theme is survival – man vs self. The titular long walk asks the contestants to walk until they cannot walk any more. If they stop, they die. If they walk longer than everyone else, persevere through exhaustion and hopelessness, they and their families will be fed for the rest of their lives. Each footfall magnifies the drumbeat – survive, survive, survive.
Many of us have experienced a time in which we had to do what it took to survive. Whether that meant fighting a bear, or dragging yourself out of bed for a job that’s slowly killing you so you can buy Ramen. We want to believe we can defeat that hopeless little voice in our head, and so we see ourselves in the character who won’t give up.
What other universal themes can you think of that you might like to explore? Which ones resonate with you? Here’s a quick list:
P3/Q3: I think, of all the points I’m making today, this is the one most up for debate.
Choosing the right Point of View (POV). To inspire the greatest amount of empathy, to get someone to see themselves in a character at the most profound level, deep POV is the best way to go. First and third limited/deep are considered the closest points of view (see the link for brief descriptions of each). This is not to say the other POVs are no good, or should not be done. But when you really want to get your reader into the character’s head, and vice versa, you can delve no deeper than first or limited/deep third.
Think of a story or character you were so attached to that you ran out and bought or borrowed the next book immediately. The Harry Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a great example of this for me. They are written in first person, from Harry’s POV. As the series progresses, you can actually watch Jim’s writing style improve, becoming more polished and easy. But even for all the flaws of the early books, I was so attached to the character that I actually read all 14 books available at the time back to back to back.
Through the use of an intimate POV, Jim is able to pull you into Harry’s head. While I might not be a modern wizard who is a private detective for hire, I know how it feels to be uncertain. To think maybe I’m doing the wrong thing, but see no other options. And when the character triumphs, I feel like I can succeed, too.
And I want to do it again. So I buy more books.
What do you think is a strength of first or deep third person? What books can you think of which pulled you in so completely, it didn’t even matter when the main character made less than stellar choices?
P4/Q4: So let’s talk about description. First, there’s the senses. This is personal preference, but I prefer picking just a few of the five and focusing on those in each scene.
Smell is a powerful sense. Just the scent of Gardetto’s snacks can put me in a specific time and place, almost twenty years ago. Without preamble, there I am, driving across the country with my best friend and my dog.
After my first beta readers came back to me saying, “I never thought about how a zombie would smell,” I knew I was onto something. And it made my characters more real to them, knowing that they sometimes gagged because this rotting body approached. When the back of my characters’ throats closed, my readers could feel it. That dragged them ever deeper into the story.
Vivid descriptions using imagery can do this, too. Consider this excerpt by Ash Ambirge (from this essay):
“I grew up curling my bangs in a trailer park, using food stamps to buy popsicles, dating boys who milked cows, bringing boom boxes to stone quarries, and thinking tinted car windows were the ultimate sign of prestige.”
These are all images, but somehow they’re also pieces of time. Feelings. Combined, a sense of longing and despair. Maybe a little contempt. But she never said that. She merely gave us a vivid set of descriptions that tie us to her.
Can you think of something like this in your own work? An unexpected use of senses, or a shiny little piece of imagery? How about something you read that has stuck with you?
P5: Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. In an effort to keep us moving, I’m going to let the article do most of the talking. But I’d like to briefly address how to make the reactions of your characters have more impact.
The motivation-reaction unit (MRU).
Some of you are aware of this. Some of you are probably like me the first time I discovered this little hack and you’re going to be saying, “why didn’t I know this before?!” It’s good for many things, not the least of which is keeping the pages turning. But here I’d like to point out how it makes readers feel more deeply.
The basic idea is to break cause and effect into two paragraphs. If the cause is the ladder falling, the effect is the character’s fear before they hit the ground. But if it’s all bound in one paragraph, it’s almost like a run-on sentence. There’s no pause, no place for the reader to inject their own feelings. Just like breaking the tension, you have to give readers room to feel what your character is feeling.
