Evoking Emotions in Readers in a Masterful Way – Part 3

In the last two posts, we’ve looked at the challenge of evoking emotions in our readers. You’ve learned that just telling how a character feels does little to nothing to evoke emotional response in your reader.

The primary purpose of fiction is to elicit an emotional response. Think about it. Readers of fiction aren’t reading to acquire facts, such as they might do when studying a nonfiction book. They read to be entertained, affected. They read to be tense, laugh, worry, get excited. In other words, they read to feel something.

And your job as a fiction writer is to masterfully write in a way that will evoke a specific emotional response in your reader. You may not be able to name exactly what those emotions are, but you should know what those emotions feel like when you experience them.

We looked at how thoughts lead to emotions, and that getting into your character’s head and showing her thoughts in a masterful way is the ticket for eliciting that emotion in your reader.

Emotions are wide and varied. Subtle and strong. You might want to evoke just a tiny bit of sympathy or a huge heart of compassion in your reader. You might want your reader to end a scene feeling a tiny bit annoyed with a character. Or feeling outraged.

You are the magician and the manipulator of emotion. So it behooves you to study hard. Examine passages in novels that move you. Then figure out what the author wrote that had that impact on you.

I have read paragraphs in novels that had me weeping my heart out. In fact, just by thinking about those passages, I feel emotion well up.

Yes, it’s easier to evoke emotion in readers once they know well and care about your character. But it’s also not a sure thing readers will ever care about your character. From the get-go, you have to work hard to build that empathy. And getting into your characters’ thoughts is the fastest and most effective way to do so.

Read this and see how you respond. In this middle-of-the novel scene, Irene, a schoolteacher who recently lost her two teenage sons, finds rebel/drifter Billy Thurber beat up and lying in the field behind the school.

A cold wind assailed her, and she began shivering alongside Billy. How long would it take her to run to the classroom and call for help, then come back, keep him warm? She looked him over, wondering if he was in shock, or going into shock. She didn’t know what you were supposed to do except keep someone warm. There were blankets in the closet cupboard. Along with her first-aid kit, mostly Band-Aids and ointment. Stopgap necessities for minor injuries. The nurse’s office had much more, but she didn’t have a key to that room.

Just as she resolved to chance leaving him there, she felt a cold hand on her wrist. Billy tugged on her.

“Don’t leave,” he said through purple split lips. “It’s not . . . as bad as it looks.”

Irene watched him spit blood off to the side, then turn to meet her eyes. One eye was swelled shut; the other opened halfway but still locked onto hers, arresting her movement.

“I should get help. I can’t carry you all that way.” She pointed to the pale-green building that seemed to recede farther away.

“I can manage. Just help me up.” He struggled to his feet.

Irene grasped his arm and felt him shake. “You’re being stubborn.”

He wobbled as he stood, not taking his eyes off her. “You.” He chuckled, then coughed and winced in pain. “You’re mothering me again.”

Irene caught a quick glance of a fleeting emotion—something sad that made Billy look small and frightened. Every motherly instinct kicked in, forcing out Matt’s warnings that ricocheted in her head.

What did she care if this young man turned out to be violent and mean? She had heard the talk in town—not just from Matt. People who said Billy had set fire to that motel, and had vandalized houses and cars, stolen things. At this moment she couldn’t care less if Billy had even killed someone. All she saw in his bashed-up face was a lost boy, like Daniel.

Maybe if someone, even a stranger, had stopped once and just put their arms around Daniel, would it have made a difference? If a friend at school had just noticed Daniel’s mood that morning, tried to cheer him up or offered him a bite of a donut, would he have changed his mind and not put that gun to his head?

Suddenly, it became clear—that every little action had immeasurable potency, creating a hundred repercussions that could set off any number of events. Like breaking a rack on the billiard table, sending balls flying in all directions. If one word can be so hurtful, sticking like a knife in your heart for the rest of your life, couldn’t a different word turn everything around?

“Let’s go,” he muttered. “My truck’s that way.” He pointed back toward the cliffs.

“No, I’m taking you to my classroom. I’ve got first aid there.”

“Whatever.” He swooned into her arms. She struggled with righting him, with ignoring the freezing cold seeping into her bones, slowing her down. She had visions of the polar expeditions, men wrapped in furs and trudging through ice, clinging to one another, falling down and longing for sleep. She took three steps and stopped, then started again. Off like a herd of turtles. They would never make it to the building this way, doing this ludicrous stumble, like two drunks, like a potato sack race.

Irene stopped and let go of Billy, watching to see if he would fall down. “Stay here. I’ve got to get help.”

Billy’s face was a tint of blue. Her heart pounded as she rubbed her hands together. “Here,” she said, unwrapping the scarf reluctantly from her neck.

