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

WritingHintsPhotoIn previous tips, I discussed seven tools writers can use to create an emotional connection at the beginning of a story. This week, I will look at how to maintain and enhance the connection as the story progresses.

The bottom line is simple: as the story moves along, add 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 I will look at #1 and #2 on this list.


Readers enjoy action and anticipate it. A great way to heighten the enjoyment is to include a pause immediately before an action sequence. In this pause, remind the reader of the goal and potential obstacles that could create danger.

From Reapers:

I returned the flashlight to the belt and pulled my hood over my head far enough to shade my eyes. I had to display the persona. To the dying and the bereaved, confidence in my abilities meant everything.

I patted my cloak pocket where the pill bottle and syringe lay. Communicating my hope to cure instead of collect would be tricky. As Crandyke said, the Council’s spies could be anywhere, even in the midst of a close-knit family.

“To the dying and the bereaved” reminds the reader of why he is where he is. The presence of the pill bottle is a reminder that he carries a risk, since the medicine is illegal. The idea that spies might be watching adds a potential obstacle.

With these ideas firmly planted in readers’ minds, the action sequence will be enhanced, because readers will expect danger to arise and understand what is at stake. We include reminders immediately before the action, because readers might have forgotten clues that we dropped here and there in earlier parts of the story. This method is like an injection of adrenaline to make the pages turn.

First attempt never works:

We always appreciate accomplishments that are hard to achieve much more than those that come easily. The same is true with regard to story characters. If the first attempt at achieving a goal works, then the goal was too easy, and readers yawn and say, “Ho hum.”

Let the first attempt fail, and maybe two or three attempts. In fact, the entire first goal can be a disaster that never gets accomplished.

From Reapers:

Molly choked on the pills and coughed them up. Her body stiffened, and she let out a moan. While the three patted her hands and stroked her head in futility, I swallowed hard. Even after more than three years as a Reaper, the sight of a dying child still tore a hole in my heart.

My cloak vibrated, sending hot prickles across my arms. The end was near. Only one hope remained—the syringe.

Phoenix tried the pills, but they didn’t work. This is a small failure, but it is a real one. If you read the story, you will see that other attempts fail as well.

Failure ratchets up the tension, because it shows readers that failure is possible or even likely, so readers will not know if the character will achieve future goals that might be far more important. This keeps readers in suspense.

Next week I will continue this series with a discussion about increasing the obstacles that characters face as well as continuing a pattern of early failure..

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


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9 replies

  1. what are some short term goals you might suggest. I always struggle with wanting to get to the big battles quickly.

  2. I just listened to the audio for the Percy Jackson books. One thing I thought Riodan did really well was to keep normal teenager or school things as one of Percy’s goals (and Percy’s first, second, third, and occasionally fourth, attempts don’t work). Sometimes, the kid’s just trying to not get expelled. At one point, his immediate, short-term goal is “convince Mom to tell me what’s wrong.”

    But I will say, even the short term goals tend to do something. Phoenix’s, for example, is serving to set up the storyworld, the problems with the storyworld, where he fits inside of it, and what kind of person he is, very, very quickly. His first goal is job-related, but it’s also going to play into the plot or subplot later. By the time he actually reaches this goal, we’re leading into the second goal, and I already have a pretty good idea I know what he’s going to decide to do and I’m already worried about him.

    If you need some help identifying it, I’d suggest a trick someone taught me: read the opening chapters of your favorite books and pay close attention to what the character’s trying to do. (For the most part, this should only require the first chapter, unless the author writes very short chapters.) Make notes of what the scene told you about the setting, character, and momentum (I’m saying ‘momentum’ instead of ‘action’ because a scene should always be moving even if it’s not a crazy ‘action-packed’ scene.) Really, the bulk of Bryan’s excerpt is exposition and forward motion: He’s told you a dozen things and driven you to wonder what the heck sort of place this is and what the heck business Phoenix is in. It’s tension, and it’s forward movement.

    • Thanks for your insights, Kaci! 🙂 Studying the beginnings of novels is a good idea. And I like the term ‘momentum.’

      And Mr. Davis: I hadn’t given the question much thought, honestly. My story’s ordinary world is a small town high school. The MCs don’t really have a goal until the end of the first scene; by then, they have questions they want answered, and that leads to more questions (and disturbing visions). Is it okay that the scene doesn’t start off with a specific goal?

    • Tracey, having an early goal isn’t a writing rule, but it is a helpful device. As Kaci indicated, a goal creates forward movement instead of characters just milling around waiting for something to happen. The goal doesn’t have to be big, such as saving a life, but it needs to be significant to the character.

      In high school, it could be studying for a big test coming up, practicing for the playoff game, preparing for tomorrow’s club event, or anything that moves the character forward in the ordinary world.

  3. I have greatly been enjoy reading these tips and I hope they will help me out.


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