I get so many writers telling me that what they want is to make their readers feel something. Their goal is to make a reader laugh, cry, shake their fist at the sky–whatever, either to cheer on the character or cry in sympathy with them. Deep point of view is a great stylstic choice to do this, but there are three key ingredients to create emotion in deep pov:
- emotional triggers
Malcolm Gladwell in his Revisionist History podcast episode “King of Tears” said: “Beauty and authenticity can create a mood, they set the stage, but I think the thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. And specificity is not something every genre does well.”
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Emotional Triggers Can Create Instant Impact
I talk about emotional triggers in my book Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers. Primary emotions are the gut-reaction, unthinking, instinctive emotional reactions to people and situations. Secondary emotions are the thinking response to those primary emotions. We must DO something with all these emotions and that’s where an observable behavior comes into play. Where things can get muddled are with emotional triggers.
Emotional triggers catapult us immediately to the secondary emotion or behaviour without us understanding or processing the primary emotions involved. We’re instantly angry or full of shame and lash out verbally. It’s a practiced reaction that’s happened so often we don’t even recognize what’s going on.
Emotional triggers cause sympathy because they’re quick–sudden, often irrational, and usually don’t correspond to the intensity of the situation. For readers to empathize or ‘feel’ alongside the main character, they have to understand WHY the point of view character is behaving this way.
A woman with PTSD is at the gym. She knows her triggers are men who are bigger than her, but she’s navigated this scene before so she feels safe. While on the floor exercising, a very large man stands over her and winks. That’s enough to trigger her PTSD.
She skitters out from under him, her heart pounding, sweat begins rolling down her face, and she nearly runs away. Her reaction is out of sync with the situation, she won’t even be able to articulate in that moment what’s going on (this is the essence of a trigger), but if you ask her all she’ll say is she’s not safe. But there’s no real threat. A reader will lean in if they understand the trauma she’s reliving and her utter terror at having anyone learn why she’s reacting the way she is.
Specificity: The Power Is In The Details
Being specific with sensory details and descriptions can ratchet up the emotional tension quickly.
“Marguerite was dark, greasy-skinned and morose-looking, wearing a shiny purple dress that appeared to have been bought when she was a little thinner.” The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
“But my father stood like a stone tucked into the earth.” Sky In The Deep, Adrienne Young
These are very specific word pictures through the point of view of at best-secondary characters. Do you know how each point of view character feels about the person they’re describing above? Stories are rooted in a specific time and place. Opinions, prejudices, fears are tied to specific experiences. Too many writers skim over the details that would pull a reader deeper into the story.
Chose metaphors and similies that are specific, that create a word picture readers can picture. Choosing which details to be specific about is critical because describing every single thing with intense specificity is exhausting and will kill the pace of your novel.
Let’s look at an example.
Something set the officer’s nerves on edge.
The officer stared at the fidgety kid in the corner who wouldn’t meet his gaze, his cop-sense leaning in for a closer look.
Which example pulls you deeper into the story from the cop’s point of view? Now the reader knows what the cop’s looking for, what he interprets as a warning sign, which is better than just being TOLD the cop is on alert.
“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Stephen King
The situations, circumstances, and characters might all be fictional but how they react, their emotions–those we must be truthful with. A character doesn’t have to behave in a way we agree with, but we do have to understand why they’re behaving that way. Remember to maintain logical sequencing: thought then action; action then reaction. A character who’s irrational without reason feels like they’re too stupid to live.
Think about the low-budget hack and slash horror movies with the dumb blond tropes. What rational person knowingly moves closer to life-threatening danger without any plan, weapons, or compelling reason? Yet this happens again and again in some of those movies. I have nothing invested in whether that character lives or dies. That’s not how you create emotion. Depending on how she’s killed, I might feel revulsion but not true fear.
Be honest. This is really hard. I have a beta reader who really pushes me to be more honest than I’m comfortable with in terms of my character’s emotions and actions *mittened fist-bump Holly* and my stories are better for it. Holly keeps saying – I don’t get why she did that. See, Holly doesn’t have to agree with what the character is doing, but she does need to understand why. And the why has to be compelling and seem rational to the character.
When I’m challenged about why a character feels a particular way and the only answer I have is… because – that’s not good enough. You need to know your characters intimately to pull this off. This is part of why I called my book Method Acting For Writers because we need to share our emotional experiences with our characters to create an authenticity readers can immerse themselves in.
What books have you read recently where you found yourself emotionally invested in?