One of the main reasons people read, listen to and watch fiction is to feel the emotions created by the story. This might mean that they identify with the characters, and share the emotions they are feeling. Or it might mean that they care for the characters, and feel emotions on their behalf.
For example, in a horror movie, we might feel fear when the character sees a monster and is terrified. Or, the character might be blithely unaware of the danger they are in, but we know the monster is stalking them, and we feel fear on their behalf.
Either way, people read for emotion. They want to be ‘moved’ – literally. The word “emotion” comes from the Latin “exmovere” meaning ‘to move” or “to disturb or agitate.”
The names of many genres are a clue to the importance of emotional content, since many of them speak directly to the emotions we feel while immersed in the story: romance, horror, thriller, mystery.
But don’t take my word for it. This is Dwight V. Swain in his seminal book “Techniques of the Selling Writer”:
“What should you as a fiction writer communicate? Feelings.
“A story recounts events. But those events can’t or won’t stand alone. They need to be explained, interpreted, evaluated, made meaningful. Above all, they must be translated into feeling.”
Karl Iglesias, in his book ‘Writing for Emotional Impact’ describes movies and TV shows (and we can add novels to the list) as “emotion machines”:
“Great storytelling is about one thing only—engaging the reader emotionally. Good writing is good writing because you feel something when you read it.”
He explains that to create a “good story, well told” we have to do two things:
- We need to create the events, places, characters and imaginary world of the tale – this is the ‘good story’ part
- And we need to create the emotional impact on the reader. This makes it ‘well told.’
He goes on to define three types of emotions:
Voyeuristic emotions – we use the story to “spy” on other people and their lives – in this case the characters in the tale. The emotions appeal to our “curiosity about new information, new worlds, and the relationships between characters.” This is probably the least intense of the emotional experiences, as we remain, in a sense, detached from them.
Vicarious emotions – this is when we identify with a character so strongly that we feel what they feel.
Visceral emotions – these are the ones that actually get the heart pounding. They are created when the techniques the writer uses are so effective, they have a powerful physical effect on the reader or viewer. The emotions might include: interest, curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, lust. (Most of his book are dedicated to explaining how to evoke these visceral emotions. It focuses on script writing for movies and TV, but is highly recommended for all writers).
So, we need to remember when we talk about, plan and create stories that we need to create emotions in the reader. The emotions of our characters are what the reader wants to experience – and the events exist in order to create those emotions.
Feelings should influence every story decision we make.