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The Secret To Writing Emotionally Engaging Stories
Maybe you've heard people talk about how important it is that readers get emotionally invested in your book. I certainly talk about this all the time. But what does emotional investment mean? And while we're at it: why is it important, and how the heck do you write it?
What Is Emotional Investment? Simply put, when a reader is emotionally invested in a book it means that they care. It really is that simple. People can connect to a book in all kinds of ways. Books can invoke catharsis, and prompt us to feel things, or unearth something we've buried down deep. Books can help us feel seen, understood, recognized. Books can bring us hope, or make us cry, or make us laugh, or make us feel fluffy, adorable, I SHIP IT joy. Books can get to us where we live. And no matter what emotions a book uncovers, that act of feeling something when we read...that's interactive. Reading becomes personal. We care.
Why Is Emotional Investment Important? So many reasons! First and foremost, caring about what happens means a reader will keep turning the pages. One of the best ways to secure someone's attention is to make them care. If a reader (or agent, or editor!) stops caring, they'll get bored and stop reading. As an agent, I've read so many manuscripts with amazing concepts. I'm interested right away. But that interest soon fades if I can't connect emotionally to the characters or the story. An interesting premise won't carry a reader through a story; we need a reason to care.
In addition to merely securing attention, emotional investment can be an unparalleled gift when it comes to promotion. Publishing is, after all, a business, and selling copies matters. Never, ever underestimate the power of Word Of Mouth Recommendations. When we find something we love, we tend to shout it from the rooftops. We want other people to love it, too! We want to share it with our friends, and tweet about it, and witness the thing we love get the recognition it deserves. Booksellers can and absolutely do go the extra mile for books they love, books that made them feel something.
And it's not just about business--writing an emotionally engaging story is a demonstration of craft. It will definitely put you a level above a lot of projects in the slush pile. And if you can signal to agents that you can craft a story that elicits an emotional response, they're going to have confidence that your writing will continue to grow and evolve in new, wonderful ways with each project.
So now we know what emotional investment in a story means, and why it matters. But....how do you DO it?!
How To Emotionally Engage Your Readers This is all about making people care, and what people care about is.....people. In almost all cases, your characters are your opportunity to ignite an emotional response. No matter how interesting we may find the world, no matter how dire the plot, if we don't care about the people in the story we're not going to care about anything else.
Characters ground us. Through them, we explore the worlds they live in. Through them, we have a stake in events that take place. Characters help us assign meaning to the story we're being told. We can about what happens because we care about who it happens to.
So often I see writers get hung up on the details of the world they've built--whether it's the political or social machinations, or the magic or technology or theology. I read manuscripts where writers are so desperate to set the stage, to explain how everything works, as if that knowledge is essential to understanding and enjoying the story to it's fullest. That is a fatal mistake. It doesn't matter one bit how the world works if I don't give a hoot about the protagonist, or worse, don't even know who the protagonist is. Your characters are the portal that take us to another world. Your characters ground us, give us something to relate to, help us assign meaning to what's happening. Characters are the essential key to emotional engagement. Without characters to connect to, the rest is just noise.
So how do you make someone care about your characters? This isn't about a set list of qualities. There's no Emotional Investment Character Trait Starter Pack. The best advice I can give you is to make your characters human. They should be flawed. They should have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They should have goals and wants and dreams and fears. They should be complex beings with a rich inner life. They should feel like people. The particulars of who they are and why they are that way--those will always be unique. What matters most is that we find something recognizable, something that feels real and true--however silly or somber--in these characters. What matters is that we see something reflected back at us, and we care.