Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 20, 2014

How Emotional Peril Keeps Readers Reading

Janice Hardy

Before I dive in, I'd like to say congrats and cheers to everyone at WITS on their new home! It's hard to improve something so good, but they managed to do it. Kudos, Stormies! And thanks for letting me stop by to help you celebrate.

Okay, on to the writing tips...

When you pick up a novel, what keeps you reading?

The desire to see what happens next? The fear that something horrible will happen to your favorite character? The need to see it all turn out for the best? The need to know what happens next or what it all means? Maybe all of these at different times in the book.

No matter what hooks a reader about a book, she's made an emotional connection. She cares, and doesn't want to see the characters get hurt. But the wonderful things is, once you've made that emotional connection, "hurt" takes on a much broader definition. The emotional peril the character faces becomes just as important as physical peril. Probably more so, because readers know a major character isn't likely to die, so they don't worry as much about the outcome (unless it's Game of Thrones, then all bets are off).

But you can destroy a character emotionally without physically hurting her. She can survive, yet never be the same. (and if you're giggling in glee over the very thought, you're my kind of writer)

Once you get your emotional hooks into readers (pun intended), they'll follow you anywhere. There's almost a pathological need to see the characters through whatever devious and wonderfully evil plot you've created for them. Sure, readers know the protagonist will survive, but there's no guarantee she'll survive unscathed.

4 Ways to Create Emotional Peril in Your Characters

1. Make their worst fears come true

We all have things that scare us, and the thought of facing this fear is almost as scary as the fear itself. Give your characters cringe-worthy fears and then force them to face that fear to get what they ultimately want. Maybe they overcome it, maybe they don't, but it'll be so rich with emotion it'll be a moment your readers won't forget. Better still, readers will see this coming and dread it up until the moment it happens, keeping the tension high.

Bonus tip: This is especially useful during a major turning point in your plot when the stakes are at their highest and the protagonist can't afford to fail.

2. Put someone they love in jeopardy (double points if it's someone vulnerable)

A risk to a loved one can be more horrific than a risk to oneself, and protagonists can suffer greatly when people they care about are in danger because of them. If it's someone who can't defend or save themselves, it's even more emotionally charged. Readers know secondary characters are usually fair game, so even if they think that funny sidekick is safe, deep down they know something bad could actually happen.

Bonus tip: This is a great way to get a character invested in the plot, because now it's personal.

3. Make them do something they're morally opposed to

There are lines people swear they won't cross under any circumstances, but apply the right pressure points and anyone will do anything. When readers see a character is up against that line they start to worry, and the more they fear that line might be crossed (with terrible repercussions of course) the faster they read to see the outcome. And once it happens, they're grieving right along with character.

Bonus tip: This is handy when you want to show just how far the protagonist is willing to go to resolve the problem and get what she wants.

4. Have them screw up--badly

Even good intentions can go horribly, horribly wrong, and sometimes protagonists make mistakes. Huge mistakes that cost lives or get people in trouble or opens the doorway to a major evil upon the land. Since heroes are, well, heroes, your protagonist is going to feel terrible about this and be wracked with guilt. Your readers will sympathize and want to see if that poor soul finds the redemption she'll no doubt crave.

Bonus tip: This is a fun way to shake up a story and keep it from being predictable. It's even better if this mistake A) causes the protagonist to have to face her worst fear, B) puts someone she loves in jeopardy, or C) forces her to do something she's morally opposed to.

The more a reader emotionally connects to your story, the more likely she is to enjoy it (and talk about it to all her friends). Tug at the heartstrings and the fingers will keep turning the pages.

What books have tugged at your heartstrings lately?

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Looking for tips on planning (or revising) your novel? The first book in my Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now, with over 100 exercises to help you develop your novel.





Janice Hardy RGB 72


Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.


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23 comments on “How Emotional Peril Keeps Readers Reading”

  1. A brilliant post, Janice, and reading it, I had an epiphany.

    I'm a pantser. I love my process, but it's not working well now that I have deadlines. I know the basic structure of the novel - where I want to end up, but the individual scenes along the way are hard. How do I make the non-life changing scenes interesting and deepen the novel?