Just give them that little paragraph break. Let them take that briefest of moments to anticipate what the character is going to feel. Let them start to fill it in before it happens.
You know what they say about antici–
P6/Q5: This is a big one, most of us hate it a little (or a lot). But stick with me. It’s “show don’t tell” time.
Linking into the time you gave your readers to anticipate the character’s emotional response, is the fact that you don’t have to spoon feed them said response. Nor should you, not if you want your words to have maximum impact. Yes, there are times to tell. Absolutely. We are “storytellers,” after all. What I have to say about showing vs telling and its place in creating emotional resonance is not “show all the time and never tell.”
It’s more show the feelings instead of telling them. Show the internal dialogue, show the character arguing with themselves, show us how goofy they feel when they hear the sound of their own voice. Don’t be afraid to travel deep inside the point of view character(s).
Put simply, leave room for the reader to fill in the gaps on their own. Show them the cold sweat of the brow, the clenched fist, and let them surmise if it’s anger, or fear, or both. When we allow the readers to create with us, to take an active part in building the story in their own mind, it burrows deep into their heart and makes a home there. They become part of the story, rather than just an observer. And it makes it easier to relate their own experiences, to transfer them onto the character. Or vice versa.
Those of you who’ve known me for a while have seen this essay before, I’m sure of it. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t show it to you, again, especially while we’re talking about this. It’s got to be the single greatest piece I’ve ever read on showing and when I say it was a game changer, I cannot overstate just how major of a change it was. Is it necessary to do exactly as Chuck suggests, at all times and in all circumstances? I’ll leave that to you to decide. But I strongly urge you to give it a try.
What are your favorite pieces of showing? Or your favorite piece of advice on showing? How have you implemented them in your own writing?
P7/Q6: And finally, what I consider one of the most important of all the subjects we’re going over today: exposition vs empathy.
Let me tell you a little secret. In third grade, I picked up my first novel. It was the novelization of “The Empire Strikes Back,” by Donald F. Glut. Looking back on it, I can’t remember a ton of details, though I found some pretty harsh reviews in looking it up while I wrote this. One thing I do remember is that the world of books opened to me when I read that. When the TIE fighter pilot chose almost certain death in an asteroid field over going back and telling Vadar he’d failed in capturing the Millenium Falcon, I suddenly realized what books had over movies. Interior dialogue.
I was hooked.
There was an article I read many years ago which went into the success of the Harry Potter books and why they were so much more successful than some of Rowlings’ contemporaries. Obviously there are several reasons for their success, but one is her use of empathy, or what the linked article refers to as “interiority.” She had a ton of worldbuilding to do, but rather than bury it in description and exposition, she related it to us through Harry’s experience. His utter shock when he’s told he’s a wizard, his wonder at all the magical things he sees in Diagon Alley, his amazement at even the simplest of spells.
But even more, she gives us moments of perfectly human connection. Moments to paste our own feelings over Harry’s, and to identify with someone else. To see ourselves in the unfamiliar, thereby making it familiar and activating our empathy at a deep level. From the Sorcerer’s Stone:
“ “Go on, have a pasty,” said Harry, who had never had anything to share before, or, indeed, anyone to share it with.”
In studying human behavior, it’s been found that creating a connection through empathy goes deeper than one created with exposition. It’s that interior dialogue, their thoughts and feelings, how perfectly human our characters can be, which really connects readers to them.
One way I do that is by adding my feelings, my own experiences, to my characters. Not the frame of them, not the actual events, but rather, the shape of them. Then you weave it into this story you’re telling, put all the parts together, and let it ride.
What’s an experience you’ve had you think many people could relate to? How could you give this same emotion to your main character?
And one last article to finish us off. I recommend the exercise at the end. I did it on my opening scene, and while it didn’t change much, it gave me confidence that I know my characters. Writing the interiority was a breeze. If you do the exercise, come back and let me know how it went!
If you’d like to join the discussion, by all means, let’s talk in the comments!