How to Keep Your Readers EMOTIONALLY Involved
Why is it that sometimes a book or movie can make you THIS emotionally invested …
And sometimes it’s more like this?
My stories used to inspire a reaction similar to Hermione’s in my readers. And in me. At some points I’d be reading my work, and a little honest voice buried somewhere in my head would say “I wouldn’t care if this character was hit by a bus right now.” Then I’d heap some denial atop the voice, silence her unwanted mutterings, and go back to trying to enjoy my story. Problem was, my readers appeared to have this little honest voice as well. And if she told them “Cartoon bus. Hitting this character. Wouldn’t that be funny?” they had a tendency to listen to her.
What was the problem? My scenes didn’t connect to my reader’s emotions. They didn’t change those emotions throughout the scene. They started out sad and they ended just as sad or even more so. And what came after that? Well, another scene that began with the main character feeling horrible, which ended with him just as downtrodden as before. Or worse: The scene began positive and just got better. The next one would start out absolutely giddy and ended effervescent. And this kept going until the characters were almost singing with joy. (Okay, maybe I’m being slightly snarky about my past self.) But after that, I’d follow it up with a long sequence of sadsadsad scenes.
So what happened? My readers had only two emotions while enduring this: frustration and impatience.
The scenes weren’t keeping my readers emotionally engaged. The scenes weren’t changing emotionally. And that is what needs to happen: The emotional charge of the scene has to change. Switch between negative and positive. The flow of the reader’s emotions has to be taken into account, and consciously adjusted. It’s that simple.
How can this be accomplished?
1) Determine what’s at stake in the scene. To the characters, something important is being threatened, something emotional or primal. Love? Safety? Friendship? Justice? Make sure the scene means something for the characters. (If it’s not emotionally significant to them, connected to the A Story, B Story, or Character Arc, it’s not a scene and the reader won’t care.) And since the readers are emotionally connected to the characters, the readers care about what’s at stake, and are conscious of what it means.
2) Beats. The exchanges of action and reaction between characters and forces of opposition in pursuit of the goal … these carry that emotion, these are how emotions shift within the scene, gradually taking it from one to another.
3) Emotional Charge. If the scene starts with what’s at stake in positive way, then it’ll switch to negative by the end. If if starts negative, the scene will change to positive.
Anyway! How does this work?
To illustrate it, because I’m having a lot of fun reading the screenplay, here are five scenes from Zootopia.
Let’s start with the scene right after this happens: Manchas has gone savage, and Judy and Nick are running for it.
What’s at stake? Life
Opening Charge: Negative (They’re being chased by a jaguar who is about ten times bigger than either of them, and who seems quite keen to tear them apart. To the characters, this scene opens with a 95% likelihood of imminent brutal death. To the audience, this scene opens with two characters we’ve come to care about in this dangerous situation.)
Closing Charge: Positive (They manage to call backup. Judy manages to handcuff Manchas. Nick stays to help Judy, rather than hop on the gondola to safety. They fall but manage to survive. They fall again, but are caught by a vine just before impact. Bogo and the rest arrive, and Judy is full of confidence about her discovery in the Otterton case, and eager to show them. Everything in this scene ended in Judy and Nick’s favor.)
How has what’s at stake changed? They lived.
What’s at stake? Judy’s lifelong dream, the goal she’s worked towards since she was a child.
Opening Charge: Negative (Judy tells Bogo that this is way bigger than a missing mammal case – Otterton and Manchas went savage. He scoffs at her. In response, Judy confidently sweeps back the leaves to reveal the wild jaguar … and he’s gone. With her proof nowhere in sight, what she’s told Bogo sounds insane and ridiculous. Which provokes him into demanding her badge.)
Closing Charge: Positive (Nick stops Bogo from taking Judy’s badge. Nick also bluntly tells him that he’s been an unfair little jerk to Judy, they have time to solve the case, and they have much more important things to be doing than standing around dealing with these idiots. He even calls her “Officer Hopps” instead of Carrots. They’re back on the case.)