Billy’s eyes glazed over, but he kept them pinned on hers as she draped the scarf around his neck, wrapping it in a snug circle.

Like a lasso, like a noose.

Billy clawed at his throat and screamed in panic. Irene jumped back, imagining snakes and spiders. She watched, stunned, unable to respond to such peculiar behavior. Billy gasped, a fish out of water, panting in erratic bursts, struggling for air. Literally unable to breathe.

Irene tore at the scarf, fighting Billy’s own thrashing hands, and catching a clip to her jaw. She managed to pull it off, expecting to find him choking on something, on his own blood or who knows what. Instead, to compound her surprise, the moment she removed the scarf, he inhaled a desperate breath—a swimmer surfacing after being trapped too long under water; a man buried in a collapsed mine, digging his way out and finding an ocean of air.

Billy fell back and sat on the ground, both hands gripping his throat, all his attention fixed on finding the next breath, sucking it into his lungs.

Irene knelt beside him and laid a hand on his chest. His wild eyes searched and found a connection between the hand pressed against his heart and the arm that led up to a woman’s face.

Irene shut her eyes, willing her own heart to slow down. What a scare he gave her. What was all that about? She felt his heart slow into a steady beat. Like a bird trapped in a cage, she felt the flutter against the palm of her hand. She pictured flapping wings, birds settling down to roost, growing quiet, their eyes slowly closing. Soon, the heartbeat pulsing through her hand matched the pace of her own, synchronous and partnered.

She dared removing her hand and opened her eyes. Billy’s entire body shook violently; his teeth chattered so loudly her own teeth ached in response. She hesitated when she picked up the scarf, worried her slight movement would set off another panic attack. But Billy’s eyes were empty now and they followed hers without hint of emotion as she wrapped the scarf around her own neck and coveted the token warmth it gave.

Irene was past being cold. She hoisted him up, linked her arm through his, and readjusted her coat around his shoulders. Without words, they moved slowly, Irene guiding his steps across the field, through the playground, and into the school hallway where a blast of heat met them at the door. Time had a skewed quality to it; Irene had no idea what hour it was, or even what day.

Trudging down the darkened hallway, Irene thought of Dorothy in the land of Oz, walking down the corridor in the Emerald City amid terrifying rumblings and flashes of light, hoping the Great and Powerful Oz would grant her request.

When they entered her classroom, Irene sat Billy down in one of the tiny chairs. She would have rather stood under the blower that came out of the ceiling, letting the hot air defrost her. Feeling returned to her fingers, pins and needles, as she ran the water in the sink, urging the water to hurry and heat. She wrung out a rag and went to Billy, who hung his head, hair falling over his face. Irene put a gentle hand under his chin and lifted it, unsure where to start on this battered landscape of flesh.

She wiped the hair out of the way and cleaned his forehead, falling into a familiar rhythm of tender strokes. There had been many children over the years, sitting on chairs like these, with Irene cleaning off a bloody knee or scraped elbow. And there had been her own children, sitting on a stool, or on the couch by the TV, or outside on the sidewalk—after tripping from jump rope or Frisbee or just horseplay. How many boxes of Band-Aids had she gone through in the last twenty years?

Billy winced as Irene cleaned dirt around his eyes, but he let her continue, with a look of surrender and compliance, of uncertainty and disorientation.

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital? I think you might need stitches, and you may have suffered a concussion.”

He tensed. “No hospital.”

He started to stand but Irene stopped him with her hand. “Okay. I’ll get you cleaned up best I can. Just let me do that, at least.” She went to the sink and rinsed out the cloth, watching the water run from muddy red to clear. As she reached over to continue, he grabbed her wrist. The warm room may have thawed out Billy’s chilled limbs but his eyes remained icy.

“Why are you doing this for me?”

Irene stepped back and looked at Billy’s unflinching grip on her wrist. “I’d do this for anyone. You just can’t turn your back on someone who needs help.” She paused. “Can you?”

“Being a bleeding heart doesn’t get you anywhere.” He released his grip and took the cloth from her hand. She watched as he rubbed his face, cleaned the dirt and blood from his short beard, dabbed at his swollen eyes, almost with vicious intent.

“Here.” He handed her back the cloth. He stood and took her coat off his shoulders, then set it down on the small chair.

“Wait.” Irene put her hand around the back of Billy’s head to hold him there, then touched his cheek with the cloth. She felt him tremble under her touch. “You missed a spot here.” With soft, short strokes, she continued, then startled when a drop of water splashed on her hand.

Billy’s eyes were closed, but tears streamed down his face.

He held his breath and Irene held hers.

