How to Evoke Emotions in Characters and Readers, Part Two

Image Credit: Fine Art America

Are you still struggling to elicit emotions from your readers? I don’t know about you but trying to figure out how to make my readers feel strong emotions keeps me up at night. It is THE reason I became a Story Grid Editor. It is THE reason I am obsessed with learning as much as I can about stories. It is THE reason I am sharing what I learn along the way with you. And we still have a lot to explore.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the overview of how to craft your emotionally evocative story. You learned that emotion affects every aspect of our stories. When readers feel, they are engaged, and the story is more meaningful to them. Since humans act on feelings, rather than information, making readers feel is how writers create change in the world. I suspect that, like me, you really want to create change in this greasy world. The stakes are as high as death and damnation. The rewards are as high as life and the belief that life is worth living. So, we have some work to do.

Here, we’re expanding on the ideas put forth in Part One in this series that a story isn’t its plot. A story is how the events affect the protagonist. You now know that evoking emotion in the reader requires creating feeling in the protagonist; readers project themselves into stories by identifying with the protagonist. You know you must craft a protagonist you can use to manipulate the emotions of readers, and that the protagonist needs to want something desperately but have significant and progressively complicating obstacles in their way of achieving it. Well done. 

To take the next step forward in learning to evoke emotions in characters and readers, you must first cement your knowledge in the content genres. I know, we’ve been over genre coming from different angles, and I assure you, I am bringing genre into the Evoking Emotions Series because we really need a solid foundation for the subsequent posts in which we’ll build heavily on the readers’ expectations of your genre. Without a full understanding of genre components at the global level, we can’t move forward with our scene work in the next post. It’s time to roll up your sleeves.

We Use Genre to Evoke Emotions.

Genre guides your entire story framework, determines the range of arcs for your characters, and provides an indispensable tool for evoking emotions in readers. To transport the reader to a different realm, you need genre as it reins in the seemingly endless possibilities of story and opens an emotional treasure chest. If you master the content genres, and gain some basic knowledge of the behavioral and cognitive sciences (more on this in subsequent posts), you can take readers on the journey you imagined when you first sat down to write; you can create an emotional rollercoaster. 

How? 

Each genre has a core emotion, a global value spectrum, and a set of controlling ideas. Get those right, and you’re half-way to your goal of making the reader laugh, cry, and recommend your book to other readers.

Genres Have Core Emotions and Global Values

The core emotion of any genre is the primary emotion you want to evoke in your reader. It is the reason audiences are attracted to the type of story you’re telling. When a reader chooses a particular genre, they are choosing what they want to experience and how they want to feel. Fail to evoke the core emotion of your genre in your reader, and your story fails. 

The global values at stake describe the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s the predominant spectrum that you’ll keep your protagonist moving along throughout your story, and each genre has its specific spectrum. There are no exceptions to this guideline. Global values are the heart of what makes a story a story, and they are integral in eliciting the core emotion for your genre. They lay the psychological and cognitive tracks for the roller coaster. 

Let’s look at each of the twelve content genres to see what I mean.

Action 

The core emotion is excitement. Readers choose an Action story to experience thrills without the real-life risks the protagonist faces. As an Action writer, your primary task is to create scenes that excite the reader as you run your protagonist through the range of the global values of life, death, and the possibility of damnation (if the protagonist fails to act to save the victim when they have the chance, they will be damned).

Crime 

The core emotion is intrigue. Readers choose a Crime story to experience the intrigue of solving a puzzle and the sense of justice reigning in the end, without facing real crimes or injustices. Your primary task as a Crime writer is to create scenes that intrigue the reader as you run your protagonist through the range of the global values of tyranny, injustice, unfairness, and justice.

Horror

The core emotion is fear. Or, more specifically, terror. Readers choose Horror stories to experience the thrill of courage against terror in a life and death situation, without the actual real-life danger and horrific events. Your primary task as a Horror writer is to create scenes that terrify the reader as you run your protagonist through the global values spectrum of life, unconsciousness (a state of disorientation or cognitive dissonance), death, and the point where death would be a mercy.

Thriller

Like the Action Genre, the core emotion for the Thriller Genre is excitement. Readers choose a Thriller to experience thrills without the real-life risks the protagonist faces. Because the Thriller Genre combines Action, Crime, and Horror, Thriller readers also expect to feel fear and the intrigue of solving a puzzle before the protagonist does. Depending on the additional internal genre, the reader is also likely to feel relief or satisfaction as the protagonist learns what is essential in time to avoid disaster. If you are writing a Thriller, your job is to create scenes that evoke excitement, fear, and intrigue in your reader as you run your protagonist through the range of values of life, death, and a strong possibility of damnation (if the protagonist fails to act to save the victim).

Love

The core emotion is romantic excitement. Readers choose a Love story to experience the excitement and mystery associated with love without the real-life risks the protagonist faces. Your primary task as a Love writer is to create scenes that evoke romantic feelings in the reader as you run your protagonist through the spectrum of hatred masquerading as love, indifference, hatred, repulsion, ignorance of the other, attraction, desire, willingness to commit, and ability to engage in intimacy.

