Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The Addictive Power of Emotional Investment (Part 2)

Now that Heartstrikers 3 is out in the wild, I can FINALLY get back to real blog posts! Today's is the long promised conclusion to The Addictive Power of Emotional Investment from two weeks ago.

Last time, we focused on creating characters people can't help but fall in love with and then making them climb impossible walls to keep your audience on the edge of their seat. This time we're going to look at the plotting side of how to make readers hopelessly addicted to your work.

But first, I was on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast hosted by the amazing SFF author Lindsay Buroker! We talked Heartstrikers, what kind of marketing/promo we did for the launch, and all sorts of fun writing business stuff. It was an absolute blast and the recording is already up for free on line, so I really hope you guys will give it a listen!

Now, on with the blogging!

Writing Wednesday: The Addictive Power of Emotional Investment (Part 2)



In part one , we talked about how to build reader addiction for your work by giving them characters they have to care about and then making those characters suffer. Why suffering? Because suffering, pain, crisis, and all those other tortures authors inflict on their characters is what creates the tension and conflict that make stories interesting.

This is nothing new. I actually wrote an entire post about how the formula for writing character driven stories is Motivation + Conflict + Setting = Plot. But while creating lovable people and then forcing them to lead lives of intense drama is a guaranteed winning formula for addictive books, forcing your people to climb impossible walls to reach their goals is just the first step.

If you want your books to be truly memorable, stay-up-all-night, force-my-friends-to-read experiences, you have to go a step further. Creating lovable characters and putting them in danger is quite frankly just a basics of good writing, one of those fundamentals you'll find in pretty much every book worth reading.

There's nothing wrong with that! Creating a book worth reading is a giant accomplishment for any writer, new or established. But this post is all about reaching beyond that. It's about finding what's necessary to hit that next level and turn a good book into a favorite book.

First though, a disclaimer.

What I'm about to say is just my opinion. You may very well disagree with, or even flat out hate, what I'm about to say, and that's fine. The best thing about writing books is that there's no one right way. Every author approaches their art differently. This is how I do it. Will it work for you? I certainly hope so, but if it doesn't resonate, that's okay. It doesn't mean one of us is wrong, it just means we're different writers, and that's great! The world takes all kinds.

My aim today isn't to dictate, but to illustrate. I hope that by explaining how I approach these problems, I can help you understand more about your own books. That's always my goal here at Pretentious Title: to shine whatever light I've made for myself into the murky, sometimes blind art we call fiction in the hopes of making the path easier on someone else.

So without further ado, let's dig into the specifics and talk about how, exactly, we can go from good characters in tough situations to great characters in terrifying situations.



Engineering Catharsis: An Author's Guide to Emotional Manipulation for Fun and Profit



I've seen various versions of the above all over the internet. With stuff like this, you'd think all authors were twisted villains who delighted in being cruel to their poor characters and readers so that we may laugh at their suffering. This isn't entirely true--most authors I've met are lovely in real life. I, for example, was raised to be a good, polite Southern girl who is friendly to everyone. Being mean to anyone is just...wrong. When it comes to books, though, things get a little different.

One of my biggest light bulb moments as an author was realizing cruelty is an intrinsic part of addictive writing. A good writer is, by nature, a benevolent sadist. You want your beloved characters to win, to grow and succeed and shine through all the suffering in their path. At the same time, though, there's no escaping the fact that you're the evil bastard putting them through all of this, and their suffering is entirely your fault.

Readers never forget this. To a reader, characters are beloved friends. When you hurt (or kill) the charters they care about, they will cry and yell and pitch ten kinds of a fit. This can be very difficult to handle an author who is, by nature, desperate for reader approval.

But loud as the reader voices get, this is the one place where you must not listen. Because while readers might cry for better treatment, the dark and dirty truth is that happy characters who breeze through their plots without upset are boring characters, and that's not what readers want. Whatever they might claim, readers want drama and suffering. They want upsets and dramatic turn arounds, bitter tears, and love snatched away at the last second. That's the stuff that makes dramas dramatic, and it's our job as authors to ignore what readers say they want and give them what they're really here for: an intense, gripping story.

