Emotionally engaged readers are the ones that will buy and recommend your books. They will become your super fans. In this post, author and writing teacher CS Lakin shares how to create that connection that readers crave.
Our #1 objective when writing fiction is to evoke a response from readers. Readers read to react. If our scenes don’t move our readers at all, we fail as writers. That’s a sobering fact.
The reaction we’re intending will vary from moment to moment. But whether we want our readers to feel worry, fear, exhilaration, hope, or amusement, we need to learn how to elicit that response masterfully.
Slow It Down
One sure way to lose a reader’s engagement is to rush. Characters, like real people, need time to react, to process what they experience. If dialogue and action move quickly without any insertion of character reaction, it’s likely the scene will fall flat emotionally.
However, even with “showing” emotion effectively in characters, if scenes fail to allow space for readers to react and process, they cheat the reader of the opportunity to respond fully to what they’re reading.
Let’s look at the end of Terri Blackstock’s opening scene from her thriller Predator. Krista’s sister has been missing for weeks, and a body’s been found. The tension builds as Krista arrives at the site and watches workers excavate the body.
Krista waited, willing back the numbness, certain she wouldn’t recognize the girl. As the first raindrops fell, a man in a medical examiner’s jacket took in a gurney, and Krista watched as they pulled the body from its shallow tomb. She saw the pink-striped shirt that Ella was wearing that last day. Blonde hair matted with blood and earth.
Her knees went weak, turned to rubber. She dropped and hit the ground. At once, a crowd of police surrounded her, asking if she was okay. She blinked and sat up, let them pull her back to her feet.
She heard footsteps pounding the dirt.
“Aw, no! No! It can’t be her!” Her father’s voice, raspy and heart-wrenching, wailed out over the crowd. She wanted to go to him, comfort him, but it was as though her hands were bound to her sides and her legs wouldn’t move.
As they brought the girl closer, Krista saw the bloody, bruised face. Ella’s face.
The search was over. Her sister was dead.
Blackstock punches readers with emotion at the end of this scene by using techniques that help readers respond emotionally. She creates beats.
Beats or pauses in a scene can be created in many ways.
- When our characters pause and process, that provides a beat. Show tiny details they notice around them, which helps slow time in the scene. Krista blinks and sits up. It’s a small insertion that provides a beat.
- End chapters with action. That allows space for your reader to think about what just happened. Blackstock could have shown Krista weeping and wallowing in her thoughts as the gurney passed by, and that might have been a strong ending as well. But ending with the punch of action allows space for the reader to emotionally react.
- Use short words and short sentences. Use one-line paragraphs. “The search was over. Her sister was dead.” Short, to the point. Powerful.
- You can show an expression or gesture. Instead of saying “the news slapped her like a hand striking her face” you could say “Jill swallowed. Blinked. Reached a trembling hand to grasp the edge of the table.”
It’s very common for suspense scenes to end in action, with the follow-up scene starting with reaction.
Here’s the ending of the first chapter and the beginning of the next scene with this character from Brandilyn Collins’s Exposure. Notice that the first scene ends in a punch of action with a brief line of visceral reaction. The next scene follows with the full reaction.
Her finger hesitated over the back arrow button, then pressed.
Onto the screen jumped the close-up gruesome face of a dead man. Eyes half open, dark red holes in his jaw and forehead. Blood matted his hair. Printed in bold in the bottom left corner of the picture, across his neck: We see you.
Kaycee dropped the camera and screamed.
The next scene begins a full chapter later:
Kaycee jumped back from the table, casting crazed looks all around. A dead man. That mangled, bloodied face . . .
We see you.
Her worst fear come true.
Kaycee tore across the kitchen and grabbed her keys. She rammed out the back door and hurtled to her car. With its engine running, she barely waited for the garage door to open before screeching backwards, down her driveway, out onto the street … [and so on]
The first scene ends mostly in action. The next scene picks up the reaction, then processing what she’s seen. Notice that Collins did a bit of repeat, the way you might see on a TV show after a commercial.
Why? Because between these scenes are many pages with other characters, and it helps to reset the stage, remind the reader in a brief instant where we last left Kaycee.
Here is another example from a successful thriller, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. This excerpt is from the first few pages of the novel, setting up the situation Langdon will be thrown into for the story. Watch for the beats.