War

Because War stories operate on three levels of conflict (external, internal, and interpersonal), there are several possible core emotions: excitement, fear, righteous satisfaction, pity, or contempt. Readers choose War stories to experience courage and selflessness in the face of intense fear, without experiencing the real dangers of war. They want to feel pity for the tested and contempt for the unrepentant but righteous satisfaction when the punishment comes. Your task as a War writer is to create scenes that primarily evoke these feelings in the reader as you run your protagonist through the spectrum of dishonorable defeat presented as honorable, defeat with dishonor, defeat with honor, and victory with honor.

Society

The core emotions are fear and rebelliousness. Readers choose Society stories to experience the fear and exhilaration of rebelling against a system, without the real-life risks of being part of a rebellion. Your task as a Society writer is to create scenes that evoke feelings of fear and rebelliousness as you run your protagonist through the spectrum of the global values of impotence or unwellness masked as power or strength, impotence, vulnerability, and personal power and well-being.

Western

The core emotions are freedom, righteousness, and bravery. Readers choose Westerns to experience these emotions without risking their lives or the ties that bind. Because the Western combines the Society, Crime, and Action Genres, you’ll also want to evoke intrigue, fear, rebelliousness, and excitement. Your task as a Western writer is to create scenes that primarily evoke feelings of fear and rebelliousness as you run your protagonist through the spectrum of global values of subjugation perceived as freedom, subjugation, restraint, and freedom and autonomy.

Performance

The core emotion is triumph. Readers choose Performance stories to experience the rewards of great effort and the triumph of expressing extraordinary gifts, without making an effort themselves or suffering real-life consequences. Your task as a Performance writer is to create scenes that primarily evoke feelings of triumph as you run the protagonist through the spectrum of global values of being publicly respected but self-ashamed, ashamed, flawed, and honored and respected.

Status

The core emotions are admiration, relief, catharsis, and pity. Readers choose Status stories to experience admiration or joyous relief at the protagonist’s success, or pity at their failure, or catharsis at their tragic doom, without the efforts or risks of actual failure.  Your task as a Status writer is to create scenes that primarily evoke these feelings as you run the protagonist through the spectrum of global values of selling-out, failure, compromise, and success.

Worldview 

The core emotion is relief and satisfaction, or loss and pity. Readers choose a Worldview story to experience relief or satisfaction at the emerging whole from a threat to their internal status quo or to feel pity or loss for a less fortunate character. Your task as a Worldview writer is to create scenes that primarily evoke these feelings as you run the protagonist through the spectrum of global values (depend on your subgenre) of negatives masked as positives, naivete, meaninglessness, disillusionment, ignorance, cognitive dissonance, sophistication, belief, meaning, and wisdom.

Morality

The core emotions are satisfaction, pity, and contempt. Readers choose Morality stories to experience righteous satisfaction at the proper outcome, whether negative or positive; pity for the tested; contempt for the punished. Your task as a Morality writer is to create scenes that primarily evoke these feelings as you run the protagonist through the spectrum of global values of selfishness masked as altruism, putting one person’s needs ahead of the self, putting a group’s needs ahead of the self, and self-sacrifice for all of humanity.

Must your protagonist experience only the core emotion of your primary genre? No. Of course, you want to vary the emotions, obstacles, successes, failures and global values of your principal characters. 

You can vary emotions by incorporating the emotions and values associated with your secondary genre, and any emotion that seems appropriate to your characters in each scene. We’re exploring this combination to remind you of your obligation to evoke the core emotion and disrupt them in most scenes. The only way to entertain and heighten the core emotion is to vary the emotions of the protagonist. 

Also, your protagonist need not experience each of the values listed for your genre but should progress from one value to another in a logical sequence, ending somewhere along the spectrum other than where they began. One cognitive or psychological process leads logically to another.

Example: In a Love story, your protagonist can feel emotions like anger, jealousy, or shame as long as those emotions relate to the progression or disruption of the primary Love story. The emotions must relate to love, hate, desire, commitment, intimacy, and especially romantic excitement. 

Example: In an Action story, your protagonist can feel emotions like fear, confidence, or sadness as long as those emotions relate to the progression or disruption of the primary Action story. The emotions must relate to the stakes of life, death, and the possibility of damnation, and they must, in some way, add to the excitement of the story.

To make consistent and logical use of the core emotions and global values, we must master and integrate the concept of controlling ideas for genres.

Genres Have Controlling Ideas, Give Order to Chaos, and Help Evoke Emotions in Readers.

Without a consistent story that proceeds logically with a clear beginning, middle, and end, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to evoke emotions in your readers. This is why each genre has a controlling idea (sometimes called the theme).  A controlling idea is the lesson you want your reader to come away with, the frame or the reason you are telling the story in the first place. It’s the meaning the reader will assign to your story, usually unconsciously. 

