What do the most successful, memorable novels out there have in common? Emotional impact. The reader becomes so connected to the story, characters, and world they feel something profound as they read.
This is no surprise because emotions are central to the human experience. Whether it’s joy, hope, fear, or something else, we’ve felt it. Emotions color our world, shape our values, inform our decisions, and help us navigate life. So, when reading a story awakens something within us, it’s because we see the characters as people who yearn, hurt, and struggle just as we do. We feel connected to them and care about their journey.
Stories with high emotional impact bring readers back for more, so we want to do all we can to make them feel involved and invested. These strategies will help you psychologically hook your reader’s emotions.
This is the Big Daddy of writing advice, which is why it is so often talked about: showing provides an experience, telling provides information. There’s a place for both, but especially when description touches emotions, we want readers to feel part of the moment. So, when the character is upset, worried, hopeful, or euphoric, what does this look like? How do they express it through body language, dialogue, vocal cues, thoughts, internal sensations, and actions?
Showing emotions using the above indicators will help readers imagine what the character feels far better than writing, Billy was sad. Realistic displays of emotion also trigger the reader’s memories of a time they felt the same thing, causing them to empathize with the character and what they’re going through.
Show, don’t tell isn’t only about emotions, though. In fact, every time we want to share something about a character, place, or event, we should think about what that detail does for the story. How will it further the plot, round out worldbuilding, reveal characterization, reinforce emotion, or involve readers? This is what good showing does, so if the detail doesn’t match any of these, chances are it can be omitted or shared as a bit of telling so we can move on to something more important.
Another important way we generate emotional impact is to use POV filtering. At any moment in the story, your POV character is feeling certain emotions, is focused on specific goals, and they’ll have personal reasons for their motivations. This means what they notice about their environment, what they say (or hold back) in conversations, and the things they zero in on or dismiss all should come through a filter of emotion and intent.
A fearful character will carefully examine evening shadows around a doorway or near a dumpster whereas a character on a fun night out with her friends will not. A character concerned about loyalty may ask leading questions as a test, but a trusting character will take everything at face value.
POV filtering/deep POV also allows you to share private internal observations, so readers become insiders to what the character truly thinks and feels.
In the real world, we notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures around us. This sensory information helps shape how we feel and allows us to be more immersed and present. In the story, sensory description does the same thing, making readers feel part of the moment and helping to influence what they feel as they read. How?
Well, consider a character standing at the edge of a farmer’s field in the dark, waiting to meet a friend who called and begged for her help. It’s late, cold, and her friend hasn’t showed. Our character is worried, trying to puzzle out what could be wrong, and confused about why she was told to come here of all places. Then there’s a crack of thunder, and rain begins to pelt down.
Describing those cold, painful drops hitting our character’s skin will not just convey discomfort to readers, it increases the sense of urgency and foreboding that something bad has happened.
If we want readers to become emotionally invested, we need to give them someone to care about. Our primary characters should be so well-developed they feel like they’ve walked out of the real world. This can only happen if we take the time to think about who they are, and the needs, motivations, flaws, and fears that make them human.
And speaking of human, that means we want to build characters who make mistakes, screw up, and have regrets. Characters who are not perfect are ones a reader will relate to and get behind. (If you need help building a character top to bottom, give this tool Becca and I designed a try.)
In addition to creating a lifelike character, we need to make sure readers see something that is commonly masked: inner vulnerability. Like real people, certain things will make the character feel insecure, exposed, and weak. Often these things are tied to painful experiences, and their instinct will be to hide their vulnerability, wear emotional armor, and avoid anything (or anyone) that triggers those internal feelings of hurt. (It’s what we all tend to do, after all.)
But just because our characters have a mask on doesn’t mean these insecurities don’t exist, so find moments where you can show a character’s vulnerability through what they avoid, how they overreact, and if it is a POV character, their innermost thoughts and reflections. Vulnerability is a emotional point of common ground that readers and characters share.
This one isn’t a surprise, but one of the best ways to create emotional impact is with language! Choose specific language that is loaded with meaning and emotion. Sure, we can say a character walked across the room, but did they saunter, limp, weave, or stride? Verbs can hint at how a character is feeling in the moment, their sense of purpose, what’s important to them, who they are deep down, and more.
Figurative language and literary devices like metaphors, similes, alliteration, personification, etc. also can add power, meaning, and help crystalize an image in the reader’s mind so they feel a certain way.
When readers care about a character, they won’t want bad things to happen to them. So of course, what will we do? Make sure there’s plenty of obstacles, roadblocks, and adversaries (conflict) on the path to the character’s goal, put something meaningful on the line (personal stakes), and introduce uncertainty over the outcome (tension). This trifecta ensures readers get an emotional ride.
I’ve hinted at this throughout, but it generates emotional impact so greatly that it bears repeating—your story should have loads of common ground. It doesn’t matter if the story takes place in a fantastical world, or your character is an assassin fighting zombies, readers should see themselves in the story.
Readers (hopefully) are not assassins nor have experience with zombies, but they do know the toil of a difficult workday, the self-critic that emerges every time a mistake is made, and how empowering it is to have others look up to you. By including everyday human experiences like these, we create a bridge of common ground. Readers feel seen, known, and validated. Emotional impact for the win!
What’s your favorite strategy for creating emotional impact? Feel free to share it in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a story coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in nine languages, her guides are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold over a million copies.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers®, as well as One Stop for Writers®, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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