Planning the emotional response your novel invokes in its readers

This is for an October 6th workshop (2012)

Novels and the emotions they evoke

  • Just as dialogue differs from conversations, so are novels different from real life. Dialogue is stylized, crafted verbal exchanges of information among characters. Novels are stylized, crafted simulations of life that are written with the intent to tell stories and connect with the emotions of the reader. Are all novels filled with emotions? No; but those with low emotional resonance will tend to feel cold and distant.
  • Emotions pull the reader into the story.
  • Writers do not need to feel an emotion when writing a scene, but they do need to tap into the emotion. They need to know how to convey the emotion to the reader and get them to feel it.

What readers look for

K. Iglesias

  • Fresh characters
  • Unique settings
  • Something that the readers know but presented in a way that moves the readers

Four emotional needs of readers

K. Iglesias

  • A need for new information
  • A need to identify and relate with the main character
  • A need for resolution and completion
  • Emotional impact

Three types of storytelling emotions

K. Iglesias

  • voyeuristic (from curiosity)
  • vicarious (identifying with the main character)
  • visceral (the experienced emotions) -- these are the ones that lead to entertainment of the reader

Techniques to use

  • Write in scenes that show the reader through character action and response rather than in narration that tells what happened. Help the reader step into your characters' shoes and feel what the character feels.
  • Help the reader identify with your characters by making your characters sympathetic. The better the reader gets to know and understand your characters, the more likely they are to identify with them. The tragedies that happen to strangers will not mean as much as tragedies that happen to friends and family.
  • Alternately, make your characters unsympathetic (e.g., show them being cruel and uncaring).
  • Don't take it easy on your characters and those near to them; death, injury, misunderstanding, betrayal, forced choices.
  • Anticipation heightens emotions: tease the reader with hints of what is to come.
  • Your word choices can trigger emotional cues. E.g., having a character use language they do not normally do can shock the reader. You can use words throughout the scene to match the thematic overtunes. Harsh and sharp words go best with harsh emotions, etc.
  • Establish situations that are important (life-altering/life-threatening); set things up so that your protagonist's actions having meaning and consequences.
  • Use time constraints to heighten the tension.
  • Force your character to choose between a bad option and a worse one.
  • Keep the story moving; use the story pacing to keep the tension but remember to leaven this with character development/interaction "breathers" so you do not exhaust your readers. Note that shorter sentences and paragraphs can help to speed the pace; longer phrases and paragraphs slow it down.
  • Keep the story realistic. Unrealistic problems and situations can bring your reader out of your book.
  • Use surprise to keep the reader guessing and off of a sure footing.
  • Interweave conflict into every scene. There are different levels and dimensions to conflict.
  • Reduce focus on unnecessary/unrelated details to keep the reader's attention on one emotion (when you are trying to do that). Stay in the moment.
  • Use the right setting to set up the reader's reaction and heighten their emotional response.

Plotters and Pantsers

People have different preferences about how much preparation they need before they begin writing their novels.

Approaches towards plotting/planning

Your Story Idea

K. Iglesias

  • Should be "uniquely familiar" -- fresh take on a topic and yet gives us emotional familiarity
  • Your character desires something and something/someone opposes your character
  • Conflict and dramatic action -- the stakes must be important
  • Your character's drive for their goal must overcome the obstacles; there must be an unwillingness to compromise. What is the worst thing that happens to your character?
  • Focus on elements that drive the visceral reaction:

Interest, curiosity (what happens next), anticipation, suspense, tension, surprise

  • Write what excites you (not necessarily what you know)
  • Use an interesting inciting event
  • Invert a predictable plot
  • Add or emphasize a time element to heighten tension


  • To warm us up, brainstorm five story ideas that reflect some of the above elements


K. Iglesias

  • Should be something you are passionate or emotionally indignant about
  • Frame it as a question, not a statement
  • Wrap the idea around an emotion
  • Let each character reveal a facet of your overall theme(s)

Compelling Characters

K. Iglesias

  • You need to connect emotionally with your characters
  • What does your character desire? He/she must want something
  • Why does your character want it? (motivation)
  • What are the stakes if the character fails to obtain his/her desire?
  • How does the character change?

Four types of protagonists

K. Iglesias

  • hero
  • average joe
  • underdog
  • lost soul or anti-hero (morally defective)

How to define them

Rita Kuehn, founder of On Point, suggests that all lead characters have at least these four characteristics:

  • admirable (positive characteristics)
  • relatable (so your readers can identify with them)
  • realistic - stay consistency with their personalities
  • problem solver - the character has a truly challenging problem but the readers believe the character can solve it

Primary traits

  • These are 4-5 dominant traits that define your main character and that will exist throughout the novel.
  • You can then place your character in situations to challenge those traits.

Traits to add complexity

  • These are traits that add depth to the primary traits without contradicting them.

Traits to contrast with primary traits

  • These are the 1-2 traits that can make your character move away from the path of their primary traits.
  • These are humanizing traits that add vulnerability to your character

The craft of revealing characters

K. Iglesias

  • We need to create events to enable the reader to experience emotions through the character's actions and dialogue.
  • One tool: "The two-column trick"
    • column 1: what I know about the character
    • column 2: how do I show this in a scene

Ways to show things about your character

  • Contrasting the character:
    • with himself/herself
    • with other characters
    • with the environment he/she interacts with
  • Show how others talk about the character
  • Show the relationships that others have with the character
  • Dialogue, actions, reactions
  • Choices in dilemmas

Instant character appeal

  • Do we feel sorry for the character?
    • undeserved mistreatment; injustice
    • bad luck; misfortune
    • handicaps; being trapped by their circumstance
    • haunted by their past
    • weakness/vulnerability
    • betrayed or deceived
    • not believed when they tell the truth
    • have they been abandoned?
    • are they lonely?
    • what are their regrets?
  • Do we admire their virtues?
  • Do they have desirable qualities?


