Your Emotions VS Your Readers’ Emotions


One of the things I keep learning as I write is how important it is not to mistake your own emotions for your readers’ emotions as they react to your story.

Late in 2008, after what seemed like an unbelievable amount of planning & continuity problems, I finished a draft of a novel and went out and celebrated. Every emotional beat seemed to be in place; the feeling of an ending was there; I was sure I’d hit it out of the park. It was a PERFECT ending.

When I showed the draft to my best friend, he wrote “STAKES” on the final page.

what is this storyline bro

I had mistaken my own emotions at finally finishing the goddamn draft, for the reactions I could expect my readers to have when they finished reading it.

This error didn’t happen entirely out of vanity — after all, when don’t we estimate other peoples’ emotions by means of our own? — but it’s still a mistake many are capable of making.

To see if you’re vulnerable to it, try an experiment.

First, buy a handle of cheap whiskey.

Start drinking it neat, alone in an empty room, preferably while listening to Joy Division’s “Ceremony” on repeat loop.

Begin reflecting on all your most personal regrets and failures — all those embarrassing moments that seem to symbolize the moments you lost any hope of achieving a normal life. Think about how you can’t seem to really connect with people. About all the wickedest parts of you, and how trying to own them only seems to give their existence more power over you. Not to mention how when you care about something, you usually fuck it up somehow. Yeah, that too…  When you come right down to it, aren’t you a pretty inadequate excuse for a healthy human being?

image of existential despair

Now, project all those emotions of rage and hate onto a character. Get angry at them, really throw yourself into it, don’t censor anything, just write out all the angst…

Now, to make matters worse, keep endlessly rewriting the scene and amping up the language, until either you purge yourself of those emotions, or pass out on your keyboard.

What you read the next morning… or more likely the next afternoon… won’t be pretty.

More than likely, it also won’t be effective as fiction.

typical reaction to overwritten angst

It’s not exactly that when we get worked up (or fucked up) we lose our “objective” sense of the text. That objectivity is certainly an illusion.

Rather, I think it’s that we lose any sense for what actually works on the page, and mistake what we’re pouring into the text for what readers get out of it.

His nerves took in the miserable notes, the vulgar crooning melodies; for passion lames the sense of discrimination, and surrenders in all seriousness to appeals which, in sober moments, are either humorously allowed for or are rejected with annoyance.

– Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

There was truth to H. L. Mencken’s statement that the pleasure to be gotten out of Il Trovatore can be doubled with a few shots of rye. But it’s not fair to require that your reader be drunk off their ass to enjoy your story.

Reading fiction isn’t an act of telepathy between the writer and the reader. Words simply don’t “convey emotions.” It’s a two-way process.

You could even say that reading fiction is kind of  like performing a divination:

The emotional charge in your question is the energy that activates the archetypal images in the answer.

-Eranos I Ching, Introduction

Although you can’t expect to micro-manage your reader’s emotions, I think the best you can hope to do is to provide a framework of stimuli through which they might have some emotional experience.

Just know that it probably won’t be the same as yours.

3 Responses to “Your Emotions VS Your Readers’ Emotions”

  1. And where does that leave us? When we step inside a character we are, hopefully, writing the world as the character sees it, responding in a way the character would. The character experiences the emotion, not us. We might frame it, we might shape it a bit, but we can’t fundamentally change it.

    I just don’t think this is something we can do much about: when a book leaves us it is sprinkled on the air – we don’t know where it falls, into whose head it travels. We just have to hope that we strike a chord out there; to me, that’s the challenge and the joy of writing. Someone out there finds affinity with the character I write.

    • I guess my point was that as part of the writing process, you can get yourself so worked up that you can lose sight of the difference between (1) what you happen to feel while writing, and thus the effect you imagine your work will have on the reader — and (2) how your readers really DO react.

      All that to say, certain emotional beats in a story can feel fake, even if as a writer you think they’re justified.

      I’ve noticed that the longer I work on a scene, the more I’m tempted to really go for a big, fake-feeling ending. Maybe because my experience of time “inside the scene” is so different than the reader’s perception of time? I wonder.

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