The way to a reader’s heart is through their emotions. Even if a book is filled with the most beautiful prose imaginable, a lack of emotional response from the reader will make the story fall flat on its butt.
I’m reading a book with an original plot, unique characters, and a magical setting. . . BUT . . . the story is void of feeling. It might as well be about robots walking on the moon. As a reader, I don’t feel any connection or empathy for the characters, which is a shame because the book has a lot of potential and is published as the first in a series. I don’t care if the characters live or die, fall in love or join a nunnery; and actually, it would be a relief if the whole lot of them spontaneously combusted on the next page so I could move on to a better book.
Whether you’re playing a reader’s heartstrings or tickling their funny bone, some emotion needs to come through. Make them laugh, cry, worry, cringe in fear, but make them feel something.
As an example, which of the following three paragraphs would you rather read:
1) A house in Anytown burned to the ground yesterday. The fire department wasn’t able to do anything except keep the flames from spreading to neighboring homes. One fatality resulted and the damage is estimated to be in the hundred thousands.
2) Volunteers shifted through the ashes of the house that burned down yesterday, a charred ruin surrounded by singed trees and homes left intact though darkened by smoke. “Hey, I found a rattle,” one woman said, rubbing it clean on her shirt. “It belonged to my grandson.”
3) A lone woman sifted through the still warm ashes of a house fire. The fire department hadn’t been able to put out the flames, but at least the neighbors’ homes and lives were spared. She lifted an object from the rubble and wiped it clean on her shirt. “My grandson’s rattle,” she exclaimed, hugging it to her chest. Then her mournful wail caused the bystanders to bow their heads. “My poor grandson”. She didn’t know how she’d make it through his funeral.
Which would you rather read? I’m thinking paragraph number three. It lets you feel the woman’s brief joy at finding something that belonged to her grandchild in the rubble, then breaks your heart to find that he was the lone fatality. You learn basically the same information in all, but you’re only having an emotional response to the third.
This goes beyond the show vs tell principal, though paragraph one is strictly telling the reader what happened. Paragraph two shows us what is happening, but it just doesn’t play on your emotions.
The emotion factor is just another aspect of writing to keep in mind. Think back to your favorite book. I bet it either made you laugh or want to cry.