  • In small groups or by yourself, create a character
  • do the two column trick: come up with three compelling characteristics and brainstorm ways to show this

Engaging Stories and Plots

K. Iglesias

  • Every dramatic story is, at its core, about a character who wants something and faces obstacles to obtain it
  • Lillian Hellman said "Story is what the characters want to do. Plot is what the writer wants the characters to do."
  • Story is the art; plot is the craft (how you tell the story).
  • Story comes from concept, theme, premise and character development.
  • Plot is how to make the story emotionally satisfying to the reader.
  • Plot needs to follow a set of clear cause and effect/stimulus and response that progresses to the climax.

How to keep reader interest?

  • Revealing depths of your developing and unique character
  • Conflict (desire vs. obstacle with an outcome aggravated by an unwillingness to compromise); don't repeat the same conflicts. Obstacles must be painful, difficult, agonizing.
  • Change must occur: discoveries and decisions create emotions.
  • Original/fresh viewpoints
  • Subtext allow hinting at the conflicts in the scene without directly engaging them. This creates an active reading experience.
  • Compelling and unique backstory of characters or situationsthat provide context to the reader.
  • Set up story questions (central to the novel, within each act, within each scene, within each beat)
  • Mystery depends on withholding information; intrigue depends on illicit activity and secrecy.
  • Overlap mini goals and mini problems so that when one is solved, there is still another. There should be no "holes of disinterest."
  • The plans and daydreams of characters set up expectations and anticipation, even if the plan is a secret one.
  • The MacGuffin (as coined by Alfred Hitchcock): a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story.
  • Create the right mood (the "emotional climate" of your story or scene)
  • Dramatic irony is achieved by revealing information to the reader that is not known by the characters; or by having the character know something the reader does not (until the information is revealed). It can also be created by misunderstandings between two characters or through deceptions.


  • Taking one of the story ideas from the first exercise, craft a plot (doesn't have to be a complete plot) that would keep the reader interest

Gripping Scenes

K. Iglesias

  • Why do we include a scene?
    • to advance the plot through conflict
    • to impact the reader emotionally (every scene should have emotional impact)
    • to reveal character
  • Every scene that you include in the story should be such that the novel could not stand without that scene--it should be essential to the story.

Starting a Scene

Jordan Rosenfeld

  • Bring your character(s) into the scene no later than the second paragraph
  • Establish the purpose, goal or intention for the primary character in the scene (does their intention make sense to your plot?)
  • Launch the action in the scene without explaining anything--go straight to the action
    • Actions must be true to the characters
    • Act first, think later (it's a reaction by the character to the action)
  • You could use a judicious amount of narrative summary to begin the scene (do this when you need to save time/space in the scene, when you need to set up the action to follow, or when the character's thoughts or intentions can't be revealed in the action).
  • Similarly, you could begin the scene with the setting, if you can tie it to set up or character intention/impact on the character

Keep the reader's interest in the middle of the scene

Jordan Rosenfeld

  • Increase the reader's interest by adding complications; raise the stakes and the peril.
  • You can make a table:
Protagonist Scene intention(s) Complication Result
  • Withold something a character wants
    • e.g., emotional withholding: elicits sympathy, empathy and concern for characters
    • e.g., withholding information sets up a power struggle between the person with the info and the character needing it
  • Put a character (or someone the character cares about) in danger
  • Use an unexpected revelation

End the scene well

Jordan Rosenfeld

Zoom in

  • Have characters summarize the scene (useful when the lot is complex, you have multiple main characters or if there is a mystery)
  • Reveal something, particularly through dialogue; this focuses the reader on the character and builds suspense
  • End on a cliffhanger (don't use this too often)

Zoom out

  • End on a visual description (this can be a palate cleanser, providing a gentle transition)
  • End on a philosophical musing (works well if the story has a strong theme)
  • End conclusively.

Feelings / Motivation - Reaction Units

Dwight Swain

  • Feelings are the reaction of the characters (and the reader) to something; things on their own aren't significant unless they mean something to someone.
  • The story needs to be oriented to the reader (write it subjectively)
  • Motivation - Reaction Unit = the smallest unit a writer has to work with
  • Some motivating stimulus occurs and the character(s) react to it
    • in this order (you don't always need to explicitly write all three components):
      1. feeling
      2. reflex
      3. conscious action, speech and/or thought
  • Character reactions need to be significant, active/motive, pertinent, characteristic of that character and reasonable/believable
  • Every MRU can be broken down into smaller MRU's; how fine you go is a matter of pacing and focus
  • MRU's put the action into scenes
  • One way to write a MRU:
    1. write a sentence without your focal character
    2. write a sentence about your focal character (and their reaction)
  • Make sure that every action by your character has a motivation preceding it (rules, of course, are made to be broken).


  • Write a scene that evokes a strong emotional response in the reader. Bring the character into the scene no later than the second paragraph. Add a complication. End on a relevatory note. Ensure you have the logical flow of character reactions following motivating stimulus.


K. Iglesias

  • Use it to reveal character
  • Reflect the speaker’s mood and emotions
  • Reveal or hide speaker’s motivation
  • Advance the action and carry information
  • Foreshadow what is yet to come
  • Focus on emotional impact
  • Expand on the individuality of characters
  • Use subtext
  • Focus on true emotions and wounds
  • Read widely and analyze the books and sections that move you