How has what’s at stake changed? She still has a chance to achieve that lifelong goal. And Nick was the one to buy her more time.
What’s at stake? Truth
Opening Charge: Positive (Judy, and the audience, are feeling thankful and closer to Nick.)
Closing Charge: Negative (But even though we are in a good place, Nick looks far away … he starts thinking back … and we can sense that this memory lane doesn’t end anywhere pleasant.)
How has what’s at stake changed? He’s about to share something significant.
What’s at stake? Innocence
Opening Charge: Positive (We see little Nick! Looking happy and excited. All he wanted to do was join the Junior Ranger Scouts, and his mother scraped together money to buy him a uniform. She’s even adjusting his tie for him, lovingly.)
Closing Charge: Negative (Nick, who had been so happy at the beginning of this scene, is now hiding from the evil kids, struggling to pull the muzzle off, panicked, crying like his heart’s broken.)
How has what’s at stake changed? Traumatized
What’s at stake? Closeness
Opening Charge: Negative (Well that was a horrifying story. And now Nick is avoiding eye contact, while revealing the takeaways he got from that childhood episode, which have shaped his decisions from then on. Suddenly Judy, and the audience, understand Nick a lot more. We empathize and sympathize with him.)
Closing Charge: Positive (The traffic cameras would have caught whatever happened to Manchas! And Judy has a friend that can help them access those cameras. They’re back on the case.)
How has what’s at stake changed? Nick dodges out of further vulnerability BUT they’re back on the case – this time, together.
As you can see, the emotional charges of these scenes fluctuate smoothly, from a scene’s opening to its closing, from one scene to the next. In every moment, in every beat, we’re feeling something. And when the scene turns, we (and the characters) are feeling the opposite of what we were at the beginning of the scene. Our curiosity and minds are linked to the story by the question “What’s going to happen next?”; our emotions are connected to the story by the conduits Judy and Nick, these two characters we care about, as every emotional change pushes us closer towards the answer to the question “What’s going to happen to these two? Is everything going to end up alright for them?"
Now, let’s see what happens when you stop paying attention to the emotional changes of your scenes.
Scene 1: Manchas is gone. Bogo is berating Judy. Nick stands there and watches. Judy ends up handing over her badge. The real cops leave, and Judy stays behind, figuring she might as well try and complete the case anyway. All Nick wants is that carrot pen, so he tags along.
Scene 2: Judy has nothing to feel thankful about, and certainly doesn’t feel closer to Nick. He’s thinking back on his childhood, but doesn’t share anything with Judy…
Scene 3: Instead of the flashback opening on a happy Nick, it opens on him getting beaten up by the evil children, and ends on him weeping with the muzzle strapped to his face.
Scene 4: We snap back to the present. Judy staring, beyond tears at this point. Nick looking traumatized and bitter. He remembers he needs the pen. He thinks about the reward money if they had found all those missing mammals. He has the traffic camera revelation! He drags a dejected Judy into his scheme, which she doesn’t care about, but why the heck not?
In this horrible alternate universe version of Zootopia, this sequence of scenes is negative from beginning to end. And what would have happened to the audience if the scenes had played out in this depressing way?
They would have emotionally checked out.
The connection between emotions and story would have snapped.
We would have forced our emotions to abandon the story, and watched the rest of the movie feeling betrayed and cheated.
Because in the end, all we care about are these characters. All we care about is story, and character is story. It’s no coincidence that removing the emotional changes of the scenes equated to removing Judy and Nick’s relationship in the scenes; that relationship, that B Story, or Love Story, function (oddly enough) as the heart of the movie: it keeps the story alive, it keeps us connected and invested in the narrative, it keeps the scenes emotionally turning. Before Nick showed up, and we had two characters to care about, what kept us emotionally involved in the story was our relationship with Judy, this plucky bunny that we really wanted to see succeed. Establishing that connection is a subject for another post, but in regards to scenes, this manipulation of the audience’s emotions is how you keep that connection going strong.
I just said to manipulate someone’s emotions. How villainous.