As Langdon sat alone, absently gazing into the darkness, the silence of his home was shattered again, this time by the ring of his fax machine. Too exhausted to be annoyed, Langdon forced a tired chuckle.
God’s people, he thought. Two thousand years of waiting for their Messiah, and they’re still persistent as hell.
Wearily, he returned his empty mug to the kitchen and walked slowly to his oak-paneled study. The incoming fax lay in the tray. Sighing, he scooped up the paper and looked at it.
Instantly, a wave of nausea hit him.
The image on the page was that of a human corpse. The body had been stripped naked, and its head had been twisted, facing completely backward. On the victim’s chest was a terrible burn. The man had been branded … imprinted with a single word. It was a word Langdon knew well. Very well. He stared at the ornate lettering in disbelief.
“Illuminati,” he stammered, his heart pounding. It can’t be …
In slow motion, afraid of what he was about to witness, Langdon rotated the fax 180 degrees. He looked at the word upside down.
Instantly, the breath went out of him. It was like he had been hit by a truck. Barely able to believe his eyes, he rotated the fax again, reading the brand right-side up and then upside down.
“Illuminati,” he whispered.
Stunned, Langdon collapsed in a chair. He sat a moment in utter bewilderment. Gradually, his eyes were drawn to the blinking red light on his fax machine. Whoever had sent this fax was still on the line… waiting to talk. Langdon gazed at the blinking light a long time.
Then, trembling, he picked up the receiver.
How does Brown stretch out the moment to allow the reader to respond? Did you notice? He collapses in a chair. He sits a moment. Then his eyes are drawn to the red light on the fax machine. Then he gazes at the light a long time.
This is all deliberate, unhurried, intended to slow the moment and let it sink in—so the reader can process and react.
Imagine if Langdon looked at the fax, uttered words in shock, then grabbed the phone and started talking. Sure, that could work, showing his agitation and horror at what he’s seen. But the other way creates more tension in the reader because it delays finding out what happens next.
Want to move your readers by inserting beats?
Try doing the following:
- When you read novels, look for the beats. Moments when the character stops to process. Moments when the author provides space for readers to react and process. Study the technique used and write it down.
- Look at one of your scenes in which something happens that’s important to your plot. A place where a beat is needed to give time for the character and reader to pause, react, and process what just happened. What kind of beat can you add here?
- Find places in the story or novel you’re writing to slow time. Have your character notice small details around her (a ticking clock, a smell or sound).
- Examine your scene endings. Do they pack a punch by ending with action? If not, consider how you might rewrite.
- Look for ways to punch moments home using short words, short phrases, stand-alone sentences—not only at scene endings but in key moments in your scene when you want your reader to react.
Evoking emotion from readers is a difficult skill, but learning to add beats will get you one step closer to becoming an “emotional master.”
Do you work on making sure your writing is connecting with your readers on an emotional level? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
C. S. Lakin is an editor, award-winning blogger at Live Write Thrive, and author of twenty novels and the Writer’s Toolbox series of instructional books for novelists. She edits and critiques more than 200 manuscripts a year and teaches workshops and boot camps to help writers craft masterful novels.
Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers.
Priscilla Bettis says
The examples were really good, helped me to “get it.” Thanks.
Dawn Ross says
The examples are very helpful. I struggle with this. At one point I had little or no actions that showed emotion. Then I started using it too much and became melodramatic. A good blend and balance of beats, scenic detail, and action is best.
C. S. Lakin says
Thanks, Dawn. Be sure to check out the free module in my course (scroll down to the curriculum and click on Preview for the Action-Reaction module). You’ll get a lot of helpful insight there! Course is at cslakin.teachable.com (click on Emotional Mastery).
RJ Thesman says
Excellent post with great examples.
Imran Soudagar says
I once rushed the story and when I asked a few friends to read it they really hated the story and felt it was rushed.
The best way is to go a bit slow but not too slow and explain a bit about how the characters feel and act.
John Bredesen says
Thanks for the article. I can write the dialog, but it feels flat. This article gave me context for how to think about the bits and pieces that fill in around the dialog. The examples are helpful.
Thank you for helping me be better. I love the ‘collaboration not competition’ of independent authors. The willingness of some of the best to help those coming up behind. Susanne Lakin and Joanna Penn are two of the best.