Emotions by the Numbers

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 12/17/2007

One of the things that every author should want to do is to engage the emotions of the reader. That is something that is far easier said than done. Emotionally engaging writing is different from writing that talks about emotions, though both have their place. It is quite possible to write a scene that very clearly shows the emotions of the characters, but at the same time write a scene that is not emotionally engaging.

Not long ago, I read a book that was littered with puns. As I was reading I would occasionally come across a statement like, “he laughed and said ‘you are a very funny guy.’” After reading that I felt compelled to go back and see why the other character thought this guy was funny. Each time, the author had given the character a pun to use in his speech. While the characters thought it was funny, I did not. The characters’ emotions were clear because the book clearly stated that they laughed, but the writing failed to engage me emotionally, because I did not find it funny.

Writing that is emotionally engaging causes the reader to experience emotions. A reader may laugh or cry or become angry, but the writing will move the reader in some way. And while characters in a novel may experience emotions as well, often the most emotionally moving scenes are those in which it is not clear what the characters feel. A character in a funny situation seldom understands how funny it is. Some of the most poignant scenes are scenes in which the character has accepted the sad state of affairs. The emotions of a character help readers understand the motives behind what the character decides to do, but it is the emotions of the reader that cause the reader to want more from the story.

Robert Plutchik proposed that there are eight primary emotions (anger, fear, sadness, happiness, disgust, curiosity, surprise, acceptance) and all other emotions are a combination of these emotions in varying degrees. In theory, if an author knows how to write in such a way that a reader will experience fear and in such a way that a reader with experience surprise then that writer will also know how to write so that a reader will experience reverence or awe, since these emotions can be considered to be a combination of fear and surprise.

Whether that is the case or not, it seems to me that an author who can bring a reader to the point of experiencing even these primary emotions is producing emotionally engaging work. While there are some general ideas of how to invoke these emotions in a reader, which I have included in the links above, there can be no cookbook that describes how to do this for every story. Every story is different and what will work in one will not work in another, but attempting to understand how to engage a reader’s emotions can be helpful.

It would be nice if we could just paint our stories with emotions like a paint by numbers picture. We want people to be interested right away, so we begin our first chapter with the curiosity paint. We throw in some things that make people ask questions and want to know what is going to happen or why something happened. We want to motivate our readers to take action, so we pull out the anger paint and we go to work. We put a character in bad situation that is very clearly another character’s fault. Then to keep things going, we throw in some fear, by convincing the reader that the situation the character is in could just as easily happen to the reader. Perhaps there is a killer hiding in the reader’s darkened bedroom. Then in the end we pull out the happiness paint and everything is great. It doesn’t work that way, but it is something to think about.