Manipulating Emotions

That’s what we’re doing, you know.

emotionsWe use nicer phrasing, when we’re talking about it in writing circles, like “building empathy for our characters” and “upping the tension” and “creating a satisfying emotional experience” for our readers. But when it comes down to it, we’re manipulating their emotions.

And we have to.

People wouldn’t read if there wasn’t some sort of payoff. That emotional experience is why people read.

There are all sorts of different types of emotions we as humans experience, and all sorts of emotional experiences that give us a satisfying journey, and we all have different preferences depending on a variety of factors.

Some of us like to be scared. Some of us like the emotional high of falling in love. Some of us prefer to have a good laugh, or to have a good cry.

And so, it is those emotions we, as writers, try to tap into in order to convince our readers to keep reading.

We manipulate our readers into feeling a certain way. We create characters who are as close to real people as we can make them, people with experiences and flaws and feelings and hopes and dreams. We make them someone readers care about. We make them people readers root for and want to succeed.

And then we dangle a carrot in front of our characters, that pressing need that drives them–to find love, to survive, to save the day, to meet a goal–whatever it is, if our character wants it, our reader wants them to achieve it.

And then we put that goal just out of reach.

We manipulate our readers into caring, and then we torture them by making things harder on those characters they have come to love.

Sometimes that comes in the form of hilarious mishaps, where everything that can go wrong does. Sometimes it comes in the form of tragedies, like killing off our characters’ friends and families or destroying their homes. Sometimes it’s misunderstandings and mistakes that drive a wedge between the character and the person they love.

Whatever the exact circumstance, we are taking our readers on an emotional journey.

In writing, we talk about satisfying endings, about complete arcs, about hero’s journeys and plot holes, but what we really mean is, how did I manipulate my reader into finishing the book? How did I twist their emotions in order to create an experience they would want to repeat?

Emotions are powerful. They trigger hormonal reactions that result in physiological responses. A powerful emotional experience can result in the release of endorphins that give us a high similar to what we would get from taking drugs. It’s the same as the hormones that give us the feeling of being “in love” or make us weep with a friend who is hurting or become enraged at injustice.

And so, when we write, don’t take it lightly. What are you trying to achieve when you manipulate someone’s emotions? What emotional journey are you trying to take your reader on, and why? What do you want to accomplish?

When you read a book that takes you on a powerful emotional journey, and then has an unsatisfying ending, aren’t you disappointed? Frustrated? Angry? Do you vow to never read anything by that author ever again?

When you’re manipulating your reader’s emotions, carry that through to the end. If you were reading, what would satisfy you? Please note that sad endings can still be satisfying. You can have a tragic end, and not everything has to work out and be tied up in pretty little bows for it to be satisfying.

But if you leave the reader hanging, if you don’t complete an emotional cycle, if you fail to follow through with the journey you set your reader on when you started, then you will leave your reader unsatisfied. You will have manipulated her emotions for nothing, and she will hate you for it.

Think about the emotional experience you’re creating, and follow through, and you’ll have readers coming back to your books over and over for the next high.


About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

6 comments on “Manipulating Emotions

  1. Addendum: how to create an emotional experience:

    The reader will feel everything the character feels. Describe the emotions, don’t just tell us. Instead of “Jenny was frightened,” write “Jenny dug her fingernails into the wallpaper as she peered around the corner, muscles tensed to run. The werewolf was nowhere in sight, yet its breathing echoed off the walls.”

  2. I wonder whether cognizance of the emotional manipulation is one of the things that makes us (writers who are Christians) a bit more careful with what emotions we stir and how we stir them. Maybe not so much an *won’t go there at all* approach, but a decidedly circumspect approach. In a Christian-only market, those boundaries are rigidly fixed by outside gatekeepers, but even Christians writing in the mainstream seem more cautious about handling emotions that range into or over spiritual borderland territory.

    • Could be.
      If not, it certainly should be the case.
      Not that one shouldn’t write powerfully emotional things, but rather that they should do it purposefully, not just to evoke an emotional response, but to use that emotional reaction to ask hard questions that inspire deep thinking and possibly even action.

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