Please welcome Cheryl Rainfield an international award-winning author with some great ideas about creating un-put-downable stories.
If you ask readers why they read, you’ll hear a lot of different answers—but if a story doesn’t have some hard-won emotional truths in it as well as being entertaining, readers will likely put it down. And if your character doesn’t struggle to gain their goal, and they don’t have an internal or worldview change as a result, your story won’t be satisfying. We all struggle, and are all trying to figure out how to be happier, how to get what we want and need in life—how to gain greater insights. Story is one way to help us do that.
Readers respond to emotional truths in story. One of the reasons we read is to give us a roadmap for the pain and problems we’re going through, to know that not only can we survive them, but we can also heal from them, maybe even come away from them stronger or with a new purpose. Stories help us see how other people have coped with the same problems we have, and help give us new ways of coping, or new insights or perspectives on our journey.
Stories also help us know we’re not alone in our specific struggle and pain. Being alone or seen as “other” centuries ago would have meant we were an outcast, and we might not have survived. Even today, being seen as “other” can mean we are ostracized, bullied, or mistreated. Finding others who understand what we’re going through—even in fictional characters—can lessen that pain and help us cope better.
Another reason we read story is to figure out how we would deal with a problem that we haven’t yet experienced. Stories allow us to vicariously experience painful situations that we haven’t had in a safe way, and help us figure out how we’d not only survive them, but also how we’d heal from them or make our life better. We absorb the main character’s insights, if they resonate in a way that feels true, and they can help us be or feel more prepared to cope with those problems if we have them in the future, or help us to better understand and support someone we love when they’re going through that tough time.
Another reason we read is to help us understand ourselves—and other people—better. Why do people act and react the way they do? How can we avoid having negative interactions with others, and navigate through life more safely or happily? How can we help someone we care about who’s going through a hard experience that we haven’t? A good book can help us really get inside someone else’s experiences in a way other mediums can’t, and help us understand ourselves and others better—through the emotionally true actions, reactions, and insights in the story. And it can also help us gain greater compassion, empathy, and insight for others as well as for ourselves.
Emotion, insights, and emotional truths help make a novel more compelling and un-putdownable for the reader, and much more satisfying. So draw on your own experiences, especially meaningful ones, include your insights and emotions, then infuse your character or stories with them. As long as there is that thread of emotional truth in your fiction, readers will respond.
The opposite is true, too; readers can sense when the author isn’t being entirely honest or writing from the heart. This is true not just in realistic fiction, but also in fantasy. So be as creative and as imaginative in your story as you want, but make sure there’s a thread of emotional truth if you really want to engage and keep your readers. How little or how much of your truth you put into the story is up to you, but write some in. You don’t have to write from your traumatic experiences, the way I do, but writing some level of your emotional truth will give your story more meaning.
A good story helps us feel along with the character, so writing with the emotion your character feels helps. Writing emotion in your manuscript isn’t just limited to what you show the main character feeling through body language and dialogue. You can also show their emotion through how you write the setting, weather, and symbolism, through how the character perceives their interactions with others, how others react to them, and through how the character’s past affects their present viewpoint, actions, and reactions. Someone who is angry will view and react to their surroundings and the people in it very differently than someone who is afraid, and again very differently from someone who is content or tired. Different things will stand out for your character than for the other people around them depending on how they feel and how their past has affected them.
Emotional truths, insights, and emotion can help hook your reader, engage them, and make them keep reading. Of course, it’s also important to learn all the other parts of story craft, but writing emotional truths is important if you want to write stories that readers won’t put down.
To read more about this in depth and to really make your stories come alive, read Story Genius and Wired For Story by Lisa Cron; Emotion, Conflict and Back Story by Mary Buckham; and The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. I also highly recommend writing courses by Mary Buckham; Margie Lawson (especially her Empowering Characters’ Emotions and Writing Body Language and Dialogue, which she also has as lecture packets); and CS Laskin’s Emotional Mastery For Fiction Writers course. You can also consult The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi for jumping off points in writing emotion through body language and how the body reacts to emotion.
Cheryl Rainfield, 2020
International award-winning author Cheryl Rainfield has been a leading force in YA literature for diversity for more than a decade. Her YA fiction has been hailed by top literary magazines and prestigious educational associations for the outstanding writing style and the gritty realism that she brings to her characters. Rainfield’s goal is always to write the stories that she wished she could have read when she was a teen, to help teens now. Hundreds of teens, teachers, and librarians have sent her notes over the years about how her novels about marginalized LGBTQIA and abused teens resonate with readers. Teens have shared that her well-drawn characters make them feel less alone. Cheryl draws on her own trauma and abuse experience to write vivid, emotional fiction; Cheryl’s own arm, a symbol of self-harm, is on the cover of SCARS. Cheryl Rainfield is an incest and torture survivor, queer, feminist, and an avid reader and writer. She lives in Toronto with her little dog Petal.