To evoke emotion in your reader, you should be able to state your controlling idea in a single sentence that distills the argument your story attempts to make through narrative. It’s made up of the significant value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change.

If your story is positive, it’s a prescriptive tale about what we should do. The reader must feel so good about the resolution of the story that it propels them to act for the good or prevents them from acting for the worse.

If your story is negative, It’s a cautionary tale about what we shouldn’t do. The reader must feel so uncomfortable with the resolution of the story that it compels them to act for the good or prevents them from acting for the worse.

A solid controlling idea is like laying the tracks for your story train to stay on course, to take the reader exactly where you want them to go. Keep your controlling idea consistent throughout your story. 

When in doubt about where your story should go next, review your controlling idea. See Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway. You can find the generic controlling ideas for each genre in my Secrets of the Genre blog series. The links for each genre are above.

Do you need to figure out what your controlling idea is? Let’s try it under the false promise of a significant reward.

Imagine someone approaches you with a six-figure publishing contract and says, “This is for you, but first you must sum up all the events in your story in one sentence.” What is your sentence?

Still need help? Let’s try it under false duress. 

Imagine someone puts a gun to your head and says, “Tell me all the events in your story in a single sentence, or I’ll shoot.” What would your sentence be?

That sentence is your controlling idea. 

Don’t worry if you don’t find it right away. There is no gun. This is just a trick that may or may not work for you. Keep working on it and the answer will come.

Once you have the sentence, you can use the controlling idea as your guide for the direction of your global value shifts. Use your global value shifts to elicit core emotions from your readers. From there, you can elicit a broad range of emotions that make sense within your protagonist’s arc and story trajectory. A story needs one primary throughline, one emotional journey that stands out for your specific protagonist that applies to broader human behavior and needs.

Let’s Look at the Controlling Ideas for the Love Genre as an example:

Prescriptive: Love triumphs when lovers evolve beyond desire and overcome moral failings. Or Love triumphs when lovers sacrifice their needs for one another.

Cautionary: Love fails when the lovers don’t overcome moral failings and evolve beyond desire. Or Love fails when lovers don’t sacrifice for one another.

Here, you see why an internal genre arc for your protagonist is important. Gaining the love of the other character is dependent on the internal genre value shift (sacrifice and emotional growth). You’ll put a character through situations where they will struggle with the demand for change and sacrifice, the threat of loss, the allure of desire, the promise of the unknown, and tests of their worldview, morality, or both. Even though you know the Love story focuses on eliciting romantic feelings, you can now see the possibilities for the range of character emotions in Love stories. You can apply this approach to each genre.

Don’t worry if the controlling idea of your story is generic. Readers will feel the essence of this statement, not read it. The important thing is that you have a guide for your story. Controlling ideas are your compass. They are how you create change in your reader and ultimately, the world. You have a worldview that you want others to experience and, to accomplish this, you must evoke emotion in them. 

Putting It All Together

Remember that, as the author in any genre, you must be honest and find a deeper meaning behind emotions. Push your creative brain harder and squelch the analytical side. Keep writing and exploring your own emotions and observing the behaviors associated with the emotions of others. Mine these findings for getting to the truth of emotion so you can create change in your reader and in the world.

If you’re like me and me, and you can’t wait for this series to complete to evoke emotions in your readers, review a masterwork. Try to identify and replicate the author’s techniques to evoke emotion and disturb the emotional stasis of the reader.

Now you have the tools and tips needed to take another step toward creating emotionally resonant stories for your readers. In the next post, we’ll look at the specific practical and actionable steps you can take to evoke emotions in your readers through individual scene work and we’ll dive deeper into using cognitive and behavioral psychology for crafting stories. 

Need some extra help evoking emotions in your readers? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation. We’ll determine how I can best help you meet the goals for your story. 

Interested in learning more about evoking emotion in readers? Check out these books:

Writing with Emotion Tension and Conflict; Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel, by Cheryl St. John

Story Genius; How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story; The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron

How Emotions are Made; The Secrets Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman BarrettCreating Character Emotions; Writing Compelling Fresh Approaches that Express Your Characters’ True Feelings, by Ann Hood

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor. She is honored to have edited the award winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and memoir writers. She is easily bribed with promises of iced coffee drinks, piles of puppies, and long walks in thunderstorms. She is currently on contract, writing a Story Grid guide to a masterwork. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Comments (1)
Author Rachelle Ramirez

One Comment

Lynette Willoughby says:

Hi Rachelle, thanks for your post. It got me thinking about the crime genre (which I love to read), many of which are written in a series with the same protagonist. There is a lot of intrigue, and twists and turns and challenges to be overcome, but would it be fair to say that often it is more about solving the crime, rather than an internal character arc? A lot of the books I read, the protagonist is the same person at the beginning and end, even though there have been plenty of emotions throughout the journey to solve the crime/catch the killer etc.

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