She was back in Daniel’s room, late at night after the police and paramedics had all left, and her husband and Casey tossed in their beds, unable to sleep. Jesse, whisked away in an ambulance to the morgue, lay on a cold metal table with a sheet covering him. Daniel sat in his desk chair and let her touch him, the first time in oh so long. She had taken a tissue and dabbed a smudge on Daniel’s cheek and felt hot tears splatter her hand.

These two moments, alike and disparate, each overlapping and repelling the other.

A trembling sigh escaped her throat and snapped Billy from the spell she had woven.

He knocked her hand away. “What are you doing?” His head darted, taking in the room for the first time. “What is this, a school?”

Irene backed a few steps from him, gathering up the distance he pushed between them. He limped over to the door, one hand holding the side of his face. “Where’s my truck? I parked it on that dead-end street.”

“I’ll drive you over there. It’s too far for you to walk.”

Billy snorted and straightened. Ripples of pain traveled over his face. Irene watched the way he shoved them aside—a mannerism that look practiced and honed. “Where is it? Just point me in the right direction.” His tone was brusque and impatient. The “other” Billy was back from wherever he’d gone hiding.

Without a word, Irene walked down the hall to the back door and opened it.

“There,” she said, pointing to the baseball field. “Your truck’s behind that fence.”

Standing at the threshold, she watched him as he stumbled across the playground, impervious to the biting wind rubbing her face raw. When he reached the fence and passed the place where she had found him, he disappeared from view. She knew the street was just beyond there, the cul-de-sac where he’d left his truck.

After retrieving her things from the classroom, she shut off the lights and locked the door. As she walked down the dark corridor once more, she recalled how Dorothy looked after the Great Oz had refused her request to go home and, instead, gave her the impossible task of stealing the broomstick from the wicked witch.

Utterly devastated. Overwhelmed. Homesick.

When she had knelt beside Daniel in his room, in the swallowing silence and unbearable, smothering pain, the full weight of responsibility crashed down on her. She would have to find a way to lead her family out of this pit—an impossible task. In all her searching, she never did find a yellow brick road, or a good witch like Glinda to wave a wand over her head and give her magic words to recite, words that would whisk her home. No one warned her about the other path and how to get off it. That once you were on it, you couldn’t see where you were going, for the obscurity of the trees. You knew that more danger lurked just around the bend, but what could you do? There was no turning back, and you weren’t in Kansas.

There was no place like home—not anymore.

My characters in Someone to Blame experience a range of emotions, all barreling one after another, thoughts triggering emotion that triggers reaction/response. Billy has a suppressed traumatic memory that is triggered by the scarf tied around his neck (which is revealed at the climax of the novel). Tending to Billy triggers all kinds of emotions in Irene regarding her son who committed suicide.

Irene’s feelings are complicated, and the feeling I hoped to evoke in my readers was also complicated. At this point, Irene is stumbling in the dark, trying to find her way back, somehow, to the land of the living. She is trying to find “normal” in a world that can never again be normal.

When you sit down to write a scene, spend time thinking about the emotional response you want to evoke in your readers. Think about situations that made you feel that way, then do some freewriting about the incident, about your feelings and thoughts, and dive into the complexities of these things. Then, as Hemingway suggested, try to grab those and put them in your scene, in order to make your reader feel the way you did.

Any thoughts on this daunting task of manipulating emotion?

4 Responses to “Evoking Emotions in Readers in a Masterful Way – Part 3”

  1. Rahma Krambo May 15, 2018 at 8:49 am #

    I just ordered Someone to Blame after reading this excerpt. I love how you were able to portray such a wide range of emotions and the interesting triggers and associations the main character expressed. I can’t wait to discover how “Out of this dangerous chaos, the Moores find unexpected grace and healing in a most unlikely way,” as described in the book blurb.

    I’m writing a story about a woman who is dealing with a complex set of emotions in a stressful situation so I could really relate to your main character.

    Evoking emotions. Getting in touch and drawing from within. It is very daunting. Hope I’m up to the task.

    • cslakin May 18, 2018 at 2:27 pm #

      Thank you. It is challenging. A few readers said, “You must have lost a child to have been able to so painfully express the emotions the characters felt.” Thankfully, I haven’t experienced anything that terrible. But writers have to go deep into emotion and imagine what it would feel like to convey such feelings to their readers. Usually we can find substitute experiences (the death of a beloved pet, for example) that can help us tap into grief and sorrow like that. It’s not painless!

  2. Victoria Marie Lees May 16, 2018 at 7:57 am #

    Once again, Susanne, emotional and deep details into the psyche of the character. Bravo. I’ve shared this post online. Thanks for all you do to assist your fellow writers.

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