The Reader’s Emotional Journey: Putting Your
In the January 2007 column, we introduced the concept of the
satisfied reader experience. In the February issue we covered one aspect
of the reading experience – the reader’s emotional journey. In this issue we
will consider another aspect of the reading experience: how do you make the
reader feel as if he or she is there? Inside the story, experiencing
emotions and activity with your characters?
There’s no single, simple answer. In fact, it’s my belief that nearly
everything the writer does should heighten the reading experience, and
should contribute to making the reader feel as if she or he is there.
So I will touch on a number of aspects only briefly, and will refer to
previous columns if people want to consider these issues in more depth. If
you’re new and haven’t explored the Fiction Fix archives, well, this
is your chance!
Show instead of Tell
Writers are often told to show and not to tell, and showing is critical
to bringing your reader inside the story. But what is the difference between
showing and not telling? It’s easier if I show you instead simply telling
about it – so here’s an example used previously:
Telling: Jake angrily and insultingly told the waiter to bring him a
cup of coffee.
Showing: Jake slammed his fist on the counter. “Hey, jerk! Where’s my
In both versions, essentially the same thing happens. But in the telling
version, the readers are told how Jake is behaving, through the use of the
words angrily and insultingly. In the second version, we are
shown Jake’s anger by his slamming his fist on the counter. We are shown,
too, that he is insulting, by the words, “Hey, jerk!”
Doesn’t the second version feel much more alive than the first? And don’t
you, as a reader, feel that you are experiencing it?
Notice that the showing version actually has two words fewer than the
telling version. Even though you might expect showing to take more words
than telling, this is not necessarily the case.
How can you tell that you are probably telling rather than showing?
Summary instead of detail; emotions are told about to the reader instead of
shown through the character; the use of adverbs – especially emotion-based
adverbs such as happily or sadly. Adverbs that are not
emotion-based, such as quickly are much less of a problem.
Note that you may not be able to rid your writing of all emotion-based
adverbs, but that you should use them sparingly.
For more on this concept, go to the May 2005 article,
“Tell Don’t Show,”
which explains a few story-telling situations for which telling may be
preferred to showing.
Keep Readers in the Story
You don’t want your readers to lose their place while reading. If readers
lose their place, they may ‘exit’ the story as they try to overcome their
Here are a few things that you, as the author, should manage in order to
minimize potential reader confusion:
Minimize Shifts in Point of View. When
you change point of view, you force your readers to spring from one
character’s head to another. This can be confusing. I have not yet
devoted an entire column to this topic (it has been covered so often by
so many others, that I doubt that I have anything new to add). Still, to
see more on this subject, go to the August 2006 issue:
“What Are They
Pretty Paragraphs. If you have long,
interminable paragraphs or lots and lots of short paragraphs, your
readers can simply lose their place on the page. I recommend a judicious
mix of long and short. (Note: I wrote a column on “Perfect Paragraphs”
but it was removed from the archives because it’s now a part of the
Leaves to Forests class on levels of structure in fiction.)
Few Unfamiliar Words. If you use words
that are unfamiliar in your story, either because your vocabulary is
amazing or because you are inventing words – sometimes necessary for
science fiction and fantasy – you risk a bump in your readers’ reading
experience. Have you ever tried to read a story in a language that is
not your mother tongue? It’s difficult to get “into” the story, because
you have to keep looking up the meanings. The same thing is true for
difficult words and unfamiliar concepts. Unless you’re trying to
talk down to your reader, you may want to help them along with clues and
Character Clues (also known as tags).
If a character makes a brief appearance on page 6 and then doesn’t
reappear until page 600, be considerate of your readers and give them a
gentle reminder. For more on this topic, try the December 2005 issue,
“Author as Host.”
Readers are more likely to feel engaged in a story when they feel
involved with the characters. There are several issues to consider here:
Point of View. Some points of view,
such as first person or an intimate, infrequently changing third person,
can bring a reader much closer to a particular character.
Characters that readers care about.
There are many things that you can do to increase the appeal of your
characters. Some of the techniques may seem manipulative, but most
people entering a fictional world have paid to be manipulated (which,
perversely, works best if they don’t perceive that they’re being
manipulated). For more on this topic, see the October 2006 issue,
“We All Need Someone to Love.”
Characters who want something.
Characters that are active instead of passive are generally more
engaging than those sitting around waiting for something to happen. I
believe that all your characters should want something, even the
insignificant characters with small roles. This helps bring them to
life. For more on this technique, see the two-part article from
2005, “What Do They Want?”
Of course, when the story is really interesting that keeps the reader
involved, too. And although how you tell the story makes a big difference –
some writers are so good that they can make opening a box of cornflakes
interesting – for most of us, a plot with twists and turns and surprises
keeps the story rocking and the reader with her nose in the book, turning
pages. For more on this see February 2005,
“Keep Those Pages Turning.”
Remember, too, that the plot consists of more than just action – emotion
should be attached to it as well, and that the emotions should be
experienced, not just by the characters, but by the readers. For more on
this, see February 2007,
“The Emotional Journey.”
Putting your Readers There
What more can be done to make your readers feel as if they are inside the
story? You need a judicious mix of other materials:
Description. If you have too much
description, you can bog down your readers. If you have too little, your
readers can’t visualize where your characters are.
Dialogue. Snappy dialogue can really
involve your readers. Dialogue that meanders, or that spends too much
time being realistic, with the ums, ahs, and talk about the weather and
the fact that we’re out of cornflakes that make up so much of real
conversation, can bore them. Give your readers conversations that they
want to hear, which make their inner ears tingle.
Action. Characters doing something
interesting, or having something interesting done to them, make your
story worth reading.
Setting. This is more than just
description of where your characters are, but the selection of a place
to intrigue your readers. Instead of having the characters chat in the
parlor over a pot of tea, what about placing the conversation in a cemetery
after a funeral? Or in an outhouse with the smells and the spiders? Or
under a desk during an earthquake?
Alas, I have not written any columns on the subjects above, although one
aspect of dialogue was covered in December 2006,
“Barbs from the Bard –
And Other Great Insults.” This means there are plenty of subjects
for future articles.
This column resembles one of those sit-com episodes combining clips from
many prior episodes, which may make you feel as if you’re being cheated out
of a fresh new article this month. (Unless you’re new to Fiction Fix,
in which case you’re getting more than you expected, with dozens of pieces
in the archives.) On the other hand, reviewing these concepts is important.
If you are to create a story which your readers experience, it must function
on many different dimensions.
Comments or questions? You want to use this article? E-mail me at
grossackva at yahoo dot com.
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the
Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called
the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry
of Bronze.com). You can also read more of her
articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.