Engineering the Emotional Roller Coaster


Up and down and up and down...

When we read a book, we're not just doing it to see a new world or hear a new story. We're there to fall in love and get tangled with fictional people's insanely dramatic lives. The ability to feel these intense emotions from the safety of a page is a huge part of why fiction is so addictive. That's why people read sad stories: because it lets us experience that very sincere and important emotional catharsis without risking our own real lives.

This theory of fiction--that we read for emotional catharsis--dates all the way back to Aristotle, and he's just the first one we know of who wrote it down. This is primordial human stuff, and the more skillfully we learn to manipulate and create this catharsis in our own books, the more our stories and characters resonate with people, and the better these readers report the books as being.

When it comes to reader love, whether or not these novels are technically good is immaterial. For example, I don't think it's unfair to say that there were structural issues with the plots of the Harry Potter novels. How many, and how they could have been done better, is up for debate, but the statement itself is not untrue. That said, even this slight criticism is probably enough to earn me hate mail because people freaking love the Harry Potter novels. Not because they are perfectly executed or because the Wizarding World is a flawless fictional universe (it's not), but because J.K. Rowling is a grand Jedi master of emotional catharsis.

In her books, we are constantly introduced to interesting, lovable, noble characters who are the immediately put into terrible, terrifying, cruel, unfair situations. For every triumph our heroes manage, there are countless ways in which the overall world gets worse as the darkness closes in. Not to spoil anything (though if you're not spoiled for HP by now, what kind of super rock are you living under? Also, why haven't you read Harry Potter yet?!) but people die in this series. They die unfairly, slowly, and in front of our eyes. No feelings are spared, no eyes are dried, and this is why it works so so well.



I'm not saying Rowling's mastery of making us care and then using that to make us her slaves is the entire reason for the Harry Potter phenomenon, but I do think it's why the books continue to resonate so strongly with fans decades after the first book came out. The series certainly isn't remembered for the unique brilliance of its premise (orphan boy discovers he's the chosen savior of a magical world), but it will be a classic forever because it made us feel like very few other series have.

I'm not saying I can teach you how to create emotional catharsis as well as Rowling (claiming as much would be another famous element of Greek storytelling). The Harry Potter example is simply to illustrate just how powerful the development of reader emotion can be. I'm not saying you should kill characters willy-nilly just because you can, that would be truly cruel. But if you want to touch your readers' hearts, you can't write with gloves on. You can't be afraid make your plot choices based on what's best for the story, even if you think readers will hate your for it. That's what's it means to have conviction as a writer, and it's the secret behind all the very best books.

So now that we all understand the caliber of the emotional ordinance we're playing with, let's talk about how to build these explosions into our own work.


1: Accept that you will have to be a cruel, manipulative bastard who does bad things to good people.

Fan meter courtesy of the ever amazing Rufftoon
Taking your book from something readers merely enjoy to something they will love is a complicated and risky business. It's not enough to have a plot that makes sense and characters with motivations. These are merely the base line for fiction. If you want to go beyond that, then you're going to have to get tricky. You're going to have to engineer situations that put your characters into terrible positions that have zero easy ways out. Maybe you'll make your people fight with everything they have for victory, and then, just when they (and the reader) think they've won, snatch it away from them. Maybe you'll have them give up everything for a weapon only to discover later that it was all a sham.

Maybe you'll have to leave someone behind to die.

These are merely examples, but you get the idea. Creating drama, and therefore emotion, in fiction is all about manipulating character (and therefore reader) expectations. In my own books, I routinely build and dash hopes. I have characters come up with a brilliant plan that will save everyone only to turn everything upside down on them half way through when it's way too late to turn back. I let people assume situations are one way only to turn around half a book later and show them how wrong they were, and how much they must now suffer for it.

These are just examples. How you frame your manipulations will depend on your own story and characters, but the key point here is that you can not be afraid to blatantly lie to your reader for dramatic effect. Just as you have to control how much your characters know at any one point, you have to also keep a tight hold on how much of the actual truth your readers have so that they always think what you need them to think when it's most dramatic for them to feel that way.

