I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. –Maya Angelou
I completely agree with that statement. As writers, our first, and arguably our most important job is to make the reader feel. Feel what? Fear, hope, laughter, joy, hope, defeat, or virtually anything we wish for them to feel can be achieved. I will be the first to admit that I am a long way from the best at this, but it’s something that we need work on. We need to practice instilling feelings in our work. Fortunately, there are some techniques that any writer can use to inject feeling into their work.
The first thing we must do is to make our character sympathetic in some way. Give the reader a chance to connect with the character. Allow them to care about what this character is experiencing. It can be a grand gesture:
Despite the bitter cold, Raleigh quickly removed his heavy cloak and spread it over the puddle so that his beloved sovereign could be spared the mud on her shoes.
The reader immediately knows what kind of a man Raleigh is. They may love him or think that he’s the world’s biggest fool, but they have made a connection to him.
It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, though. Sometimes it is some small personal detail that makes the connection and establishes the sympathy. Here’s a short excerpt from one of my own stories to illustrate.
“Levi looked at the unfinished paperwork on the desk. The marshal had been privately teaching him his letters, but he still struggled with keeping the log and reading the wanted posters. Reading and writing intimidated him. Back in Mississippi, it was not only unnecessary to teach a field hand to read, it was illegal.”
Yeah, I know. I need to rework this passage. Too much telling and not enough showing, but the point is, the reader can’t help feeling something for Levi. We’ve all faced challenges that, through no fault of our own, seem overwhelming. The reader can relate to this and begins to like Levi.
Since I already brought it up, the next tool we have for making the reader feel is to write our scenes to show what is happening rather than telling what is happening. For example, I might rewrite the first two sentences of the above passage:
“Levi opened the logbook, staring at the marshal’s neat, flowing script. Sweat beaded on his brow. He picked up the pencil and began to write, his clumsy block letters creeping painfully onto the page. After only a few lines, he tossed the pencil aside and slammed the book shut with a sigh. I jist doan knows if I can ever learn my letters. The marshal tries his best to teach me, but maybe I’s jist slow. He pushed the log aside and picked up a wanted poster. He committed the likeness to memory, before beginning to slowly sound out the words.”
Levi’s struggle and determination draws the reader in, making an emotional connection. Everyone loves the underdog.
There are numerous other techniques we can use to evoke emotion in our reader, but this post is too short, so I’m only going to cover one more. Give your MC real danger and real wounds. The greater the risk, the higher the payoff. Have him walk out into the dusty street and face off against three hard-cases, knowing he’s going to take a bullet or two. Is that realistic? It is if he’s an exceptional man, and what MC isn’t exceptional? That’s why we write about them. No one wants to read about the storekeeper who keeps the town going by selling supplies.
When your hero takes those bullets, make them real wounds with real consequences. We’ve all seen the Hollywood version where he is shot in the shoulder. He doesn’t spin around or fall down or drop his gun. He just takes the hit and keeps shooting. Bullshit! Don’t ever write that crap. Yes, he might fire first and take one of the bad guys down. Yes, one of them may be a little too excited and miss his first shot. But that third hard case is going to be at least reasonably proficient and he’s not aiming to wound. He’s going to be aiming center mass the same as our hero. When that bullet hits, our boy is going down. He may drop his gun. He may lose consciousness. Tell it like it is. Your readers will love you for it. I’ll leave you to figure out how this gunfight ends.