Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Should Your Reader Feel?

An editorial note I've found on many a page of my manuscript, is this: "How should the reader feel?"  When I saw it the first time I thought, "I dunno. How do you feel? That must be how I wanted you to feel, of course."

If you're like me, you give your characters a lot of control over the events of your story. What they say, how they say it, who they are is incontrovertible. Otherwise they wouldn't be "real" enough to populate a book.  The characters carry you along just as much as you carry them, so, yeah, the obvious answer is: I want you to feel whatever my characters made you feel because that's who they are.

And it should be that way, at least for the first dozen drafts or so. You want your character to show their chops and really let loose.  But when it comes to those final edits, it's no longer just you and your characters in the room. It's time to welcome potential readers.

All a reader knows is what's on the page, and they make judgements based on that information.  You want them to make the right judgements and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Should that mildly funny, snarky thought your main character just had, be shared? How about that lovely turn of phrase? What does it add to the mood?  Is the body language you describe just right for the emotions your characters are feeling? Remember someone is watching now and they want to feel, deeply, what you need them to feel.  Every thought, every line of dialogue, every gesture must be examined in relation to this question: what do you want your reader to feel?

It isn't that you need to squash your characters' personalities, gag their thoughts, or even stifle your own enjoyable phrase-turning. You just can't  let it all hang out unless it adds to the experience.  If you shared every thought, no matter the situation, you wouldn't have many friends, and it's the same for your book.  You want your book to have oodles of friends. For the good of the story, you may have to axe your favorites, here.

We're all practiced at trying to sway others to our point of view, pushing people's buttons, charming those closest to us--intentionally or not.  It's all about selecting the right words to get what you want whether it's a laugh, a tear, or a foot-rub.  So put on your persuasive-cap and hit that revision again.

Final note: nice, clean prose, is like a nice, clean, foot...more likely to get the love. Now, go on out and get it.


  1. This is a great reminder! When I'm critiquing, I keep in mind the question: is this something that will help advance the story? When deep in the forest myself, I forget to look at my stuff with the same critical eye. ;) It's the trees that get in the way, as you know. LOL!

    Funny photo! I'm afraid lots of other thoughts will be jumping into your readers' minds looking that that. ;D

  2. Great post, Alina!

    And so true! We want our readers to like that guy and hate another guy. It's up to us to be subtle though so it doesn't feel like we're telling readers to feel a certain way. ;)

  3. Haha, Teresa. Only my favorite low-brow readers. ;P

    Taking your thought further, Kathy, the characters should be real enough, and well-rounded enough that someone can prefer or disapprove of each individual on their own terms. Like Gale and Peeta from Hunger Games. There are some strong feelings for/against both of those characters. But it was Suzanne Collins intent to keep them both appealing, each in their own way. She could have made us feel entirely different about one or both of them with a few keystrokes!


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