Make no mistake: this is incredibly hard to pull off. In my Paradox series, I rewrote the second book Honor's Knight four times times just trying to make sure that the reader was always thinking exactly what I needed them to think in every scene. This is because the drama of the Paradox series is entirely built around a slowly unfolding secret and the main character's struggle to figure out who's actually on her side.

But this sort of reader management isn't just for big reveal books. In my Heartstrikers series, I am constantly playing with the twin blades of who Julius can trust and just how bad I can make his life. Seriously, every time I let readers think that maybe, just maybe, Julius will catch a break, I turn around and snatch it away again. Sometimes he's betrayed, sometimes a third party comes in and ruins the situation, sometimes things just blow up. I'm always inventing new ways to make his life hell!

But while that might sound like unnecessary roughness, this kind of cruel story manipulation against the characters is actually a vital part of the series' structure. If you read my Heartstrikers books (and I very much hope you will!), you'll know that Julius is a very nice dragon who always wants to solve his problems without violence or cruelty. That's a bold choice in the ruthless world of dragons, and as such, it CAN NOT be easy. If I was nicer to Julius, if I let his plans succeed smoothly, his story would be unbelievable and he wouldn't be nearly as beloved by readers. So, instead, I did the opposite and set the entire world against him. Over three books, I've forced him to face the firing squad for his beliefs again and again, often with terrible, bitter consequences.

In my newest book, No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished, I had to be crueler to him than I've ever been to any other character because that was what the story needed to work. This isn't because I'm trying to beat some kind of record, it's because, with every novel, Julius tries to do more to change his world for the better. That's an audacious goal, and I can not let him have it without a fight. The higher he reaches, the bigger he dreams (and he has to dream big or the meta plot doesn't move forward), the more awful and dangerous the stakes become. That's how it has to be. If Julius's life was easy, his niceness would be wishywashy and annoying. But because he has to fight so damn hard for his beliefs, readers love him. Even when he fails, they admire him for trying so hard and fighting so bravely, which was my goal the entire time.

This sort of emotional string pulling is what I mean when I we have to be manipulative as writers. If you want a plot to make readers feel things, you have to understand 1) what that feeling is, and 2) how to get them there. You have to think manipulatively. You can't just let things happen. Remember: your reader is the mouse running through your maze. Give them a straight shot, and they'll get bored. But if you make them work, if you send them down blind alleys and drop the floor out from under them all while dangling that tantilzing bit of cheese in front of their noses, they will run that maze as fast and desperately as they can.

So how do we set all of this up? How do we rig our emotional bombs to go off at just the right time? Well, it takes a lot of planning and no small amount of trial and error. You might have to work through several plot twists before you find the one that twists just right. That said, engineering that perfect emotional hook for you readers is a lot easier if you...


2: Plan your emotional arcs in advance.
As you can see from the above, the emotional manipulation game is not something you want to enter unprepared. The best dramatic plot twists are the ones that manage to surprise you while still feeling natural and inevitable. You want your pieces to fall into place like you planned it that way from the very beginning, and the best way to achieve that is to actually have things planned from the very beginning.

I'm not saying you have to know everything that happens on the emotional arcs of all your characters, but setting up the kind of tragically inevitable situations readers love is a lot easier if you actually understand the emotional story you're trying to tell before you start writing. In my own writing, I like to set down emotional arcs for all my characters and even (sometimes) my meta story during the plotting stage of things. Once I've got an idea of where I want people to go, I then look at the plot action and figure out how these emotional stories mesh into the action.

If you're writing a properly character driven story, this usually happens pretty organically because the plot itself is driven by the goals, motivations, and conflicts of the characters, creating oodles of naturally occurring dramatic moments. From here, it's a simple matter of arranging these into the most gripping and dramatic order possible to achieve maximum edge-of-seatness from your readers.

Now, of course, you don't have to plan everything in advance. I've found that my best ideas come in the middle of the story when I suddenly realize how everything fits together. But even if you're a pantser who hates outlines, I highly highly recommend figuring the emotional journeys you want for your characters out in advance. You can always change your mind later, but just thinking about this stuff really does save you from wasting time down the road. Brilliance can happen by accident, but it happens a lot more frequently if you're actively aware of what you're seeking to create.

