I read in a book (Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias) that there are three kinds of feelings a reader can experience while reading a book—boredom, interest, and WOW! Funny enough, with many books I experience all three over and over again. It is a rare book that can WOW me on every page, yet that is what we writers try (or should try) to do. In fact, I find it much more the case that most books bore me on the majority of pages, with a sprinkling of interest scattered through the book.
Some stories wow me because the prose is unique, poetic, and fire my imagination. I mean, some writers can paint portraits or landscapes with a few well-chosen words, like Zen brush strokes. Sometimes the wow comes from brilliant and valuable insights, which is difficult to put on every page. For the most part, I think the wow comes when the story engages the reader emotionally through drama.
As Cordon Lish said: “It’s not about what happens to the people on a page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.”
That, in my not-so humble opinion, is what a writer should strive for on every page, to touch those emotional buttons within the reader, sometimes gently and sometimes brutally. That’s why people read fiction, to ride an emotional rollercoaster. They want to feel something. They put themselves into the characters skin and feel the joy, sorrow, pain, bewilderment, and tension that the characters feel.
Emotion means “disturbance” from the Latin “to disturb or agitate.” The writer’s job is to disturb the reader, move their hearts and minds by the words you string together on the page. It’s what the reader demands. It’s why they plopped down twenty bucks for a book. They want a emotional ride, and they want it on each and every page.
It’s important here to distinguish between a character’s emotions and the reader’s emotions. Sometimes, in a comedy for example, a character might be being dragged through hell but the reader’s response might be laughter. In a thriller, the protagonist is often calm and unaware, yet the reader is tense because he knows something the character doesn’t. Sometimes you want the reader to experience the same emotions that your characters are feeling, and sometimes you want the reader feeling something entirely different. A good writer focus more on the reader’s emotions than they do on the character’s emotions.
Bottom line: it’s not enough to write a well-structured plot where the protagonist follows the hero’s journey and changes his perspective at the end. It’s not enough to offer brilliant insights every dozen pages or so. A writer needs to reach into the reader’s gut on page one, and keep massaging those emotional buttons throughout the story. Easy Peasy right?