Is it a mistake to gut your readers emotionally?

ride of lifeOR IS IT YOUR JOB AS A WRITER?

To give them the biggest emotional journey you can, the most stress and pain they can take vicariously?

At least, it is your job to consider their feelings – and how you’re going to invoke them – if not as you write, then at least before you publish.

You owe your readers a thorough exploration of the questions raised by the story. If you present one action, and only one reaction, you’re preaching. Which is fine as long as you know what you’re doing, and some writers and readers are perfectly fine with that.

But not me.

Mountains, anyone?

Real-life choices are made with options. Fictional choices are made with a lot MORE options. Just because writers can. There is no budget needed when a writer says, “Overnight, a mountain had moved in front of her window.” A few black marks and it’s done. Less than a minute of writing time, and we have a new mountain, right where I say it is.

So there’s no excuse such as “it’s too expensive” or “where am I going to get a mountain?”

Since I write realistic fiction, I do have limits that I choose (and shouldn’t use dream sequences with new mountains very often). But the mountains of K’Tae, where Kary sets her SF novel (if you’ve read Pride’s Children, you know what I’m talking about; if not) were necessary for her plot on an inhospitable planet, and cost me practically nothing. Nice, eh?

Readers’ reactions to roller coasters, emotional

Leaving out those who like their fiction tame, and those who prefer a lot of physical action, gives me readers who want to know how the appearance on a single TV interview can make such a difference in the life of a woman who normally hides, due to a carefully managed illness, from any publicity. How much can she take? What does it do to her? How does she cope before, during, and after a roller coaster comes into her life?

Do we want her to get off? Do we care where the ride stops? Is it even a possible ride for her and the other people involved?

Readers deserve an author who takes into account their emotional journey, presents each relevant event as the only possible next event, has a sequence of emotions calculated to lead them through a scene, chapter, book in an inexorable progress (Noooo!) to the only possible end to the story, and then dumps them at the station wanting more.

Margaret Mitchell did that continuously through a very long Gone With the Wind, and left us at the end wanting the more which either she didn’t plan to write, or didn’t get the chance to. And which was so badly mishandled by the writer her estate hired to do the sequel that I won’t mention it – which disappointed many.

How to engineer a roller coaster:

Planning, planning, and more planning is how I do it.

My tools (the books I consult most frequently while setting the journey up) are:

  1. Writing the Blockbuster novel, in which Albert Zuckerman masterfully takes apart several important and well known scenes (from The Godfather, GWTW, and Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg) showing how it’s done.
  2. The Fire in Fiction, in which Donald Maass carefully shows how to create conflict in every element of a scene (from landscaping to literally nothing happening).
  3. Wired for Story, where Lisa Kron shows how to make a reader empathize with a character with a thorough understanding of how the human brain works, and how we feel.

I start a scene, for example, by asking myself what the character needs to go through emotionally for the scene to work for me.

Then I start working out whether some of the emotions cluster in groups. If so, a smooth transition from feeling to feeling within a group gets planned.

I ask myself where the scene starts, what the emotional changes in the character have to be, and where the character needs to end.

Once I have the character’s path and the actual events working to give a transition which makes some kind of sense, I work out how to get a reader to identify – and take the same journey. It has to be a believable journey. In real life, people go through circular emotional journeys, coming back again to the same thing, over and over, repeating themselves. If you do that in fiction, readers will notice.

You don’t get to take that trip in fiction because it’s boring. Once a character achieves insight over something, the reader expects him to remember that insight.

That’s because stories are the highlights of life, condensed, told as quickly as possible so that readers can get many vicarious lives. My kind of stories, anyway.

Relevance?

That’s where I’m at right now: writing the very first scene in Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD. In the midst of taking the reader expectations left at the end of PURGATORY into account, setting a new direction for the next level of exploration, making sure the reader gets dragged into Andrew’s head for the battle (yes, Book 2 starts with Andrew), making sure a few old questions get answered, and even more new questions get lodged in the reader’s consciousness, and planning that very long ride up from the station to the tip top of the track and then…?

Thing is, the starting point is partly determined by where Book 1 ended, and where I know Book 2 ends and Book 3 begins.

But I know it has to kick things up to a new level, so I get out my trusty software tools, and my slow brain, dump all the marketing and promotion stuff which has been bedeviling my existence, and start chuckling at what I’m planning to do.

Because the Roller Coaster Designer gets to take the ride over and over and over until it’s as good as she can make it.