And for those of you who've been rolling your eyes every time I mention a character's emotional arc, stop it! You don't have to be writing a Notebook style sob story for all of this to apply. Every story, regardless of genre, benefits from a strong emotional arc. This is because fiction is, at its heart, an emotional art. Even the most jaded literary writer or hard bitten detective novelist aims to make the reader feel something, and the best way to do that is to make sure you know what you're doing before you start.

These things are also not just for heroes. Hate, revenge, jealousy: these are all incredibly powerful emotions that burn just as brightly as the happier feelings. Villains deserve emotional arcs, too, and if you take the time to sketch out yours, you will be rewarded with bad guys who are as popular as your good ones.

Okay, so we've covered that creating emotion means manipulating readers by artificially arranging our plots and characters arcs into the most dramatic and twisty shapes possible. We've also established that being mean to characters and forcing audiences to fear for them is how you build deep connections, almost like we're creating reader-character fox hole buddies. But with all that said, is there anything that's truly off limits?


3: Suffering must be meaningful. 
Up to this point, we've been focusing on how to best upset your reader. But while bad things happening to good people is the pretty much the definition of dramatic fiction, tragedy for the sake of tragedy is another matter. It's one thing to torture a character because of fallout from his choices in the plot, but if you brutally kill his family in front of him for no reason other than you needed some drama, that's not cool. As I always always say, readers are very smart. They're willing to accept a certain amount of manipulation because that's how fiction works, but if you start blatantly kicking kittens for no reason other than to yank on their heartstrings, they're going to notice, and they're going to be pissed.

As well they should! Cheap, random tragedies that occur purely for shock value and otherwise add nothing to the story are the hallmark of bad writing. My own personal least favorite example of this is when female characters are raped for no reason other than the writer wanted an easy way to build sympathy. Usually, this rape is random and used purely for shock value to paint the character in question as a victim, often so that the male hero can rescue her.

In cases like this, the rape itself is never part of the female character's development or story. Sometimes it's not even a plot element. It's just a Bad Thing That Happened, a shocking event the author pulled out and slapped on the page to demand reader pity.

This is a particularly horrible example, but I'm sure you take my point. Suffering in novels adds depth to characters, but when something terrible happens for no reason other than to illicit audience response, that's the dark side of writing manipulation, and most readers won't stand for it.

Please note that I'm not saying you can't have dark things happen in your books. I personally hate rape and sexual violence in novels, but I loved the Mercy Thompson series, which gets pretty freaking dark. This is because Patricia Briggs was very smart and very careful with how she portrayed the sexual violence in her novels. All the bad things that happen--and they were terrible things--happened for a reason and were subsequently huge issues in the affected characters lives. These weren't just bad things that happened to good people for some cheap drama. They were game changers in the emotional lives of all involved, and those ripples drew me in hard. I was reading on the edge of my seat through that entire arc of the series, desperate to see if my favorite characters would pull through. Despite having to sit through a scene I swore I would never read, I couldn't put the book down, and not because I cared about the plot, either. I don't even remember the plot of that particular book, but the fear I had for Mercy is still clear in my mind years later.

Behold: the power of emotional investment!

This is a very dark example, but I hope you see now that while building reader investment requires you to be, well, mean to your characters, how mean and the nature of that meanness depends on you and your story. Not every book has to be dark and tragic, but even if you're writing a feel good sweet romance, something bad has to happen at some point or there is no drama. A book where the main characters are never really in danger of losing what's precious to them, be it their love interest, their business, or their lives, is a boring book. At the same time, though, these cruelties, like everything else in your story, have to happen for a reason. Otherwise, they're meaningless, and it's very hard to get people to care about meaningless things.

Fortunately (as mentioned above) if you have a character driven plot, it should be very easy to come up with all manner of meaningful, plot critical ways to make your character's lives hell. But just how much hell should you give them? Again, that depends on you and the kind of story you want to tell. Whatever you decide, though, you absolutely must...