Cheryl Rainfield has been said to write with “great empathy and compassion” (VOYA) and to write stories that “can, perhaps, save a life.” (CM Magazine) SLJ said of her work: “[readers] will be on the edge of their seats.”
Get a free 38-page SCARS story that picks up where SCARS left off by signing up for Cheryl’s author newsletter http://www.cherylrainfield.com/newsletter/
You can find Cheryl on her website CherylRainfield.com Also Twitter; FaceBook fan page and author page; Instagram; and YouTube. Follow her on BookBub for book recommendations.
Writers can use their stories to deal with their own issues, too.
That's what I've always said about science fiction and fantasy. It takes real events and situations and puts them into a setting where we can handle them and understand them.
Writing is definitely therapeutic and it's saved me many times!
Writing is a great form of release, one can draw upon oneself ie pain tragedy, luck, joy and gain strength from the experience thus having something worth talking about.
Yeah, there is always the what if, as the reader thinks about what they would do in the situation.
Great post! Kids are SO good at recognizing when an author's heart isn't in the story - they will always abandon those books
I am not a believer in the "write what you know" mantra.
However, when it comes to writing emotional truths that resonate with readers, it feels more real when we draw from our most painful experiences.
Great article, Cheryl! Thank you for sharing it.
Excellent post. These are die hard truths that all writers need to know. Thank you, Cheryl.
Wrting poetry have for me been a real bood , through the bad times and sharing the good times. Loved your most interesting read Lee.
Thank you so much, everyone, for reading my article and for your responses; I so appreciate it!
L. Diane Wolfe, that is a great point - that we can use story to deal with our own issues, too! I also do that through my writing; it helps me in my healing. I am also intentionally working to help others in their healing.
Alex J Cavanaugh, yes! I think fantasy and sci-fi can help us hear things that we might not be able to hear otherwise.
Yolanda Renee, I'm glad writing has helped save you! It helps me, too.
Spacer Guy, I agree with you! Writing can help us work things out, and help us help others work things out, too.
Pat Hatt, I agree! Readers end up identifying with the character, and visualizing themself in the story.
Jemi Frazer, Thank you! (smiling at you) And yes, oh yes, I think kids are fantastic at recognizing when there's no heart in the story. You put it beautifully.
Ingmar Albizu, thank you. I agree; emotional truths help a story and characters feel more real and believable.
Joylene Nowell Butler, thank you! (smiling at you) I think when there isn't real emotion or emotional truths in a novel, we want to put the book down....
Nashvillecats2 I'm glad that writing poetry helps you.
Thank you, everyone! It's wonderful that you comment like this, and i so appreciate it.
Cheryl has a true talent for tapping into the "true" emotions of her characters. Love her stories! Thanks for giving us such a great article.
Aw, thank you Lee! (hugging you) I so appreciate your asking me to write an article.
I always say writing is cheaper than therapy.
Elizabeth Seckman - ha! It is. But I personally need therapy and writing. (And good people in my life, etc.) Both are very helpful....
Terrific post and getting to know Cheryl. Emotional truths may be difficult to get through, but so essential to an authentic story!
Donna McDine, thank you! (smiling at you) I agree; emotions and emotional truths can be hard to face and write, but they can give so much depth and richness to story, and so much that makes readers want to read on.
I get more caught up in the emotional lives of the book characters than I do in the specific story plot.
Delorah, that makes sense to me. Emotion affects us, and without it the plot can seem empty.
I appreciate you discussing this topic, as I believe considering and investigating the elements of writing that produce emotional investment is a valuable tool in reaching the reader. Whether one is working on fictional work or reporting on real-world affairs, the writer needs a method to make the reader care, and that often calls for finding a way to appeal to their emotions to make them care. When I’m writing fictional stories, I sometimes write characters who have concerns or struggles that are common to everyone, so many readers can relate to them. However, despite my desire to appeal to a mass audience, there are times when I wish to create more unique characters and situations, and that often means creating scenarios that readers may not identify with. However, if the situation is still engaging, the reader may still discover an aspect of the premise that resonates with them on an emotional level.
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