The travails and adventures of your characters should have more than a superficial effect on the reader. Ideally, the impact should be somewhere between enthralling and devastating.
But how do you convert words on a page to tears in eyes, lumps in throats or hearts in mouths?
There are two basic ways to transfer emotion from page to reader: sympathetic and empathetic.
When we see a display of emotion, the emotion becomes contagious. How much is dependent on various factors, but the simple physical sign of an emotion is enough to create sympathetic emotions in the observer.
So, by and large, if you’re in a crowd that’s laughing and upbeat, you will feel likewise. If you’re in a room full of misery guts, you’re going to be on a downer. And if someone is crying their eyes out, even if you have no idea why they’re crying, you will feel upset too.
This means when you write a scene where you describe someone is a particular emotional state, there is a natural instinct for the reader to relate. Big fat tears rolling down cheeks, snot dripping from nose, fists clenches in distress and sobs being smothered... you get the idea.
Now, this is a very superficial way to convey emotion. It’s clear what the emotion is and a skilled writer can evoke it very viscerally, but if it is purely put in these externalised terms how strongly it hits the reader will be modified by lots of other factors: the mood of the reader, their general sensitivity, their relationship with the character, the appropriateness of the emotion to the situation.
In short, it is easy to lose the reader’s engagement, and this is compounded by things like clichés, melodrama and context (sixteen year olds breaking up may seem a big deal to teenagers, not so much to 40 year olds).
This all leads to the conclusion that sympathetic emotion is best used as a way to emphasise and guide the reader. To be honest it’s pure manipulation (and if it’s only that, the reader can end up being resentful), but if used in conjunction with deeper emotions, it can work very effectively.
If you are close to someone, or if you’ve experienced similar situations to the one they’re now going through, then the way you react to their turmoil can be very much deeper than otherwise. Feeling someone’s pain or joy, in the sense that you experience it as though you were directly involved, is very powerful.
When it comes to writing, it can sometimes feel that if you make the situation clear, the emotions should be self-evident. If Mary loses her child, isn’t it obvious how she feels? If Jane finds out her husband is cheating on her with her best friend, do you really need to spell out her reaction?
And the answer is it should be entirely obvious how Mary or Jane feel... if you happen to be a close friend of theirs.
If someone tells you a girl at their work had a miscarriage, you might think that it’s terrible and be very sorry for her. If your sister calls you up and tells you she’s had a miscarriage, it’s going to feel like someone just kicked you in the stomach.
You have to be connected to people to feel what they feel. And in fiction the key to that is what characters think and do, and specifically what that tells you about them as people. Knowing characters lets readers relate to them.
That doesn’t mean going into intense detail about their likes and dislikes, where they went to school or how they decorated their bedroom. If you know someone well, you will end up knowing all the little insignificant details about them, but it doesn’t work in reverse. Knowing all the little insignificant details about them doesn’t mean you know them well.
As a writer you have to be much more specific. In fact you have to be devious.
If you want the reader to experience what Jane feels when she discovers her husband cheating, then you have be aware that that’s what you want. And well before you get to that point, you need to establish a counterpoint to that emotion.
If in the early part of the story, Jane is flirting with guys, sleeping around, or treating her hubby like crap, when she finds out he’s cheating on her, will you feel upset for her?
On the other hand, if she’s shopping for his birthday gift, cooking him his favourite meal, feeling sorry for her friend who’s been dumped, then her finding out is all the more devastating.