    You just explained that in this post! I feel SO much better!

    Just bought your book, and I'll be scanning the road for the UPS truck until it gets here!

    Thank you!

  2. This is great advice, Janice. I love seeing the hero screw-up badly. 🙂 A great example would be the movie, Meet The Parents (with Ben Stiller). It's just one thing after another. LOVE it!

    In my debut romantic comedy novel, I have the hero screw-up four or five times and it makes it much funnier. As a reader, the crazier the situation the hero or heroine has gotten into, the better and more enjoyable for me! I wouldn't necessarily say these scenes tug at my heart strings, but it does make me sympathize more with the protagonist and make me want to keep on reading.

  3. Such great advice, Janet! Thank you! I have yet to read a post from you that isn't helpful.

  4. Wonderful post, Janice ... and coming at this time ... a very helpful one at that. How indeed do we look at our story and invest emotion? I am into a cozy mystery with a character that is the center of a series of cozy mysteries. No matter how I might think she has been there and done that, I am sure to find lots of surprises 🙂

  5. Great advice, and I'd even say that putting characters in emotional peril helps motivate us as writers. If we are invested in our characters as people and not just as devices to move the plot forward, we are more likely to pick up that pen or fire up the laptop and push through on those days when we don't feel like writing. I tend to take on the feelings of my characters as I write (sort of like an actor in an abstract sense), and I suspect a lot of writers do the same. I want to finish the manuscript so I don't have that emotional peril weighing on me anymore!

  6. I always look forward to your posts, Janice!
    Great advice. Number 5 - have them screw up - had me diving for pen and paper. Love it when an idea bursts to the top. Off to write. 🙂

  7. Laura, thanks so much! It's weird, but I get so happy when I hear I helped a pantser with some of my more structure tips 🙂 It's such a different process from my own that I worry I won't have anything helpful to share with you guys.

    Rich, humor and screw ups go so well together, and it sounds like you're on a good path there. It's just as much fun to watch them mess up as it is to see how they're get out of it.

    Suzanne, thanks! The morality problem is so much fun to use with the interior conflict and the character arc.

    Lori, aw, thanks so much! I do try.

    Ramblings, what's nice is that people change depending on the circumstance, so even if it's something they've done before, just being in a bad mood can change the outcome. It does keep it unpredictable.

    Eric, great point. I know any time I'm due to write a scene where I put my protagonist through the emotional wring I'm excited to sit down and write. And the scene just flies by in most cases.

    Orly, awesome! Makes my day when something I've said inspires an idea 🙂

    Jann, thanks so much! I aim to please 🙂

  8. Great advice Janice. This is a keeper for those times I mess up. 🙂 I like to open a book with my main character finding themselves in a situation that is the worse possible for their their personality. It's fun to watch them squirm out of it.

  9. Thanks for a great article. I write novels which have emotional and ethical dilemmas at the heart of story, so I found this advice very timely. I'm going to make a note of your ideas and see if I have included them in my current work-in-progress.

  10. I'm editing a dark psychological crime novel. After reading this post, I realized I don't have enough conflict and emotional peril in the story. Good thing I'm working on draft 4. Only ten or so to go... Thanks for the wake up call.

  11. Given where I am in my novel right now, I SO needed this post! I'm printing it out to remind myself how to push my characters just right. Thanks!

  12. Sharla Rae, ooo squirmy characters are the best. Such fun!

    Vlh22, most welcome, glad it was useful.

    Tiffany, indeed!

    Betsy, happy to help. Hopefully it helped take a draft or two off that long process 🙂

    Julie, my pleasure! Hope it helps with your draft 🙂

  13. Thanks for this, Janice - I've found your advice helpful (I'm another pantser; just finished proofing our second novel.)

    I agree with Eric - those scenes are precisely the ones which keep me emotionally invested in my characters. They ARE real people, right???! 😉

    I've favourited the tweet which led me here, and will share with our followers soon!

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