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SHARE: How to Produce an Emotional Response in Readers


Here is an article by Donald Maass that describes different ways of drawing emotion from your readers.

Maass does a good job of explaining the three main methods of showing emotion: inner mode, where the narrator tells us what the character is feeling; outer mode, physical reactions to the situation; and other mode, which Maass describes as “an emotional dialogue between author and reader.” The first two you have probably been taught too many times in another form, showing versus telling–outer mode is showing, inner mode is telling. Other mode is more about the whole experience you give to your reader.

There are some interesting ideas here, but I think Maass’s fundamental premise is flawed. He suggests that inner and outer mode of emotional delivery are designed to make the reader feel the same as the character; this is not true. Presenting your character’s emotions and reactions, through either method, is not done to make the reader feel the same, but rather to make the reader sympathize and connect with the character. The reader may have fundamentally different values than the character in the story, but if that character is presented in a real and reasonable way, the reader will still be able to sympathize.

Regarding Farenheit 451, Maass suggests that Bradbury’s choice to make the character excited rather than horrified about the fires is an attempt to surprise the reader. It isn’t. The character feels excited about the book burning because that is his character, his nature, which is completely independent from the reader’s ethical views or point of view. The character doesn’t feel horrified because he isn’t, he shouldn’t be; it would be fundamentally wrong to write him that way, at least early in the book. Still, the reader sees that this character reacts and feels, and thus can begin to sympathize with him. This sympathy increases as the character’s values shift more in line with the reader’s as the book progresses. That’s how a traditional romantic emotional/ethical development character arc works.

Describing what character’s are feeling, either by showing or telling, is not done to make the reader feel the same exact way. If that was the case, why even bother writing from a villain or anti-hero’s point of view? Describing their emotions is done to make the character seem real and alive. People feel, people react. Different people react in different ways. The book as a whole may function to draw out a certain reaction or emotion from the reader, but the character is only one part of that process. Another part is giving the reader all the same stimuli that the character gets–the danger, the threats, the sounds and smells and sights–and allowing them to prod the reader’s emotions. The hero might not be afraid of the fire, but a good writer will know that the common reader is not so brave and will use that frightful image to get an emotional response from their audience. I think this is what the author here is trying to suggest is “other mode.”

The author here suggests that readers “want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience, or believe that they have.” This is very true. What the author misses is that inner and outer emotional modes are methods for connecting to characters, not necessarily sharing emotion states or experiences.

Anyways, I think the article is worth a read. You may or may not agree with my views on the matter.

How to Produce an Emotional Response in Readers: Inner Mode, Outer Mode, and Other Mode

There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers. The first is to report what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too…READ MORE

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