Welcome to Part 2 of this blog series on making your reader feel something.
Part 1 is here.
Today we’re going to talk about the need for connection in making your reader feel something. This encompasses a few different facets. So let’s talk about them.
The reader must feel connected to the character. This is why you hear so much about the need for “likable” or “sympathetic” characters. If your character is just plain flat annoying or a huge jerk with no redeeming qualities, chances are your reader isn’t going to care if something horrible happens to them. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an “unlikable” character, it just means that there has to be something that connects me to that character and makes me want what they want or at least want to go along the ride with them.
This can be accomplished in a number of ways.
1. Voice! A great, strong voice can overcome a lot of character flaws.
2. Save the cat! I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase. It’s the title a really popular book for screenwriters that authors also love. The idea is that you can have an unlikable/very flawed character, but at the beginning you need to show us that there is something good in them. Have them “save the cat” or do something small yet noble. Just something so we can see they are redeemable and worth rooting for.
3. Give them some room on the page to breathe. I struggle with this one. But let us see that your character is a person outside of their big story problem. Help us see what’s special about them and connect to them like someone we want to be friends with for one reason or another.
Okay, so let’s talk about another facet of connection.
In order to create an emotional response in the reader to a certain event, you need to begin by showing us the opposite. That probably sounds confusing. Let me explain. If you want me to feel surprised because something totally unexpected or out of the ordinary happened, then you need to begin by showing me what is expected and what is ordinary. I see many writers try to clear this hurdle by just giving me backstory when the unexpected event happens, explaining why it’s such a surprise. But when you do that, I don’t feel surprised. I just sort of shrug and say, “Well, okay. I guess it’s surprising.”
If you want me to feel the shock and confusion of a natural disaster or bombing or something huge and tragic like that, you have to give me at least a few pages of peace, of the character going about their business. when you allow me to settle into that, then I will truly have a WTH? moment when you bring the world crashing down.
You need to connect me to the relationships in your book. This is something I learned in writing/revising my Pitch Wars book last year. I have a friendship fall apart very early on in the book. But nobody cared enough until I took a couple chapters to show why that friendship was special to begin with. This is important with any relationship but especially friendships. If you going to strain the relationship and want me to long for it to be repaired, you have to first help me connect to and invest in the relationship. When you just tell me that so and so are best friends, but my first real time seeing it on the page is when it’s fizzling out, I’m apt to just think the best friend is a brat and actually root for the character to move on. And that drains your strained relationship of tension.
This idea of connecting me to relationships also works in kind of the opposite way too. If your MC is working on building a relationship with someone, then you need to first let me see what they are missing without that relationship. You need me to connect to the character’s motivations for wanting that relationship. Show me that “dysfunctional” normal. Then I’ll root for you all the way through the book. Then when your inciting incident happens that puts further strain on making that relationship or improved relationship possible, I will feel the fear and discouragement right along with your MC. But don’t just show the inciting incident happen and then say, “Now I’ll never win the approval of so and so.” That doesn’t make me care. That doesn’t make me feel. Connect me to the need and the fear first, then start the dumpster fire.
There are some things that don’t need a lot of build up to connect to. The loss of a parent or a child, divorce, moving. There are just some experiences that we all understand and connect with instantaneously. I don’t need to see your MC interact with their dad to connect to the pain they feel when he’s gone. I immediately understand and connect to that pain, because I can imagine it in my own life. So sometimes you CAN jump right into the inciting incident without connecting me to “before” as much as usual. But please don’t just assume you’re the exception. Get a beta reader. Make sure they are feeling what they’re supposed to.
I hope that helps with the idea of laying a groundwork for connection to pave the way for helping your reader FEEL it.