Writing Tip – Creating an Emotional Connection with Readers (Part Four)

WritingHintsPhotoIn last week’s post I began discussing how to maintain and enhance an emotional connection with readers as the story progresses beyond the beginning. We do this by adding anticipation and frustration in the following ways:

  1. Pauses – A pause immediately before an attempt to achieve a goal reminds the reader of the importance of the goal and enhances anticipation. If possible, restate the goal and the danger.
  2. First attempt never works – Avoid allowing a goal to be achieved on the first attempt. The victory will be less satisfying. It will seem too easy.
  3. Obstacles increase – New obstacles add frustration, which will enhance relief and the sense of triumph later. We can relate to frustration.
  4. Complete failure achieving early goal – An early goal should not be the most important one, though failure causes real pain. When the character fails to achieve the goal, this proves that failure is always possible, even with the big goals, thereby enhancing the danger and suspense as the story progresses. Since we all experience failures at times, we can relate.
  5. Failure leads to bigger goal – A failure is often a crisis point that creates a bigger goal, which can be the story’s ultimate object of desire.
  6. Increasing sacrifice – Character willingly exposed to danger, whether physical or emotional, and the danger increases.

This week we will look at #3 and #4.

Obstacles Increase:

As the protagonist attempts to achieve goals, we must put up obstacles. I mentioned this in a previous post, but it is worth repeating. An easily achieved goal provides no satisfaction, and, as you might expect, a goal that is achieved after great toil provides a massive amount of satisfaction. So it’s a no-brainer. Put obstacles in the character’s path–big ones and lots of them.

You see, toil produces suffering and frustration, and these two factors are keys to gaining an emotional connection with readers. We grab readers’ hearts through portrayals of negative emotions.

Why? Because most readers have suffered through emotional turmoil themselves, and they want to reach out and connect with characters who suffer in the same way. Readers want to see how characters will react to the obstacles, how they will face the difficulties, and how they will overcome the obstacles.

In Reapers, Phoenix has been unable to help Molly with the pills he smuggled in. Then a bigger obstacle enters, a Death Enforcement Officer who arrives to make sure Molly dies:

As I reached into my pocket, the rusty hinges at the front door squeaked. Everyone froze. Fiona whispered, “I heard no knock.”

Colm shoved the pill bottle into his pocket. Fiona and Colleen rose and backed away from the bed, their eyes wide with fear. Molly’s body loosened, and she breathed in gasping spasms.

The bedroom door swung open. A tall woman dressed in black leather stepped in and scanned the room. Piercing gray eyes set beneath a somber brow gave her the aspect of a bird of prey searching for a victim. With youthful face, trim body, and blonde hair draped over her shoulders, she looked nothing like the steroid-jacked male officer who normally patrolled at night. Yet, the leather pants and jacket with a Gateway insignia on the left breast pocket confirmed her status as a death officer of some kind.

Her shifting gaze halted at Molly. “A young one,” she said in a low monotone. “My condolences.”

The situation was already bad enough, but now it is suddenly much worse. Emotions are heightened. What will Phoenix do now? How can he save Molly?

Notice that I made sure Phoenix identified this woman as a death officer as soon as possible. That designation is crucial for building the tension. If not for that, readers would not know that her appearance means big trouble for Phoenix.

Complete failure achieving early goal:

In a previous post, I mentioned regarding #2 in the above list that failure ratchets up the tension. It proves to readers that failure is not only possible, it might even be probable. So readers are in true suspense when the character makes any attempt to achieve a goal. The initial failure with regard to a relatively unimportant goal plants the first seed of doubt. A complete failure in a bigger goal cements the idea.

Here is how it works in Reapers (Spoiler Alert):

Molly’s eyes opened. She blinked at Alex, then at her family. She smiled weakly for a moment, whispered an almost imperceptible “I love you,” then closed her eyes and fell limp. Her head lolled to the side, and she breathed no more.

Fiona sobbed. Colm pulled her close and stroked her back. Colleen just stared, her mouth hanging open.

Her eyes still flickering, Alex rose and backed away from the bed. “Reaper … her soul awaits.”

Now readers believe that failure is possible, even for bigger goals in the future. The emotional connection is secure, and readers will keep turning the pages, truly not knowing if the protagonist will find success.

Next week I will continue this series by looking at #5 and #6 on the above list.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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13 replies

  1. As I was reading this, especially when you mentioned the smaller failures at the beginning, it reminded me of your other series as well, such as Dragons in Our Midst, Echoes from the Edge, Dragons of Starlight, Tales of Starlight, Oracles of Fire, and Children of the Bard, and I could remember in each one the failures that lead to the story grabbing my attention. None of those series would have been nearly as interesting if the characters had just instantly won at everything they did, and never failed.

  2. On #2, would it be OK to make it seem like the hero succeeded, but it turns out they didn’t?

  3. Thank you so much for these tips. They are very helpful.

  4. These are great tips to keep in mind! Thanks!

  5. I need a mind purge when I read Alex. Holy Fire or something.

    Two additional thoughts:
    1) If you’re hoping to yank the rug from under the reader and character, I’d suggest being careful. Me, I love surprises like that, but I was thinking one way to make it appear to both reader and character that they succeeded without killing the forward progression is to temporarily conceal it and move them on to the next piece (which, either way, should probably come out of the first goal). Then that first goal can bite them in the bum doubly hard (in which case, both sort of become part of the same arc). The trick is really to not cheat the reader, though, so keep that in mind.

    There is one particular author, not present, whom I love but haven’t quite forgiven being cheated. 0=)

    2) It was Steven James who pointed out to me that if you start the obstacles/stakes too high, then you’ve nowhere for things to escalate or progress. What’s killer about this whole Reapers section is that goal one is “Find and save a dying girl.” This whole thing starts with that. And that only leaves me blinking at the book and wondering what kind of insane ride this is going to be (hehe).


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