4: Never pull your emotional punches.
Over the years, I've seen many writers fretting over being too mean to their characters. I've worried about this as well, especially with my latest book (trust me, you'll know it when you get there). This is because I'm usually a pretty nice person who hates hurting other people. The thought of making my readers, whom I love more than anyone, angry or upset is very unnerving to me.

Ultimately, though, the conclusion I arrived at is that pulling my punches helped nothing. If I was kind to my characters, if I let them take the easy way out and escape the pain I had in store, I was cheating my story and my reader out of the logical conclusion of the plot's actions and the character's own emotional drama, which is kind of the entire point of fiction.

 Staying the course and forcing characters to deal with the fallout of their decisions might feel cruel while you're doing it, but forcing characters to face the realities of their choices is the heart of really good stories. For a great example of this in action, let's go back to Harry Potter example and look at Tonks.

(MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR HARRY POTTER AHEAD, DON'T READ THE NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS IF YOU HAVEN'T FINISHED THE SERIES)

Nymphadora Tonks was a relatively minor character in the overall HP story. Despite this, she was incredibly popular, mostly because she was brave, brash, and outspoken in a time when all the other characters were nervous and watching what they said. This made her very easy to admire and invest in as a reader, so when she died at the end of book 7, it hit like a knife in the heart. She wasn't alone, either. Tons of beloved characters died at the Battle of Hogwarts, and while most of them were minor, fans were still devastated.

Many fans called J.K. Rowling cruel for killing so many, and she's admitted it hurt her to do it, but from an authorial standpoint, the brutality was a brilliant and necessary story decision. Harry Potter and his allies were attempting to overthrow a dark wizard who'd terrified their world for close to two decades. That's not something you do without sacrifice. War isn't something you waltz out of unscathed, and one of the things I admire the most about Rowling was how she forced us to acknowledge that by having these characters that we loved and respected stand up and die for what they believed in.

Was it cruel? Yes, incredibly so, but if Rowling had been kinder, if she'd pulled her punches and let those characters live, the end of the series would not have been nearly as emotionally impactful, and therefore not nearly as good. The loss of these fictional people created real emotional ripples inside of all of us, and that experience, that truth, is the reward of fiction. If we as authors pull our punches, we cheat our readers out of that realness, robbing them of the emotional payoff and catharsis of our stories.

(END SPOILERS)

So if your goal is to create truly memorable books that touch your readers in the way only fiction can, never cheat your audience by pulling your punches. I'm not saying be cruel for cruelty's sake, but neither should you hold your story back from its natural conclusion because you're afraid people will be angry. No one benefits from dull blades. Readers didn't come to us to be coddled and babied. They came for a story, and it's our job as writers to give them our very best, most intense experience. It's our job to make them to fall in love with these people and this world, and then use that investment to give them an emotional experience they will never forget. That's a high, high bar, and we don't get there unless we give it our all.


What to Do When You Succeed (aka, How to Deal With Crying, Angry Readers)


Not every book has to be a deep emotional journey, but even the most escapist book gains in value when the author takes the time to get their reader invested in the emotions of the characters. This is the line that divides the enjoyable books we buy, consume, and forget from the ones that stick with us forever.

As a writer, I never want readers to consume my stories and move on. I want readers to love and cherish these characters as much as I do, which is why I take the time to do all of the above. I might not always succeed, but taking care and consideration over the emotional needs of your reader is never wasted effort.  

But even if you don't end up writing the next Harry Potter, if you play your cards right, chances are you will succeed in deeply touching a large group of readers. When this happens, especially if you write dramatic books with high stakes where people die, the repercussions can be extreme. You're going to have fans who will scream at you for being too mean to their favorite characters. You'll hear from readers saying that you made them cry, or that they hate you.

Make no mistake, this is very distressing! I love my readers more than anyone, and never want to cause them anything but joy. At the same time, though, I see every one of these reactions as a victory, because the ability to make a stranger cry, to touch them on such a deep, personal level, is the highest level of authorial achievement. It means you got to them. You made them feel. You gave them the emotional experience nothing but really good art can create, and that is something to be proud of.

