Storytelling

How to Get Readers to Feel Those Emotional Twists

Zuko sick in bed from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Zuko's character arc is so intense it gives him a fever.

Nothing evokes emotion by default. Every bit of triumph or heartache has to be built up by the storyteller. So if you’re wondering why your big emotional scenes aren’t emotional to your audience, it could be because you’ve invested too little in the elements that they need to care about. Let’s go over what you might need to set up to get a later payoff.

Building Attachment to Side Characters

Many emotional moments require being attached to a specific character. This makes the audience feel sad if the character perishes, worry if the character is in danger, or look forward to the character’s success. While getting audiences attached to the main character is always important, how much audiences need to care about other characters depends on the story.

Identifying Which Characters Need Attachment

In some stories, side characters only matter because of their utility to the main character, and that’s fine. For instance, maybe your main character is sick and a healer is cooking up a cure. If the healer is killed before they are done, audiences may not cry over it, but they’ll care because the main character won’t get their cure. If you’re just trying to keep the audience engaged without wasting extra time, that’ll do it.

Attachment to side characters is necessary when:

  • Their death should be a tragedy in its own right. If you want to depict war as destructive or demonstrate the harm of misinformation, then the audience should care about the people who are hurt, even if they aren’t the main character.
  • A character’s welfare is used as the stakes of a conflict. If your main character will spend a significant chunk of the story trying to rescue or otherwise help a side character, then the audience should care about that character. Otherwise, the story won’t have as much tension and the audience could get bored.
  • They have their own arc that will feature heavily in the story, particularly if their success or failure won’t impact the main character. If you plan to devote several scenes to how they discover their lost heritage or face their demons, then you’ll want to keep the audience interested while you do that.

Judging How Much Emphasis You’ll Need

Happily, the likability requirements for a side character are usually lower than for a main character. The beginning of a story needs to get the audience very attached to the main character quickly, so storytellers bring out the big guns: a sympathetic backstory, selfless deeds, and relatable or entertaining characteristics.

As long as your side character has lots of scenes with your main character, you’ll be able to build attachment slowly. Generally, a side character who has fun interactions with the main character, assists the main character, and has interesting traits will endear themself to the audience over time. Just avoid making them annoying.

However, you could need something stronger if:

  • the character isn’t featured in many scenes
  • the audience needs to care about them early in the story
  • the character will be disliked at first, perhaps because they are a villain with a redemption arc

In that case, you can use a similar strategy to what we recommend for main characters. Give them sympathetic problems, emphasize how they’ve helped others at significant cost to themself, or both. For instance, audiences welcomed Zuko’s redemption arc in Avatar: The Last Airbender because they knew he’d been banished by his father for speaking out of turn when he was only 13, and they watched him rescue members of his crew in an early episode.

When you invest in side characters, be conscious of whether you are taking time away from your throughline, main character, and other central story elements. If you push pause for several scenes while you develop a character the audience doesn’t know or love yet, they may feel bored or even resent that character.

Instead, you can multitask developing the character and moving the plot forward, or you can skip the full scenes in favor of slipping in a little exposition about their tragic backstory and noble deeds. Later, when the audience is already fond of the side character, you can take a little time away – but still be aware that you’re slowing the story down.

Making Relationships Compelling

If you have a relationship arc in your story or the health of a relationship serves as the stakes of a conflict, you’ll need your audience to care about it. While it certainly helps if they like the characters involved, that doesn’t guarantee they’ll want those characters to be close. For that, sell them on the relationship itself.

Why You Should Bolster Important Relationships

A family reconciliation, romance arc, and friendship arc all share the same basic characteristics, but they have slightly different strengths and liabilities when it comes to audience investment.

  • Family: It doesn’t take much for audiences to understand why a relationship with an immediate family member is important. Our own bonds with our families make these struggles relatable. Even so, developing the relationship will make your story more powerful and reduce the chance that your audience will get fed up with a difficult family member.
  • Romance: Unlike family relationships, romances tend to divide audiences. Throw in a hot love interest, and some people will root for a hookup regardless of what else you do. But others won’t. With additional time and thought, you can broaden the number of people your romance appeals to and make everyone care more about the relationship’s success.
  • Friendships: Friendship arcs have neither the strengths nor liabilities of the previous two. While you’ll need to show your audience why two characters should become friends, you’ll be less tempted to neglect that in favor of relying on cultural notions about true love and family unity.

Making Relationships Feel Beneficial

Relationship arcs work a lot like other plot arcs. To get your audience to care, ask why the relationship matters. The answer usually comes in some form of benefit the characters have received – or could receive – by being close.

Ideally, the relationship will also feel uniquely beneficial. That means the characters can’t or just don’t get these same benefits from the other people around them. If a character is involved in more than one relationship arc, they should get different benefits from each person, so each relationship feels special and irreplaceable.

Example

Mari admires her grandmother for patiently teaching her the stories, recipes, and songs of their ancestors. That cultural identity has made Mari more confident in herself. Her grandmother now gets fatigued quickly and has trouble going out, but Mari helps her make it to family events. When that’s not possible, Mari convinces other family members to come visit.

For family relationships, various forms of mentorship and emotional support work well. Even if babies can’t mow the lawn, they can still make adults feel loved and inspire them to better people.

Example

Feeling out of place at magic college, Jordan struggles to do his spellwork. That is, until the day he’s paired in class with Scott. After listening to Scott’s calm and patient voice, Jordan’s enchantment wows the whole room. Watching him excel gives Scott new hope. If he can bring a warm smile to Jordan’s face, maybe he isn’t destined for evil like everyone says.

