One of the hardest things writers have to do is engage the reader, make them feel as if the world they’re exploring through your words is their world, so they become invested in the characters’ fate and feel their joy, happiness and sadness. I have read works where a single chapter made me cry and gone through clumsy novels where the authors try their best to make me sad by piling on the misery but l just don’t care.
Part of this is that I can be a heartless evil bastard, but the real reason is that people forget how delicate and subtle emotional response is. They think just making things happen is enough and don’t take the time to connect us to their characters or make them so outlandish and inhuman that the ‘immersion’ is impossible. I read a novel last year, you can read the review and it’s possibly one of the worst novels I’ve read in my life. The characters have no depth to them, there’s nothing relatable to latch onto, nothing to make me feel as if they’re friends or family. So when things happen to them I just couldn’t care.
When you’re writing a story, you need to make sure you define your characters, give them a voice, a personality and their own stories, even if the reader never hears them. These personal stories will influence their behaviour and will help your readers connect with the characters.
Romance depends a lot on this. The biggest pitfall for romance stories and one many writers fall into is not defining the characters. They tell us the characters are attracted to each other, fall in love even and while physical attraction is easy to convey, the deeper emotional connection is the real challenge. You can tell your reader that she loves him for his ability to create wonderful images with his writing and that he loves her mind, the way she thinks and faces each situation, but then you need to make sure you show them doing those things. Many romance stories fall flat because the attraction stems from characteristics the characters never show, even when they’re with their partner. It’s a case of show more than just tell, or at least show and tell. Tell me they’re attracted because of those things but then show them acting that way, reinforce what you told me, help me connect with the characters and make me fall in love with them as strongly as they love each other.
Sadness and Loss are even harder. One of the things I keep coming back to is the Balance of Misery, what I call balancing out the bad and good in your story and characterisation. Even the worst of lives have moments of happiness, pockets of joy that lift us up before misery slams us back down. You need to have these moments for Loss and Sadness to be effective.
In Loss, it’s not just keeping the balance but also making sure that character that just died was in those happy moments. Make them part of the narrative, give them ‘screen time’ and create conflict with them. When I say conflict it could be a falling out and making up between the characters or it could be both of them working together towards a goal. This way you create a firm bond between the characters and another with your reader, so that when that person goes away, you feel the loss, you feel the sadness of not seeing them ever again.
But don’t take sadness and loss for granted. Don’t kill off characters over and over again because you will desensitise your audience. It’s the issue many have with the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones), where characters die off so frequently no one really cares about it anymore. You know it’s coming and so the reader will never form the connection they need for those moments to be effective. It forces the author to become increasingly violent and cruel to his characters to get that shock value back.
But the hardest emotional connection to form with your readers is Fear. A book has never scared me, because while the images it may conjure are horrifying, they’re in my head, so I’m safe. So when I write I don’t attempt Fear but anxiety, the sense of desperation that the predator is right around the corner, that no place is safe and running is just delaying the inevitable. That is more plausible but still very difficult, as you need to completely engross your reader with your world, create a level of immersion so strong it might trigger an anxiety attack.
For this type of scene you need to make sure you have the best starting point possible. Starting the scene with the characters already pursued by their attacker is a good one, using ‘breather’ or false security moments to fill in the gaps, but shock and surprise are very good as well. Imagine your character walking down the street with their partner, then suddenly something happens that triggers the chase. It can be an assailant or even a mysterious and invisible force—depending on the genre.
Now there are two ways to go about the pursuit, let’s call it the hunt. If your character is the hunted, it’s all about building the tension, making their escapes narrower every time, getting hurt in the process, the anxiety and fear the character feels taking them to the brink of insanity and despair.
In the example I mentioned above, imagine a monster comes and takes the character’s partner form them in a violent surge of speed. They see but a flash of teeth and claws and suddenly the companion is gone, but their screams echo from a dark alleyway. Then your character becomes the hunter, desperate to find the creature that took the person they cared for, but also afraid of what they might find.
When you work with fear and anxiety and hunts, think of it as an audiovisual medium. Think of what you’d need there to be in the scene to scare you, to cause your heartrate to speed up. Pools of blood, screaming echoes, sobs, broken glass, smashing sounds and small shockwaves on the ground all contribute to the growing tension. As the character approaches, the sounds become clearer. The sobs become cries of mercy and pain, the shockwaves come after something squishy slams against a wall, and the crunch of glass underfoot threatens to alert the creature to your character’s steps.
In terms of descriptions, that is what you should look for when trying to connect emotionally with your audience, but there is another part you need to take care of and that is your dialogue.
Dialogue is usually the easiest way to convey ideas between your characters, filling in the blanks in your story and helping your audience to better know the people you’ve written in your novel. But it’s also the easiest thing to get wrong. What does it mean to get a dialogue wrong? It’s simply an unnatural conversation. The only way to fix it is to read it aloud, hopefully with someone else. Have each person take a character and read aloud their part, and with their input you’ll see where things need to change to make the conversation flow much better and seem much more natural.
A stiff or unnatural conversation will impede the emotional connection between your readers and your work.
This is the first writing guide of 2016 and there are more to come. If you have any topics you’d like me to explore in this series, let me know in the comments!