Gentle Reader: do you like roller coasters?


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make up to 10 free images per month. I’ve enjoyed using their easy tools – and every month they give me new choices. I will get a paid account as soon as I need more images – I’ve only explored the surface of what’s available.


I you like my prose, consider purchasing my fiction. It’s written by the same person.

I’m planning to put up a few short stories in a polished form as soon as I can create covers.

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14 thoughts on “Is it a mistake to gut your readers emotionally?

  1. acflory

    I’m with Marian, take all the time you need just get there soon. 😉 On a serious note, this article surprised me because in reading Pride’s Children, I assumed you must be a pantster, of sorts. I never once felt as if the writing was ‘cerebral’ or contrived. It ‘felt’ absolutely right to me, and nothing happened just because ‘the plot called for X, so X happened even though Y would have been more appropriate.’

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thank you so much for this, AC – you have no idea how HARD I work for that effect.

      The structure is planned to the last iota before I start writing, and then I dedicate an enormous amount of time to filling the structure with fiction that makes sense – and doesn’t show the structure!

      It is so cerebral it gives me headaches in the planning AND in the writing.

      But that’s my JOB, as I see it, not the reader’s problem. the reader shouldn’t see any of this.

      Fistpump!

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  2. marianallen

    I hate real roller coasters, and I hate most fictional roller coasters, because so many writers are obviously manipulating the reader’s emotions. Not so with Pride’s Children. I was like, “Oh, she WOULDN’T!” “Oh, no, SHE DID! Now what????” I loved every second of the book, every up and down, every almost-fell-out-but-didn’t, every breathless thrill and gentle quiver. You take alllllll the time you need on Books 2 and 3. I look forward to them. If that means waiting, well, they’ll be worth waiting for.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks for appreciating what turns out to be a LOT of hard work to create – if it’s not subtle, I don’t like it, so I have to make it the way I want to read.

      You’re definitely in Pride’s Children’s tribe. I working on it, really hard.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’m thinking happy people don’t write as I do, but it’s okay. Sometimes you think it’s worth it, and you keep going. Although there are some days when the results are slow and you wonder what you’ve gotten into.

          Appreciate the good thoughts, and thanks for the Twitter boost – there is NEVER going to be enough energy for me to do Twitter properly.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Everyone looks for something different in their reading material, but I write what I like, and it involves the kind of voyage the writers of all my preferred reading provided. I need an emotional journey, and I need it to be believable, and non-stereotypical. I have to care about the characters – or I don’t want to spend time with them. If I do spend time with them, I get to live another life – which to me means feeling what they feel and hurting with them.

      I’m so grateful for all the tools out there that are free or reasonably priced – all you have to put in is elbow grease, and a shout out to the creators. Or a small donation. If I used any of these tools heavily, I would love the premium versions, but for now all I need is fewer than ten images.

      I like the business model – encourage the small fry, and some of them will become bigger users. It’s symbiotic – there’s a lot of enterprise being used. Some of it will never be rewarded, but it gives people a chance. I always hope they get enough customers to stay in business, and that doesn’t always happen. Meanwhile I benefit – and don’t cost them much except a tiny bit of storage space.

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      1. dgkaye

        I agree Alicia. And eventually we all find the tools we gravitate to most, and when it’s to our benefit, we sign up for the premium version. I was offered a great deal 2 years ago with the now Stencial, formerly ‘shareasimage’ and I grabbed it. $29 for a lifetime membership. 🙂

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          If I had had that offer – I don’t think I knew about Stencil then – I might have done the same.

          But at least the free images are carrying me just fine for my blogging rate right now, and I have Pixelmator to create my own from scratch and photos I own or take, I’ll be okay for the foreseeable future.

          Right now there is ONE thing I lack, and that is for my brain to work for more than a couple hours a day.

          And I mean that literally. I can do a few trivial things, and watch TV (not read) with my brain most of the day, but I CANNOT write with it (or read, which is why I don’t read as much now), and if it is necessary for financial matters, house matters, medical matters that day – I get no writing done.

          The kind of writing I do is very tightly planned and polished – and I can’t unless I am temporarily above that minimum thinking capacity line.

          My cross to bear.

          Going to write – it’s on now.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. gracecrandallauthor

    I like an occasional dose of heavy emotion when I’m reading… I guess ‘occasional’ is the key for me, though 🙂 I like it best when a huge dose of negative emotion is the setup for a change in the story’s world, or a character finding their courage again.

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