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Thursday, 26 January 2012

How Does A Writer Move You?

Ken Burden
Image by stuartaken via Flickr

How does a writer enter the mind, heart and soul of a reader and persuade a mature human being that the fiction purveyed is true enough to deserve and elicit an emotional response? Of course, the question itself suggests that every writer does this. But we all know there are writers who succeed in the market place without ever stirring any deep emotion, relying on the pace and action of their stories to maintain the interest of the reader. Such writing invariably leaves the thoughtful reader unsettled and unsatisfied, as if they've devoted time and energy to a pursuit that has failed to reward them with a fully rounded experience. For me, such writers might persuade me to read one of their novels but I'll never return to waste more time on such superficial entertainment. It serves a purpose, of course, but holds little appeal for me and many other readers.

If the writing of fiction is about anything, it's surely about providing the reader with a multi-layered experience full of emotional content. As a writer, I want to entertain, of course. But I also want to cause my readers to laugh in amusement, cry with empathy, gasp in surprise, wail at injustice, call out in fear, retch with disgust, pause in thought, tremble in anticipation, wince at cruelty, warm with erotic response, scream in terror, applaud at justice, weep at despair  and cheer over a deserved outcome.

But how are such responses to be achieved? People are so different, so varied in outlook, experience and education, that it must surely be impossible to get under their skin in this way? Well, perhaps it isn't possible to succeed with every reader on every occasion. But it clearly is possible to form the desired response in enough of your audience to justify the time, energy and effort needed to invoke the emotion you're aiming for.

So, how does it work?

I suspect the most important factor is shared experience. All of us go through the basic events of life; births, deaths, illness, falling in love and out of it, fearing the unknown, having sex or getting none, admiring some natural or man-made phenomenon, witnessing a natural catastrophe. We may not experience all of these events personally, but we will have at least some awareness of them through our family, friends, acquaintances and the ever-present media. There is, therefore, some fellow-feeling which can be used as a platform from which a writer can launch an assault on the reader's senses.

I'll give a couple of personal examples, since these are things about which I know.

My real father died before I was born and I was raised, from the age of four, by the man who later married my widowed mother and called himself my father. I was loved, cared for, appreciated and nurtured. I've no cause to feel in any way that I missed out on anything due to my real father's untimely death.

But. Yes, the 'but' is the crucial aspect here.

But, I always felt that I was incomplete because I'd never known my biological father. Because of this, I'm susceptible to certain elements in fiction. One of these is the situation that drives the hugely successful movie, Mama Mia. The heroine, Sophie, wants to know who she is before she gets married, and sends invitations to each of the three men she identifies as her possible father. Now, this motion picture has much in it that should, by the measure of many, not appeal to an average guy. It has been much lauded as a picture for women. That it's also a musical, lends it even more of a feminine appeal in the minds of many. But, because I absolutely understand, empathise with, Sophie's desire to know about her father, I find the story moving. It touches me in a way that probably evades many men. There's a link for me. And that's the point. I respond to the emotional element that drives the story because I have direct personal experience of the central emotion of longing to know.

Another incident that never fails to move me is the denouement of The Railway Children. As Bobbie waits on that railway platform and her father appears through the mist, I'm unable to prevent tears falling. And it matters not that I've seen both recent versions of the film on more occasions than I should. The power of the emotion remains. 


I can identify two entirely separate reasons for this one, I think. The first is that I'm a father and have a strong love for my daughter. I can empathise with the way both a father and a daughter must feel during a period of prolonged forced separation. My personal experience lies in the necessary absence of my girl as she attends university. But there's a second factor at play here. I have a deep and enduring concern for justice. Injustice wounds me and always has; perhaps I suffered some unjust event as a child and this lurks beneath the surface of my consciousness to elevate the quality of justice into something of paramount importance to me. I don't know; but it's as good a reason as any for my concern. In The Railway Children, of course, the father returns from a spell in prison served for a crime he didn't commit. So, the daughter/father reunion is enhanced as an emotional experience for me by the fact that justice is restored. Hence, I think, my empathy and my inability to prevent the tears.

I use these two examples to demonstrate how powerful a tool emotion can be for the writer.

Not only the most obvious emotion, that of love between adults, as embraced by romantic fiction authors, but all emotion. The reader needs to be exposed to the emotional spectrum as experienced by the characters, to feel these emotions, not simply to be told that the character feels them.

'Rose felt the sorrow of loss at the death of her baby.' This tells the reader what happened. 'Rose gentled the tiny crumpled cot blanket in trembling hands, hardly aware of the damp trails she left as she brought it close to her face and inhaled the scent of that small perfect person she would never hold again.' This shows the reader her emotions. And, because the author will have built previous experiences into the writing, making the reader empathise with the character of Rose, the reader will experience the feelings of loss and utter devastation such an event gifts the victim.

This is one example of how it can be done. So, the writer engages the reader with the character(s), manipulates the reader into a relationship that involves concern and fellow-feeling. Where the thriller writer might get away with generic description and superficial emotional content, relying on pace and action to drag the reader through the story, the author of almost every other genre must actually become his characters, in the same way a good actor does, he must feel what the characters feel, in order to convey the real emotions experienced by the people who act out the tale. Only then will the reader experience what the character feels and be moved, amused, shocked, aroused or whatever is appropriate to the situation. 

It takes a clever combination of the right language with a description and presentation of character that persuades the reader to care. If the reader really doesn't give a damn what happens to the character(s), then the author has fallen at the first hurdle and might as well take up some other activity. It's for this reason that most serious (serious in the sense of intent rather than style) authors develop the plot through their characters rather than forcing characters into a pre-conceived plot.

If you're an author who wants readers to respond to your writing rather than skip through the text on a mad dash to the end, you need to be fully engaged with your characters and to allow them to dictate the direction of the story. Only in that way will you find the necessary empathy to share emotional events with them and, thereby, your readers. It's a demanding process but one that brings great rewards when handled well. 

The picture, by the way, shows my biological father, Ken Burden, about whom I've recently learned a good deal from his surviving sister, my 98 year old Aunt Vera.

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