Emotions in Writing

I got a little distracted in my life assessment this week and ended up going through my favorite writing books and jotting down from them the parts I’d underlined when I first read them.

One of the common themes I noticed was this idea that you need to make your readers feel something. That events don’t matter so much as the meaning and impact of those events and that it’s the writer’s role to convey that meaning and impact.

Which made me think about one of the books I want to write. Because the book I want to write would be about hope and healing. But I realized while reading all those writing advice books that even the stories that end on an up note–the bad guy gets his and our heroes prevail–have to take the reader down to get to that point.

Most stories take a person and make their life worse and worse and worse and worse until it gets better. I can’t off the top of my head think about a story that takes a person and builds up and up and up from the starting point.

And to be clear, I’m not talking about some story where Hero is perfect and nothing goes wrong and he just does everything easily because, yeah, that’s boring.

But I think there is a way to write a story where the individual overcomes challenge and conflict while only moving to a better place.

Maybe though, this down before up pattern happens because it’s easier to make people feel negative emotions than positive emotions. It’s easier to scare them or make them sad than it is to lift them up. In the same way that it’s easier to destroy a building than build it.

So in storytelling it’s easier to engage a reader by giving them someone to hate or to fear or by hurting a character than it is to share a moment of happiness or joy or hope.

And maybe that’s because those moments of happiness or joy or hope come from overcoming the negative?

But I’m not sure that’s true…

Or maybe it’s because the things that hurt us are more universal than the things that lift us up? And so to lift a reader up with your character you have to spend two hundred pages getting them into that character’s mindset. Only then does that individual joy convey itself?

I don’t know. It’s something I’m trying to work my way through.

(And as I re-read this I realize that maybe erotica actually does that? Starts good and goes up from there? But it uses the almost universal appeal of sex to make it work.)

I don’t know.

I do know that I personally have cried over probably a handful of books but I can’t think of any book that made me feel joy to that same extent.

(Maybe that’s just my personality, though…)

Anyway. Something to consider. And if you’re not trying to make your readers feel as they read your stories, maybe you should be. Good or bad. At least that’s the advice in the writing books I tend to read and like.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Emotions in Writing”

  1. There will no doubt be an exception—there are almost never absolutes—but we feel because of a significant change (whether consciously noted or not); so to write a story that only goes up, one would almost certainly need to start well below joy to avoid it simply feeling like a quote from The Little Book of Cheerful Moments.

    One potentially solid way to start at the worst without needing set up would be to take advantage of existing cultural images: for example, start with a prisoner seizing a moment to leap from a train that is taking him to a camp in some brutal regime, then have them rise to freedom without the usual dashing into near disaster that a thriller arc would have.

    maybe it’s because the things that hurt us are more universal than the things that lift us up?

    Not objectively; however, I believe one of the leading theories on emotional response is that human pattern recognition slants toward parallels with bad experiences rather than good as a safety mechanism, as mistaking an orange bush for a tiger has a lower detriment than mistaking a tiger for a bush.

    Which brings in the other issue that makes constantly upward arcs harder: we are happy to believe things just happen for the worst, but things just happening for the better feel “wrong” in fiction (even though we intellectually know good things happen by chance too). So, the arc would need to rely on the protagonist’s skill enough to “earn” their victories.

    But also avoid the danger that the protagonist was good enough at all the right stuff and came across as sickening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always felt that it’s more like ‘earning’ the good feelings. But even that doesn’t really convey what I mean. More like…the more hardship you give a character, the more the reader might sympathize and root for them, so that when the good DOES happen, it’s sweeter, more satisfying. It feels like the good is earned rather than given.

    Liked by 1 person

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