It is a truth universally acknowledged: you have to hook the reader right out of the starting gate. From the very first sentence your story must incite that delicious sense of urgency that makes readers have to know what happens next.
But what is it that actually hooks us? The answer is emotion. Every story, even the most rough and tumble, is emotion driven.
But we’re not talking about an emotion mentioned on the page — you need to make the reader feel the emotion herself, as if it were happening to her. Because it is. Studies have proven that when we’re absorbed in a riveting novel our neurons are firing as if we’re actually living the events on the page.
That makes sense, since the biological purpose of story isn’t to entertain, but to help us better navigate the world by understanding what makes people tick, ourselves included.
The bottom line is: if we aren’t feeling, we aren’t reading. And it sure doesn’t take long for our cognitive unconscious to get antsy and start thinking, hey since there’s nothing here I need to know, maybe I should just go check to see if that nice piece of cake is still in the fridge.
In other words, the reader has to feel something so strongly that they literally can’t resist finding out what will happen, even though that piece of cake is taunting them. For writers, that’s a tall order.
Especially because when we talk about emotion, it’s maddeningly easy to misunderstand what it really is, and thus how to get it onto the page. Emotion doesn’t come from general external “dramatic” situations, nor is it expressed by body language, or whether a character is happy, sad, angry, or really, really cranky.
In fact, it turns out that emotion itself is very different than what we’ve been taught it is, which makes nailing it even more difficult. Emotion is not logic’s hotheaded nemesis. It’s not weakness. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract.
Rather, emotion is what our survival depends on, and it’s far more fundamental than logic. In fact, it’s the basis of all logic, in real life and on the page.
By itself logic is objective, generic — it tells us what things are. Emotion is subjective, specific — it tells us what those things mean to us, and therefore what action we should take if we want to live to see the dawn (hopefully, metaphorically).
So it’s not surprising that, as neuroscientists have discovered, if we couldn’t feel emotion, we couldn’t make a single rational decision. Why? Because everything would be neutral. Can you imagine never feeling anything about anything? There would be absolutely no difference in how you’d experience seeing your beloved enter the room, and noticing your absolute worst enemy skulking behind the curtains. Yikes!
So okay, if the reader isn’t feeling, they’re not reading, but the question is, feeling what exactly? Where does the emotion come from? What does it look like on the page?
The first part is easy: Your reader is feeling what your protagonist is feeling, in the moment, on the page, as she struggles with the tough choice that every scene will force her to make, beginning with the very first scene. That part is simple.
Where does said emotion come from? It comes from the subjective meaning your protagonist is reading into the what’s happening, that is, how what’s happening is affecting her inside her head. It does not come solely from her body language. It does not come solely from her action. And it certainly does not come from the exquisitely beautiful, utterly unique metaphor you’ve created to illuminate the way her heart is pounding.
In other words, the primary ways in which writers are taught to communicate emotion are deeply wrong.
Give us nothing but body language, and you lock us out. We don’t care if she winced, cried, howled under the moon, with sagging shoulders or stumbled home with a slow, dejected step. No matter how beautifully rendered, by itself it’s surface, general – it merely tells us what she feels.
What we’re hungry for, what gives body language it’s meaning, is why she feels it, how she’s internalizing what happened, how she’s making sense of it, the conclusions she’s drawing as a result, how it’s shifting her take on things. It’s this internal process that we relate to, that we empathize with, and that’s where real emotion lies.
You may be thinking, wait a minute, didn’t you just tell us the reader wants to feel what the protagonist is feeling? But how will they know if we don’t tell them?
Here’s the fine print: although yes, the reader needs to know how your protagonist feels at every turn, that does not mean you need to tell us. As in:
When Marilyn’s mother died, she felt very, very sad.
Tell me that and I hear it, but I don’t feel it. As readers, we want to feel it as deeply as Marilyn does.
Prettying up the language and throwing in a lyrical metaphor or two won’t get you there either:
Hearing of her mother’s death, Marilyn felt an arrow pierce her heart and as it shattered, she sank to her knees, threw her head back, and keened beneath the cold crescent moon.
