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The Reader's Emotional Journey
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
January 16, 2014
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, ZealThe 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:
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.
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!
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.