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October 23, 2018

Storytelling: Taking Readers on a Journey

Designer dress like a giant butterfly with text: Are You Taking Readers on a Journey?

Two weeks ago, we talked about the pros and cons of epilogues. Then last week, we discussed the importance of fulfilling our story’s promise—even if it requires an epilogue.

Just like the debate about prologues, the decision of how to end our story isn’t always clear. On some level, the best choice is whatever direction allows us to tell the story we want to tell.

Seems obvious, but what does that mean? After all, we can probably all think of stories with so-so writing quality that somehow manage to be compelling anyway, so how can we know the “best” choice?

Let’s take a look at what storytelling really is and how we can improve our skills. And while we dig into that topic, we might discover some “rules of thumb” to help us with our story endings—epilogue or no epilogue. *smile*

Storytelling: It’s about the Reader’s Experience

As authors, we often get wrapped up in the craft and details of our story. Who are our characters? What do they want? What stands in their way?

And yes, we need to know all that to write our story. But there’s another level to our stories that we might not think about unless we take a step back from those details:

What do our readers experience?

Storytelling is really about creating emotions in our readers. Whether they enjoy meeting characters, discovering twisty plots, immersing themselves in a story world, etc., those are all different ways of creating an emotional experience for our readers.

What Experience Do We Want Readers to Have?

When reading, we experience a journey of emotions. That journey is the readers’ experience.

So when we talk about whether a writer is a good storyteller, what we really mean is:

Good storytellers take readers on an emotional journey.

One thing we can do to be better writers—better storytellers—is to be more conscious of the emotional experience we’re creating for readers. The more we know the journey we’re trying to take readers on, the better our chances of writing the story we intend.

What Creates a Reader’s Experience? Part 1

In the real world, while we might “enjoy the journey,” we usually still have a destination in mind that we’re working toward. Similarly, even though every aspect of our story contributes to the overall journey, the ending of our story is key to our readers’ experience.

The Climax and Resolution of our story is the core of the emotional attachment-and-release readers experience during their reading journey. Those emotions are often the reason readers read. So the goal of the Climax and Resolution is to deliver on the emotional promise we’ve been building throughout the story.

What Creates a Reader’s Experience? Part 2

Relatedly, for many genres and stories, the internal arc of how a character’s thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, etc. change by the end of the story significantly determines a reader’s experience. Yet readers won’t experience that arc unless we include the turning points—any thought or emotional changes—of the character’s mental or emotional journey.

How can we improve our storytelling and take readers on a journey? Click To TweetIf a character suddenly changes motivation or goals, readers need to understand that thought process or emotional justification, or else the character will seem fickle or acting out of character. More importantly, if we never see the characters face their dilemma and make their choices, we never see them change, and no change means no arc and no story. The milestones of a character’s emotional journey must be shown to readers—and that goes double for the ending.

In other words, the character’s emotional journey affects the reader’s emotional journey:

  • If a character “wins,” readers enjoy the happy ending.
  • If a character “fails,” readers look for lessons to take away from the failure.

In many of these stories, whatever characters learn about themselves can offer lessons to readers. Whatever characters are able to do at the end of the story can offer inspiration to readers. Whatever characters learn about the world can offer insights to readers. And so on…

What Creates a Reader’s Experience? Part 3

Given how important a story’s ending and the character arc’s ending is to readers’ experience, we don’t want to automatically dismiss the possibility of adding an epilogue the same way we might for prologues. At some point during the revision process, we want to ask if there’s anything we can do to strengthen our endings:

  • If our characters change, did we show their journey through their epiphany or motivation “enough” to make readers believe our character’s growth?
  • If our characters change, have we shown “enough” at the end to prove the change is lasting?
  • If our characters win, do they win “enough” to fit the story and create the experience we want for readers?
  • If our ending is ambiguous or our characters “fail,” have we done “enough” to ensure our story still creates a satisfying emotional experience for readers?

There’s no “one right way” to create a journey for readers. Instead, we want to be aware of what experience we’re creating so we can edit, tweak, and change as needed.

What If Our Story Isn’t about Emotions?

As mentioned in Part 2 above, in character-focused stories, readers root for characters to change themselves by correcting their false belief. However, 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—they still experience an emotional journey while reading.

Writing a plot-focused story? Make sure you're still delivering an emotional experience to readers. Click To TweetThe plot or premise might be so compelling that readers don’t care about the characters’ emotional journey or lack thereof. 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.

Many times, 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.

So even 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 focusing on evoking those emotions through the characters and their emotions, we’ll broaden our focus to use narration, descriptions, dialogue, etc. that enhance the text or subtext, which then empowers those emotions.

What Other Elements Contribute to a Reader’s Experience?

Beyond the elements we’ve already mentioned, every aspect of our story creates our readers’ experience and affects their emotional journey, including:

  • Point of View (POV) and Showing vs. Telling: A story’s POV and level of showing vs. telling affects the type of emotions and experience we can create:
  • Theme: A story’s theme allows readers to explore an idea—what to believe, prioritize, doubt, dismiss, etc.—and judge how and why they agree or disagree with the story’s premise or characters.
  • Plot/Subplots: A story’s plot or subplots, whether they drive a character’s choices or tie into a character’s internal arc, affects readers’ experiences in many ways. Plots create the premise, worldbuilding, and stakes that make readers turn pages to see how it ends.
  • Genre: A story’s genre promises a certain experience to readers, from happy endings to thrilling adventures.
  • Pacing: A story’s pacing creates a certain reading experience, from page-turning to languid, lush, or insightful.

No matter our story’s style, plot, genre, premise, or characters, storytelling is about evoking emotions in readers. The better we know what emotional journey we want to take readers on, the better we’ll know how to tell the story we want to tell. *smile*

Do you agree or disagree that storytelling is about creating an emotional journey for readers? If you disagree, what aspect of writing do you think is more important? Have you thought about what emotional journey you want for your readers? What have you done to create that journey in your readers? Can you think of other aspects of writing that contribute to a reader’s experience?

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M.C. Tuggle

Good points on the different directions a writer can take to craft a good story. As usual, you’ve added a wealth of great links.

Clare OBeara
Clare OBeara

Thanks! If readers get emotionally involved, great. I recently got involved with a horse book, even as I was picking out all the faults, odd points I wanted to correct and plain wrong facts. For instance, a jockey may not ride a horse they own in a race. Yet this happened at the climax of the book. A few lines would have sufficed to tidy up the red tape. I liked the book though, because the horse and rider shared an emotional bond that was well represented.

Sieran

Jami, recently I read a series where each book had a higher-stakes climax than the previous book. I was blown away already by the penultimate book’s climax!! It was basically about the protagonist needing to betray someone who is like a father to him, in order to save the protagonist’s love interest. Of course, the hero managed to not betray his surrogate father, and got both worlds. Still it was an emotionally exciting experience for me.

As well, I have been using the phrases “high stakes” and “low stakes” in my daily conversations with people, and this usage has been helping me understand the concept of stakes on a more emotional level.

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[…] posts focus on storytelling: Jami Gold discusses storytelling: taking readers on a journey, Barbara O’Neal considers the value quotient—your core story and values, and John […]

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