By Paul Goat Allen
Some writers are so engrossed with the minutia of their work-in-progress that they lose sight of an obvious indicator that should be a primary focus: reader experience. And a big part of that overall experience is feeling an intimate connection with the characters, feeling what they’re feeling—be it sorrow, joy, anger, fear, arousal, disgust, etc.
As a reviewer, emotional connectivity is an element that is monumentally important—and one that plays a critical role in whether I give a release a positive or negative review. My ideal read is one where I can lose myself in the story—and, for a few hours, live vicariously through characters who I feel connected to.
I want to feel something!
It seems like such a simple thing to accomplish but on far too many occasions I’ve reviewed novels (in all genre categories) that simply don’t move me at all. There’s not much worse for a book reviewer—or any reader, for that matter—to not care about a main character.
Reading a novel with no emotional connectivity or emotional intensity is akin to eating an entire meal that is bland and tasteless. What’s the point?
As writers, your goal is to serve up a story that grabs your readers by the heart and moves them in a profound way. Look at any national bestselling fiction lists and, regardless of category, I will guarantee you that those titles contain characters that on some level resonate emotionally with readers.
I can give you countless examples of novels that are unforgettable to me because of the powerful emotional intensity and connectivity they offered up. The utter despair and hopelessness of Jerzy Kosiński’s unnamed main character in The Painted Bird (1965) is a great example. A six-year-old boy wandering around Eastern Europe at the beginning of WWII, the horrors that this boy saw stayed with me, haunted me, for decades, and a big part of that was because of how Kosiński put the reader so intimately inside the boy’s head, and made readers feel like they were there, experiencing what the boy was experiencing.
“The [Nazi] officer surveyed me sharply. I felt like a squashed caterpillar oozing in the dust, a creature that could not harm anyone yet aroused loathing and disgust. In the presence of such a resplendent being, armed in all the symbols of might and majesty, I was genuinely ashamed of my appearance. I had nothing against his killing me.”
Using his character as a conduit, Kosiński made me feel something—a feeling that lasted for decades!
Michael Moorcock’s Elric made me feel the soul-crushing darkness of being alone, different, and ostracized. Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus served up desire and carnality in heaping helpings, and Laird Barron’s The Croning made me feel cosmic terror so deeply that, yes, I did check inside my closet before going to bed.
My point is—if your novel isn’t impacting your readers emotionally, you’re doing something wrong.
So, how can you make your story more emotionally moving? Here are three suggestions to consider:
1. Make sure you’re showing and not telling. This is a common misstep for beginning writers. Remember that you want your readers to feel what your characters are feeling, so a sentence like “Chelsea was furious” has very little power. Be specific and show exactly how your character is furious. “With fists clenched so tight they were turning white, Chelsea’s eyes stared daggers at the man…” Now that’s a sentence that conveys emotional intensity!
2.Use sensory description to help immerse your reader in the scene. While this doesn’t necessarily impact emotional connectivity, it does help to get your reader more closely aligned with your character’s perspective, and that ultimate goal of having readers feel like they’re living vicariously through your characters. (This kind of description is best used subtly, only in sequences where it makes a noticeable impact.)
As an example of how sensory description can be used to almost singularly immerse readers in a story, I wrote, and published a short story (entitled “Slug”) for Blood Business, a crime fiction anthology that was released back in 2017. It was a highly experimental piece—I focused as much on immersion as the actual storyline—but the resulting story was powerful, and definitely immersive. Here’s the opening sequence:
“The funk in the tiny, upstairs bedroom was overpowering; a stomach-churning mélange of body odor, stale cigarette smoke, Dhakkar Noir, and cat piss. The yellowed mattress in the far corner was half-buried beneath piles of dirty clothes and miscellaneous garbage: grease-stained pizza boxes, empty beer bottles, crumpled packs of Marlboro. An expedition of ants explored the topography of a miniature mountain range of crumpled Burger King wrappers on the floor in front of a gray louvered closet door with broken slats. The walls were covered with centerfolds of scantily clad, surgically enhanced women and tattered posters of old ‘80s metal bands like Mötley Crüe and Slayer. Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” thumped from a dust-covered cassette player on an orange plastic milk crate in the corner, next to a rickety table supporting a murky fish tank filled with emerald green water that hadn’t been cleaned in years. There was an undeniable dankness to everything in the room; a sense of slow, inevitable deterioration.”
3. Use words that reflect emotional intensity. This is an obvious piece of advice that we all probably learned in elementary school, but it works. I’ve heard some writers call them “feeling words.” Words like lonely and gloomy, for example, will help to make it clear to your readers that your character is experiencing sadness as well as deepen the scene’s tone. This is a subtle thing but when utilized by a writer who knows what they’re doing, its cumulative effect is undeniable.
The opening sequence to Jacquelyn Middleton’s The Certainty of Chance—a romance that will be published in October—is a great example:
“Pardon me! Sorry, sorry! If I could—oh, come on!” An irritated male voice stabbed the damp morning air. “This is an emergency! Would you please MOVE!”
Okay, this character is obviously in a mad rush—the usage of the words “irritated” and “stabbed” convey a specific emotional intensity, that makes this powerful opening sequence even more forceful.
In the excerpt below from Denver Moon: The Saint of Mars (2019) by Warren Hammond and Joshua Viola, all of these elements come together perfectly to make for an unarguably powerfully emotional scene:
“I was so cold. My teeth chattered uncontrollably and my shoulders quaked. My vision was blurred and my thoughts weren’t any clearer. The pain between my shoulder blades had turned into an unrelenting agony, like it was about to pull me apart. I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath of stale air thick with the smell of copper. I held it long enough for my vision to begin to sharpen…”
Ever read a novel so emotionally intense that it has made you weep uncontrollably? I have, and I thank all of those writers whose mastery of storytelling has moved me in such a powerful way. Experiencing those feelings—being touched so deeply by simple words printed on a page—is why I still love my job after 20+ years.
Think about this as you write, or revise, your novel. Consider reader experience. Is your story, and your characters’ journeys, impacting your readers on an emotional level? If not, you’ve got some work to do…
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.