So if you're writing book or planning to do so, do yourself a favor and take a look at the emotional arcs for your characters. Ask yourself, "How can I make this more dramatic? What do I want my readers to feel after reading this?" You might not know the answers right away, but just the act of thinking about this stuff will make you more in tune with the reader's experience of your work, and that's never a bad thing. None of this is. Building emotional investment, doing the work to make your book not just good, but an unforgettable emotional experience--these are worthy goals that make your writing better.

Even if you think all my steps are bupkiss, I hope I've inspired you to ask yourself "What am I doing on an emotional level with this book? How can I make people cry or hate or soar? How can I make them feel, and how can I make that bigger?" These are fantastic questions to ask yourself about your work, and they're ones I almost never see writers being encouraged to examine. So let's break the mold. Let's strive to write great books, not just good ones.

What is fiction about, after all, if not audacity?

Thank you for reading!


And thus concludes another Writing Wednesday! Thank you all so much for mauling through this giant wall'o'text. As I'm sure you could tell, this is a subject I think about a lot in my daily writing. It's not an easy subject to discuss or understand, but I very much hope that my musing on it today will help you with your own emotional writing decisions.

If you enjoyed this post, I have tons more! I put up new craft posts every Wednesday and writing business posts on Mondays, so if you don't already, please subscribe to the blog or follow me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+) to never miss a post!

Thank you again, and as always, happy writing!

Yours,
Rachel

6 comments:

Kessie said...

Ah, so much good advice, as usual. I hope you compile it into an ebook someday.

As for torturing characters, yep, I agree. Look at the arc of A Little Princess. Before we get to the catharsis, we have to watch Sarah reduced to starvation, freezing to death in her attic. Then when her friends try to have a party, even that tiny comfort is snatched away. Sarah cries for the first time. The suffering has reached its pinnacle. And then--the Magic happens.

I once wrote a story with that same arc, just to see if I could. I was brutal to my hero. In the second draft, I went through and added a bunch more worse things. I needed to destroy him before the catharsis hit, which made it that much sweeter.

I like the idea of planning the emotional arcs. I find that it varies by genre. My cozy dragon mystery is nowhere near as dark as book 3 of my paranormal romance.

Nicholi A. K. Baldron said...

This is being saved to my pinterest page on writing, for rereading. It's like a great lecture that you have to read through your notes over and over to fully grasp everything.

Side note, no matter how many times I see Alan Rickman it makes me sad that he's gone. Then I remember he'll always live on in his massive catalog of movies.

Thank you for the post. Top notch as always!

Sam said...

Awesome post. I just wanted to say that according to tech insiders Alan Rickman didn't say this quote.
http://www.techinsider.io/alan-rickman-harry-potter-rocking-chair-quote-2016-1

Frank A. said...

Interesting and informative post, as usual. It really highlights several of the things I've enjoyed most about your books, particularly that the worlds fundamentally make sense, and always hinge on choices and consequences. Honestly, though, I tend to disagree with the statements about how bitter and terrible those consequences have been. Yeah, your characters get beat up a lot, but they heal so fast, both figuratively and literally.

As one fairly literal example, in all of your books so far, there are multiple characters who have supernatural healing ability, so that they can get beaten within an inch of their lives and yet be fine the next day. Even the "normal" characters often get a free pass on injuries thanks to futuristic technology or magic. There's really nothing wrong with this, and it's certainly not unique to your stories, but in my opinion, at least, it does tend to deflate the drama of all the subsequent fights. "Oh, he just got stabbed? Whatever, he'll be fine next chapter."

It's a pretty minor quibble in a genre that's very much about skipping the boring parts of life, and I know that it is difficult to do well, but I would like to see more consequences that last, even if in ways as small as a couple of scars.

Anonymous said...

I just want to give a quick advise to any one out there that is having difficulty in his or her relationship to contact Dr.Agbazara because he is the only one that is capable to bring back broken relationship or broken marriages within time limit of 48 hours. You can contact Dr.Agbazara by calling him on his mobile +2348104102662 or write him through his email at ( agbazara@gmail.com )

Blogger said...

Did you know that you can create short urls with AdFly and make cash from every visit to your shortened links.