Admit it, that’s nothing more than a fancy way of saying, “When Marilyn’s mother died, she felt very sad.”
The secret is this: emotion is triggered by how the character makes sense of what’s happening, rather than mentioning the nearest big box emotion that neatly sums it up. The goal isn’t to tell us how the character feels so we know it intellectually; it’s to put us in her head as she struggles, which then evokes the same emotion in us. You can do it without ever mentioning an emotion at all.
Want an example? How about a passage from Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut literary novel, Everything I Never Told You, an award-winning New York Times bestseller, heralded as a best book of the year by NPR, Booklist, Amazon, The San Francisco Chronicle and more. In other words, it was a lauded literary novel that sold – and still sells – very well.
The scene in question takes place in 1966. Marilyn, a white housewife, has just learned of her estranged mother’s death. They hadn’t seen each other since Marilyn married her Asian college professor, James Lee, in 1958. And this Marilyn isn’t sad at all.
. . . By then she had not spoken to her mother in almost eight years, since her wedding day. In all that time, her mother had not written once. When Nath had been born, and then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it’s not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, “My mother died.” Then she turned back to the stove and added, “And the lawn needs mowing,” and he understood: they would not talk about it. At dinner, when she told the children that their grandmother had died, Lydia cocked her head and asked, “Are you sad?”
Marilyn glanced at her husband. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I am.”
There’s nothing in the passage that mentions how Marilyn actually felt, and yet everything in the passage conveyed it. It ends with a send-up of the word “sad,” which is the dictionary definition of what we’re taught to expect in situations like this. Sad is the one thing Marilyn doesn’t feel; it’s also the word she hides behind, to protect both Lydia and herself from the far more complex emotions she is actually experiencing. You can feel Marilyn’s caution, triggered by a perfect use of body language – Lydia “cocks her head” – signaling she’s been listening and is paying attention, alerting Marilyn to the fact that she has to shield Lydia from the truth.
Plus, it’s a literary novel for heaven’s sake, yet notice that there are no twenty-five dollar words here. No lyrical language. No pretty metaphors. It was just us, in Marilyn’s skin, during what otherwise might be a very mundane moment – making dinner for her family – experiencing something profound.
You may be thinking, but hey, that scene was kind of plain. I didn’t feel all that much. And reading it here, out of context, as a mere snippet, that might be true. However, if you were in the midst of reading the novel, and came across that passage as a seamless part of a story-long continuum, a compelling piece of an internal cause-and-effect trajectory that you’d been experiencing since page one, it would pack a potent punch.
And yet writers are often taught that this is not the way to get emotion on the page, by well meaning instructors no less. Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I was giving a talk at a university in Pennsylvania. It was the third time I’d been asked to speak there, and I’d become friends with the professor who invited me.
When I spoke in her writing class, I read that same passage to her students, and made the same point. Afterward, she and I were having lunch before she dropped me off at the bus depot to head back to New York. She looked at me sheepishly across the table and said, “I have an admission. You know that passage you read in class from Every Thing I Never Told You? If one of my students had written it, I’d have told them it was too bland. I’d have asked them to pretty it up.”
I understood what she meant. We’ve been taught to look at writing as something separate from story. In fact, we’ve been taught that learning to “write well” is what makes you a good storyteller. Couldn’t be less true. It’s the internal emotional story – that begins on page one and evolves throughout via the protagonist’s internal struggle – that makes the writing beautiful. Meaningful. And, as in the case of the passage above, imbues even the simplest, humblest words with transcendent meaning.
The takeaway is this: Emotion on the page? It’s not a technique. Emotion is not communicated as a surface feeling — happy, sad, angry — nor is it expressed through neatly rendered body language. Emotion is a consequence, a by-product, of a deeply rendered inner struggle.
How do you get emotion onto the page? By letting us inside the head of your protagonist as she struggles with how to respond to an escalating problem she has no choice but to deal with. It really is as simple as that.
Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com