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Crafting Fabulous Fiction:
The Reader's Emotional Journey

by Victoria Grossack

Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

January 16, 2014

In a recent column we introduced the concept of the satisfied reader experience. In that column, we determined that a satisfied reader experience means that readers are enthralled while reading, that they put their books down only with great reluctance, and that they will sacrifice their own well-being (by skipping meals and full nights of sleep, as well as subjecting themselves to headaches brought on by eye-strain) just so they can keep on flipping pages. In fact, a mild-mannered reader will become cross and rude if interrupted, while a reader with an aggressive bent may kick and bite if someone attempts to remove the book from his hands. In that column we took a closer look at the reader in the phrase satisfied reader experience. In this column we're going to focus on the experience part of the phrase.

What Do Readers Experience?

The reading experience can be analyzed from many different angles. For example, reading makes some physical demands on the reader. Reading electronically is different from reading an old-fashioned book. We won't cover the physical demands made on the reader in this column.

Instead, we'll focus on the emotions that people experience while reading. My theory -- and it's only a theory -- is that many people read so that they can experience events without actually being there. For example, readers can feel the rush of adrenaline as a character is being stalked without actually being threatened themselves, and understand a little of what it's like to climb Mount Everest while lying on the couch. They can even spend time in fantasy lands, something which is very difficult to do without the assistance of fiction. In other words, through reading, readers live vicariously.

A related reason for reading is to experience the peaks and valleys of profound experiences -- but quickly, easily, in an accelerated manner, with most of the boring parts removed. In other words, one can experience joy and sadness or triumph and despair without having to experience the dull mundane trivia of daily life. Fiction provides readers with emotional journeys -- even the chance to learn from these experiences -- without the suffering and the time that often accompany such experiences when they occur in real life.

Emotions or Qualities that Can Be Experienced by the Reader

Here is a list of some of the different emotions that readers often experience while reading and qualities that can stir the reader to experience emotions:

Admiration, Aggression, Amusement, Anger, Anticipation, Anxiety, Apathy, Apprehension, Approval, Awe, Beauty, Boredom, Charity, Cold, Confidence, Confusion, Contentment, Comfortable, Curiosity, Depression, Despair, Disappointment, Disapproval, Disgust, Dislike, Embarrassment, Empathy, Euphoria, Excitement, Failure, Fear, Frustration, Glory, Gratitude, Greed, Grief, Happiness, Hate, Honor, Hostility, Hunger, Identification, Indifference, Indignation, Inferiority, Irritation, Isolation, Jealousy, Joy, Kindness, Laughter, Laziness, Loneliness, Love, Lust, Madness, Misery, Nervousness, Optimism, Outrage, Pain, Power, Pride, Querulousness, Rage, Reassurance, Relief, Reluctance, Sadness, Satisfaction, Shock, Sorrow, Superiority, Surprise, Terror, Thirst, Thrills, Treachery, Truth, Ugliness, Vanity, Virtue, Warmth, Worry, Wrath, Xenophobia, Yearning, Zeal
The paragraph above, although not by any means complete, may seem to go on and on. This is intentional, in order to remind you of the many sensations that readers can experience while reading. I personally find that it's easy to forget, and thereby neglect, many possible emotions or states that lead to these emotions and the rich and nuanced experience you can offer your readers. Let me continue by adding a some comments on several items in the paragraph:

  • Beauty -- This is not an emotion, but it is nevertheless a quality that stirs some readers profoundly.

  • Boredom -- Obviously the good writer does not want the reader to be bored. Nevertheless, this is a sensation that happens all too often!

  • Confusion -- There are several types of confusion. One leads to negative reading experiences, such as may be experienced by those trying to keep straight the characters' names in a Russian novel -- although reading Russian novels can lead to many other positive sensations. Another type of leads to a positive reading experience, such as when you think Mr. X committed the crime when it was really Dr. Y (as long as the clues were given fairly beforehand).

  • Curiosity -- We all want our readers to be curious about what happens next -- in the next scene, the next paragraph, the next chapter, even the next book in the series.

  • Hunger -- It may seem odd to include hunger as an emotion or quality to aim for, but making someone feel hungry by writing can be worth a lot of money, especially if you are an advertiser.

  • Surprise -- This is one of the most important things you can aim for as a writer. I read in an article, completely unrelated to writing, that people get addicted to being surprised. If you can get people addicted to surprises in your writing, then you're in good shape.

Aiming for Certain Emotions

Besides the observation that boring your readers tends to be bad and surprising them tends to be good, this column will not make recommendations regarding which emotions you should include in your story to create a satisfied reader experience. Different genres demand different emotions.

I believe firmly that you should have goals for the emotional state of readers. If you know how you want your readers to feel while reading your story, you are another step further towards creating the satisfied reader experience. You can't expect to hit these emotional tones by accident. You should know which emotions your readers are supposed to experience, and at what point in your story.

For example, I told my agent that when the readers peruse a particular passage, I wanted them all to cry. Hence, much of that writing project was focused on making everyone have this reaction when they reach the scene in question. With this objective in mind, there were choices that I had to make along the way.

Of course, you will occasionally evoke unintended emotional responses. For example, something which you intended to be serious may come out as funny. At this point you will have to determine whether or not you want to edit or to take your story in a new direction.

Recommended Exercise

If you want to deepen your understanding of the reader's emotional journey, pick up a book and observe how you feel while reading it. Jot down your emotions so that you can return later and see how you were affected by particular pages. Or else review a book you have already read and determine which passages stirred you the most.

Then, when you have become aware of these emotions, study the book in question and ask yourself how the writer constructed the story that made you feel this way. Remember that the emotions that you experience while reading one scene are often the result of many prior scenes. For example, if Tom and Sally marry in chapter two, their wedding may not mean much to the reader. But if the reader has to wait a thousand pages for them to marry -- if, in the meantime, Tom and Sally have loved and suffered and struggled -- then the readers may feel tremendous joy and relief by the time they wed -- assuming, of course, that the readers did not give up during those first thousand pages.

In other words -- and this is a very important point -- it is not just one emotion that you want your readers to experience, but a complete emotional journey which brings your readers at last to a special emotional destination. That final destination is extremely important. Do you want them to feel as if all is well with the world? Or that all is well with the fictional world? Do you want them to feel sad, or content?

You may not be able to give your readers the emotional journey you want to give them, but I believe you are more likely to do so if you are trying to do so. It is like making a cake. You are much more likely to make a cake if you are trying to make a cake rather than if you are throwing random ingredients together and simply hoping.


Some of the above may seem manipulative, because it is. There are some authors who want to avoid manipulative techniques, because they do not seem "honest." I wish them luck. Still, I have no problem with manipulating the reader, who, in my opinion, has at least tacitly agreed to be manipulated by me by entering my fictional world.

Note, too, that I have concentrated on the reader's emotional journey. Your characters, too, will be undergoing emotional journeys -- sometimes known as character arcs. Frequently the reader's emotional journey is a reflection of the characters' emotional journeys, because the reader identifies with one or more characters.

There's much more that could be written on the satisfied reader experience -- even on the experience part, we have barely scratched the surface. I hope to develop this concept more in future columns, if my muse is willing. In the meantime, thanks for joining me on my journey through some of the facets of storytelling.

Keep on writing!

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Copyright © 2014 Victoria Grossack
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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