Last week, we discussed how we can balance the right amount of emotion for our stories. But as I pointed out, there’s no rule for how much emotion to portray or how to include it, especially not a rule that applies to every story.
In fact, there’s never going to be a “one size fits all” guideline for any aspect of writing. Every story is different, so some advice doesn’t apply to us. What’s right for one genre might not be right for another genre. Ditto for the point of view of the story. Or the characters. Or the plot.
Let’s stick with emotions in storytelling for an example of how we have to weigh advice against the specifics of our story. Reader expectations for emotional content vary widely by genre.
I write romance, so my genre expects strong emotions. The whole point of the story is for readers to experience the emotions of love, romance, devotion, forgiveness, or passion along with the characters while they journey toward a happy ending. But even with that emphasis, it’s possible to go overboard with melodrama or purple prose, such as using flowery language to include sex scenes without the explicit words.
In contrast, a noir detective story won’t include as many references to emotion. Part of the point of the story might even be how calm and collected (i.e., unemotional) the protagonist is despite the challenges they face. These authors would keep emotional references to a minimum.
That means for many authors, the common writing advice about characters and emotions won’t work. So let’s take a closer look at the different expectations of readers and how that might affect which pieces of writing advice we take—and which we ignore. *smile*
Elements That Can Affect Expectations for Emotional Content
As I alluded to above, some of the aspects of our story that can affect reader expectations of emotional content are:
- Point of view
The key is knowing what our readership expects.
Last time, Carradee commented:
“Hard sci-fi, for instance, tends to be more about the underlying ideas and what the characters do than how they’re feeeeeeeling. In that situation—and dependent on the overall style and point of the scene or story—summarizing “He was furious” might very well be better than even “He ground his teeth in fury.”
I agree completely. The target audiences of different genres have different expectations, and in some genres, exploring the characters’ feelings would work against their characterization and leave readers disappointed (or nauseated *smile*).
Point of View Expectations:
The typical modern story—and what most writing advice targets—is written in a deeper point of view (POV) than stories written in the past. That emphasis on depth creates a need for an emotional journey. We know all the emotions we feel in a day, so it doesn’t feel realistic to be deep inside a character and not be privy to those emotions. Deep POV that’s unemotional feels flat.
However, those who write omniscient or a shallow (POV) can feel left out from those writing tips. In omniscient or a distant third person POV, it can feel more natural and consistent with the mood or tone to share emotional information in narrative style (“She was angry”) than with body language (“She balled her fists”).
Characters in some stories simply are unemotional or less emotionally expressive or aware. Or maybe they deny their emotions more than usual (and the story might not be about them learning to get in touch with their feelings).
Likewise, some characters don’t have an emotional arc. They don’t “end up” in a different place—psychologically—from where they started. The story isn’t about their emotional journey, but about the plot or the premise.
Again, although this “flat arc” style is different from most of the writing advice out there for modern storytelling, this technique is not wrong. Many successful series are written in this episodic format, where events of previous books don’t affect later books much (if at all).
Plot and Premise Expectations:
Related to the issue of flat character arcs, sometimes the point of the story is the plot—or the premise, like in the idea-heavy science fiction stories that Carradee mentioned—rather than what the character goes through. There’s no right or wrong, as the important aspect is connecting with the target readership.
Some readers read for the plot or premise, and they’re perfectly happy with low-emotion characters. Emotional exploration would, in fact, distract from the plot and change the tone or mood of the story.
So What Keeps Those Readerships Engaged?
I mentioned last time that: “Storytelling and keeping readers’ interest often comes down to creating emotions in our readers.” When we look at less emotional stories, it would be easy to think that those readers must be reading for a different reason—a reason unrelated to emotions.
After all, the characters aren’t emotional, they aren’t going through an emotional arc, and they might even seem to be afterthoughts. Or maybe the writing is from a distant point of view, so readers don’t feel as connected to the characters’ experiences. Or maybe the plot or premise is so compelling that readers don’t care about the other elements.
But that word, compelling, tells us that the reader is experiencing emotions. It’s just that those emotions aren’t driven by the characters’ emotional journey. Readers are still curious enough to need to know how things turn out, inspired by the characters’ competence, eager to experience the future portrayed, horrified by the possibility of the plot playing out in real life, etc.
So when we write stories that aren’t about the characters’ emotional journey, we still want to identify what emotions we want readers to experience. But rather than evoking those emotions through the characters and their emotions, we’ll use narration, descriptions, dialogue, etc. that enhance the text or subtext, which then empowers those emotions.
Either way, readers are connecting to the story through their emotions. In character-focused stories, the characters act as proxies for evoking those reader emotions. In plot-focused stories, the other elements of the stories step up to drive reader emotions.
A Closer Look: Creating Emotions in Plot-Driven Stories
As I mentioned, some stories (and some whole genres—such as thriller or mystery series that feature a main character who doesn’t change from book to book) don’t include any character-based emotional arcs for readers to relate to. In those cases, readers are more likely to experience plot-related emotions, such as curiosity or dread about how the character can solve this situation.
In character-focused stories, readers root for characters to change themselves by correcting their false belief. In plot-focused stories, readers root for the characters to change the world around them by overcoming the plot obstacles . Either way, readers are emotionally invested enough to root for an outcome.
Many times in these flat character arc stories, readers will also experience emotions that are about the character (rather than feeling what the character feels). For example, readers might feel admiration or respect for a highly skilled character along the lines of James Bond or Jack Reacher. Familiarity can then turn those feelings into concern and worry when things don’t go the character’s way.
In other words, even with plot-driven stories, we create emotions in readers by writing compelling characters in a compelling plot and/or world. The difference lies in the “flavor” of how readers internalize the emotions, perhaps similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. So even if we’re writing flat-arc stories, plot-driven stories, distant POV stories, etc., we still want to think about how we can encourage readers to connect emotionally with our story.
These differences are a great example of why we have to filter all writing advice through the specifics of our situation or story, and there’s no end to the examples we can come up with. Some writing mentors talk about how our antagonist is the end-all-be-all of our story, and in some genres, that’s true. But in other genres, readers don’t care as much about the antagonist. We can’t follow every piece of advice out there without endangering our story.
Regardless of the specifics of our story, our job remains the same, and only the techniques change. No matter what, we still want readers to connect to our story. We still want readers to be compelled to turn the pages. *smiles*
Can you think of other aspects that affect reader expectations for emotional content? Do you have any stories that fall into the less-character-emotion-driven categories? Do you think readers still emotionally connect to the story through other techniques? If you enjoy stories like that, what makes you want to read them? Can you think of other common writing tips that don’t apply to all genres or stories?
(On an unrelated note, my brother was recently diagnosed with a (non-cancerous) brain tumor, and he’s scheduled for brain surgery tomorrow. Due to the size of the tumor, they’re expecting this to be a very long and complicated surgery, but if everything goes well, he has an excellent chance of recovery. Prayers, good wishes, or healing thoughts are appreciated for him and his family. Thank you!)Pin It