Two years ago at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop I heard a fascinating theory. My teacher, Dave Wolverton, told us that people read fiction for emotional exercise.
I'd never thought about it before, but it made perfect sense. I'd always been taught that people read fiction for escape. Because life is boring, or miserable, or both, and we need a break now and then. But I always wondered why people would want to escape to a place where you have to hike across an orc-infested wasteland to chuck an evil ring into a volcano before it bends your soul to its demonic will. Not my idea of a vacation.
Readers don't want a vacation. They want a work-out. And as writers, we'll succeed if we build the perfect emotional obstacle course.
I think the key to doing this is to make the most of the emotional potential in your story. When something happens, how does the character feel? Is your character sad? Can you tweak things in the story to make your character even sadder? Is your character excited? What would make it more of a thrill? We're going for emotional exercise here, so we want to amplify real life.
But don't go overboard. I know that if I sense emotional manipulation by the author, I unplug my feelings from the story. Another problem comes when a character's emotional reactions don't feel honest. If I can't believe a character is having an emotion, I won't have it either.
And, as we've discussed before, the best way to convey character emotions in a story is not necessarily to describe the feeling, but to show the reader what that emotion makes the character do.
See you at writer's club!