Many audience members won’t be satisfied with a romance that happens because a prophecy said so. Prove that prophecy right by demonstrating how, even without magic, the lovebirds would be well suited to each other.

Example

Alex takes every opportunity to rebel, even when it means boycotting something they actually wanted to do. Riley is afraid to rock the boat, pleasing everyone else to a fault. When the two kids have to work together to save their school, Alex finds Riley too agreeable to alienate, and Riley finds Alex too ornery to please.

Even in friendships or romances where characters start off on the wrong foot, you can demonstrate how they might learn from each other or that they have needs the other person could fill.

For more ideas on making relationships mutually beneficial, see Five Relationship Dynamics for Stronger Romances.

Bringing Out Character Backstory

Many story events are meant to be powerful because of a character’s personal history. However, even if the audience loves your main character, that doesn’t mean they’ll be sad simply because your main character is sad. To do that, you’ll need to put them in the character’s shoes.

Identifying Events Where Context Is Missing

Anytime a character has emotional turmoil caused by something the audience didn’t experience directly, you’ll need to invest in getting the audience on the same page. That might include:

  • A meeting with someone from a character’s past. They might go to negotiate with an enemy faction only to discover the other negotiator is their ex. While your audience might think of this as a fun twist, they won’t angst over it with your character unless you put in some groundwork.
  • A redemption arc for deeds committed before the story began. Perhaps your character is on a quest to save kidnapped villagers to make up for the character’s past misdeeds. If you want your audience to feel their pang of guilt, they’ll need to know the details of that history.
  • Counterintuitive behavior resulting from past trauma. Perhaps your character is refusing to learn from their mentor because the last time they followed orders, they were made to do something terrible. Getting your audience in their shoes will reduce frustration when they resist doing what the plot needs them to do.

Missing emotional context doesn’t always come from backstory. It could also stem from important moments that occurred offscreen or narration that hides what a viewpoint character is thinking or feeling. However, anything like that should be corrected.

For optimal emotional impact, the audience should directly experience any event that occurs during the timeline of the story and significantly changes how the important characters feel. For more on that, see How to Choose Scenes for Your Story.

During any scene, your audience should have some idea about your character’s feelings, thoughts, and motivation. See Conveying Character Emotion.

Filling in Missing Context

Making missing context impact the audience requires giving concrete details about the events that are missing. What context you fill in will depend on the emotions you’d like to evoke. In many cases, you’ll want to add details to your character’s backstory to bring out the right emotions.

Let’s say your character is about to run into an old friend who betrayed them. Saying they “were betrayed” or even “when we got in trouble, they pinned it on me” will be too vague to evoke much emotion. Instead, describe or briefly summarize a specific incident.

You’ll want to include:

  1. Starting Context: For a betrayal to have emotional impact, the relationship that was destroyed has to be important. So start with a detail or two that establishes their friendship. You might say that they grew up on the same block, playing together as toddlers, or that one of them would sneak out of their room to visit the other late at night.
  2. Instigating Events: Describe how they got in trouble. For maximum betrayal, it should feel like the friend’s fault. Maybe the friend got bored one weekend and convinced the young protagonist to break into the local museum with them.
  3. Emotional Turning Point: Then give the details of the betrayal. After they get caught, the friend claims the protagonist broke in alone, and the friend only showed up to stop them. Everyone believes the friend because they come from an “upstanding family.”
  4. Lasting Consequences: Don’t forget how the events had a tangible impact on the protagonist’s life. Maybe the protagonist goes to juvenile detention and the protagonist’s family loses their home after being fined for damages.

Again, in a narrated work, this doesn’t usually call for a full flashback scene. While a flashback scene could make the context more powerful, it comes at the cost of pausing the story. If the scene includes big reveals that have implications for the story going forward, then it might feel like part of the story’s normal progression. Alternately, if the story is about these two friends, then this might actually be the story’s beginning.

But in most cases, the tradeoff of a full scene isn’t worth it. Using exposition to give audiences the specifics of what happened is sufficient for making backstory meaningful. For more on this, see Judging What Backstory to Keep and What to Let Go.


Emotional power depends on the right information. When the audience doesn’t know things that the protagonist knows, you’re most likely to lose impact. Simply keeping the audience informed goes a long way toward making the story meaningful.

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Comments

  1. wnat

    I used to not want to give my side characters backstories/goals that only exist to make them sympathetic, because I thought it was emotionally manipulative. Then I heard someone say all fiction is emotional manipulation, and the trick is to make the audience unaware of the manipulation.

    I’m going through Pixar on Disney+ and they’re amazing at emotional manipulation. In the prologues to Finding Nemo and Soul, they quickly show the character at the height of happiness, having gotten either a job or a batch of eggs, and then immediately take it away from them. Yes, it’s manipulative, but it’s effective.

    Then I watched Up and I got sad, but I also started laughing because of how ridiculously over the top it was. You could replace the prologue with Pixar saying “Be sad” over and over.

    I also think that showing the entire life of the protagonist made me realize he had no life outside of making me sad in a Pixar movie. I could imagine Marlin and Joe having lived lives up to that point that made them a complete person/fish.

    (Of course, movies have the advantage of using music. You could take any scene and play sad strings over it and I’d feel sad.)

    • Maria

      I think it also depends on how experienced, observant and sensitive a reader/viewer is. Some will spot the “emotional manipulation” faster, some will enjoy the work more for it, some will judge it to be cheap, some will feel drained. There are works I find to be straight up “emotional hostage and blackmail situations”, but they have their dedicated audience, so what doesn’t work for me clearly works for them.

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