Saturday, November 6, 2010

SWEET EMOTION: Entertain and Move your Readers by Michele Lang

*Ladies, gentlemen, authors, dragons and members of the Rodent Liberation Front please give a warm Mad Genius Club Welcome to Michelle Lang.*

So far, every book I’ve written has wiped me out emotionally at some point. My current release, Lady Lazarus, is certainly no exception. Lady Lazarus is a magical re-telling of my family’s history in WWII, and some of the scenes I wrote honestly just took my kishkes out. I needed therapy to finish this book – and sadly, I’m not even joking.

But do my feelings really matter? More than one of my writer buddies has lauded me for writing books that “mean something,” but after writing this book I have a renewed, profound appreciation for the value of fun and entertainment in both reading and writing stories. In editing Lady Lazarus, I took some pains to ensure that the book is no dirge, but a celebration of the heroism and derring-do of the characters and the ancestors of mine who inspired them. In short, I tried to look at the book from a reader’s perspective.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if a book nearly kills you, or if it is as easy to write as brushing your teeth in the morning. As always, the story is the boss, and all that matters in my opinion is if the reader is moved, if the reader feels joy, triumph, worry, sadness, despair, completion – you know, catharsis.

So to me, emotion in a story is a question of craft, not artistry. An emotion in me as a writer may inspire the writing of a story, or inspire me to write one story over another, but what really matters is what a reader feels as they read.

I find this a perpetual challenge. So often, I go back to scenes that I wrote in the throes of some kind of passion, and find they are pretty flat from the reader’s side of things. The emotions I felt as a writer are blunted or absent for the reader. So, how do you inspire emotions in your readers?

No easy answers here! But I’ve collected some online resources for you to check out if you, too, are fascinated by the question of how to effectively convey emotion:

(1) Margie Lawson: she is a psychologist who teaches classes on deep editing and empowering characters’ emotions. She also uses psychology techniques to help writers to enhance their own process. To sample her methods, check out her analysis of how best-selling authors effectively convey emotion to readers.

(2)Jim Butcher: I am an unrepentant, fervent fan-girl of this awesome writer of the Dresden Files urban fantasy series. Jim puts his characters through hell and brings them out the other side, and he does it all in service of a fantastic, satisfying story. He is also generous enough to share his secrets on his blog. His article on sequels is the best practical description of how to convey emotion that I have found anywhere – and believe me, I’ve looked around.

(3)Randy Ingermanson: Most famous for his “snowflake” analysis of story development, this writer has written a library of articles, workshops, and even computer software all designed to help writers in their craft. His article on scene structure gets down to the micro-level of action/reaction, the cause-effect chain that drives characters to take action.

If you are similarly obsessed by the question of how to convey emotion to readers, how to make a reader care about your characters as much as you do, check out the above resources – these excellent writers go into far more detail than I can here.

But here’s a brief synthesis of what I’ve learned so far from these writers, and from books that have grabbed me: To evoke emotion in your readers, you need to create characters they care about, with stakes that put those characters in real danger. To show emotion in your characters, use their physical reactions to external motivators, the visceral impact of external events. Those reactions fuel mini-sequels, where your characters make important, moment-to-moment decisions about what to do next.
It comes down to cause and effect. Heroism is often born in fleeting moments of decision, when a person is confronted by a terrible outside motivation. You cannot convey a hero’s courage, their despair, their determination to survive, by telling the reader about these things.

Sometimes you transmit your own passion for a story, a protagonist, even the Deep Meaning of a book, via paradox: by taking a deep breath, slowing down to remove your own emotion, and making sure your cause and effect chain works on a story’s molecular level.

Passion will inspire you to write a story, but is it enough to bring a reader along for the roller-coaster ride? Sometimes your own emotion is enough, but if not, the tools developed by the above authors can help. Writing is magic, of course – inviting a stranger to enter a dream that has passed through your heart to theirs. But to make the transmission more effective, it often takes some practical craft.

Michele Lang is the author of the historical fantasy LADY LAZARUS, the first of a series, which released in September 2010 from Tor Books. In addition to this, Michele has practiced the unholy craft of litigation in both New York and Connecticut. She returned to her native New York before 9/11, and now lives in a small town on the North Shore of Long Island with her husband, her sons, and a rotating menagerie of cats, hermit crabs, and butterflies. Please visit Michele on the web at


MataPam said...

Wow! What an excellent bunch of references. I'm going to be working on these for awhile.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the links to the wonderful information!

I think sometimes when we, as writers, feel our emotions in a scene intensely, we have a tendency to 'dial it back' -- either out of concern that it will be *too* intense for the reader; or because it can get past that 'this is too personal to let others know about' line that is different for all of us.

It's a highwire act without a net, sometimes, and breezy as heck -- but once you get the right balance, it'll be riveting!


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Thanks for taking the time to put this post together, Michele.

I'm going off to read those links right now.

Michele Lang said...

So glad this was helpful, MataPam, Lin, and Rowena :)

Lin, I think you are right about pulling our punches. I get very attached to my characters, and sometimes don't want to "go there," because their dilemmas sometimes mirror things I've experienced myself.

But we have to serve the story and our readers, so I try my best to remember to breathe before jumping off the cliff of the story! LOL

Thank you for your comments :)