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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the hardest emotion to evoke -- humor. Before that, I wrote about the easiest -- drama and sadness. Now I'm going to write about the one emotion that, if evoked, either means your writing has succeeded wildly or it has failed spectacularly. Either way, evoking this emotion within your readers can define your writing career. What's the emotion?


Evoking anger in a reader can be quite easy. Get the reader to spend money on a crappy bit of hack writing that's plodding and predicable and you will definitely evoke anger. More likely, you'll evoke anger in the editor who wasted his time reading your submission. Either way, this is the bad kind of anger to evoke. Honestly, I haven't seen anything from those of you who enter the challenges that leads me to believe you'll ever have to seriously worry about this problem. There will always be the odd reader out there who will hate what you write and claim it's because you're a talentless hack, but most readers won't be moved to anger even if they don't care for your story.

Then there's the anger you want to evoke in your readers; anger for your characters or directed at certain characters and events within your story. Evoke this kind of anger in your readers on a regular basis and your writing career is pretty much made.

Why anger? Why not drama? Why not humor? Drama, as I've written, is too easy. Humor, while hard, is fleeting. You have to keep the humor going through out your story if you want to have the same effect you get from evoking anger just once. The reason anger is so powerful is because it means your reader actually cares what is happening in the story. It means they've become emotionally invested in the character or characters. It means your characters have become real to them.

Think about it for a minute. Do you get upset or angry is some child you don't know is bullied or harassed by other children at school? In the abstract, yes, you do. You probably think that someone needs to do something about this kind of thing. Then you have to start fixing dinner or hammering away at a sticky problem at work and you put the story out of your mind. Now, replace "some child" with your child (or sibling, for those without children). You get angry because your child is suffering. You get angry because it's not something you can fix directly, instead having to work through . You get angry because you care too much for the person affected to just let it go. Even if you turn aside to other tasks, part of your mind will still seethe with anger and try to figure out how you can help.

In other words, if your readers get angry at what is happening to your characters, it's as if they have made the characters part of their family; at least while they're reading your story. Their anger will make your character's eventual triumph all the more satisfying. Or, if your character does not triumph, it will make the character's defeat all the more poignant.

As an added bonus, your reader's anger will linger well beyond the end of the story. We humans tend to grab our anger with both hands and struggle mightily to never let it go. We develop grudges against those we believe have wronged us. Years, decades, even, after the cause for the anger has passed, it can resurface and cause that that anger to burn white hot again for just a little while. In other words, if you evoke the "good" kind of anger in your readers, they will remember it. And that means they'll remember your story and you, the writer. And that's the kind of person who will buy anything you write -- unless you evoke the "bad" kind of anger, later, by delivering a crappy story.
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