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How to Manipulate Reader Emotions

We experience a vast array of emotions when we read a story. Half the time we probably don't even realise it. Many writers scratch their heads wondering how they can write a scene that will evoke such emotional captivation their readers are reaching for the tissues. But eliciting emotions from your audience is not just about whether you can make the reader cry. And by incorporating your puppet mastery to pull them this way and that among an array of emotional experiences it will actually help towards achieving that elusive pedestal of having the blubbing fans some authors tend to covet.

However, you might not want to reduce those fans to tears. Maybe you want them to fall in love, or shit themselves with fear. So, how do you manipulate them into all those emotional corners?

-Give your character a 'want' and get the reader to root for that want, then you're halfway there.

We want what the character wants, usually, even if it's not something we'd want for ourselves in real life, or even if their want goes against what we think we *should* want (if you're still following! )

Example: Game of Thrones (Song of Ice & Fire series). We all hated Jamie Lannister when he pushed Bran off the tower early in the saga. Later on down the line we *love* Jamie Lannister, because he became a POV character – he was no longer just the villain opposing the heroes. He had a clear and definable goal (to protect the woman he loves and their children) and suddenly we want him to succeed in his goal. We’re rooting for him, which is the key effect a writer wants from the goal. Even when his goal is just to be by his sister’s side (and all that ick), which goes against what we think we should want. Get it?

Along with the 'want' of the story, we also get the 'don't want'. If the want is clear enough, what the character doesn't want should be plain as day, and so our emotions will react accordingly — i.e. with dread that they are heading into a situation that directly opposes their known goal; with tears that they lost what they wanted and instead got what they had been fighting so hard to avoid.

Think of The Red Wedding — there we were, us poor unsuspecting readers/viewers, thinking finally the Starks were gaining great victory, only to find, when we’re on a great plot-high and beginning to feel a little safer, it all snatched so cruelly away. If it hadn’t been so clear who we were rooting for and why (creating a deep connection with the story goals of the Starks), that scene would never have had as much impact. Every fibre of every viewer scream No, no, no! And yet there it was, the exact thing we didn't want happening right before our eyes.

-When they fear something, we should fear it. If you write it with enough anticipation beforehand and give enough indicators that the scary thing is very bad for your protag, then the trigger is set for us to feel the fear.

Many writers forget to provide enough anticipation leading up to scary events when writing this kind of suspense. They rely on the gore and violence to be scary in itself, but fear in fiction is not attained that way so when the scary event happens, it falls flat, or seems hollow.

All too often writers neglect the necessary psychological aspect that’s needed prior to the event itself. The supporting details. Just think about a favourite story or film — think about how many subtle indicators or atmospheric building of details contribute towards the pay-off before it actually takes place. One of my favourite examples is the original Poltergeist film from back in the ‘80s. Not one person dies in that film, and it’s not particularly violent, either, but the script writers and director play with the readers psychology in such a way that it always feels as if someone is going to die and the viewers are in a constant flux of fear.

Lack of anticipation is also a problematic area of romance — relying on the gratuitous details of a sexual encounter to create feelings of love without building those first feelings of attraction through the use of early, incremental indicators. Just like with real sexual encounters, the act itself is so much more gratifying when anticipation has been accrued beforehand. Put it another way: you wait until the water runs hot before you hop into the shower, right?

If you want to give your reader a lump in the throat, hold back. Less is more. Don't try and fill in every moment with heart-rending detail. Leave the melodrama and gratuitousness out of it. Provide some imagery and concrete details on someone's death, by all means, but don't give too much. Don't detail all the tears and wailing that might come afterwards in real life. Give it implication. Give it delicacy. Give it space.

Space is one of your best friends when it comes to this kind of emotion because the reader fills it in with their own imagination and experiences and that is often more powerful than anything words can achieve.

Contrast and deception. Sometimes writing towards one type of emotion or expectation can work to heighten the ultimate opposite emotion you want to convey.

Let's say you want your character to have a really big positive pay-off at the end of the story or chapter. In order to invoke the same elated feeling as your character in your reader, it can work in your favour to lead the reader down the wrong path of anticipation — make them think something awful is going to happen, then twist it completely around at the last minute (again, think of the Red Wedding example).

Just to reiterate: the key to this technique also ties back into the ‘want’ of the POVC, and also the story stakes. If they really, really want it, and the alternative is really, really bad, and you make it really, really difficult for the MC to achieve that goal, the reader will experience the frustrations and the pay offs as the character feels them – i.e. story tension. But it takes time to build, which is why most writing advice states that conflict is constantly rising. In saying that, as it rises it also needs a head point — a ‘bang!’ — where all that tension can be released, even if only temporarily.

Author connection. Of course, no emotions will be effective if the author isn’t deeply connected to their own characters’ plights. If you are not understanding how their pain, sadness, loss, grief, pride, ambition, etc., feels to them, then it’s likely your reader won’t.

I’ve heard from authors who example scenes from their work where they didn’t feel particularly connected to the story at the time of writing and yet their readers say those same scenes made them cry. But to be connected to your characters doesn’t mean you have to be bawling your own eyes out as you write their stories. It means you must have an understanding of how they operate emotionally, and how those emotions affect their actions and any resulting consequences.

Creating the right emotional reactions in your reader might seem impossible, but with a few practised techniques it needn’t be as hard as it seems. Give it a go — write a short story using the techniques outlined above, or edit an existing one. If you’re really brave, post your stories, or a link to them if they feature on your blog, so we can see how you approached it. Be sure to include what effect you were attempting to achieve (maybe at the end) — i.e. fear, love, tears, elation.

And if you are interested in understanding more about your characters’ emotional makeup and how it works in storytelling, you’ll be pleased to hear I am working on a new class as part of my How to Plot Your Story Arcs series on Skillshare, which dives deeper into the subject. Subscribe to my blog for the latest news and for early bird promotions!

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