Some stories gain power by tapping into the emotions that we felt at a particular age, or during a certain time of our lives. For example, some novels use nostalgia as a powerful draw. I can think of a few extremely popular fantasy novels that hearken back to Tolkien’s work. Years ago, one major reviewer said of Robert Jordan something to the effect that, “Robert Jordan has come to dominate the landscape that Tolkien created.” In short, of the Tolkienesque writers, Jordan had done the best job of recreating the feelings that Tolkien evoked.
Similarly, if you’re writing certain types of romance, you might hearken back to Jane Austin; or if you’re writing about the 1970s, you might try to capture that period in history so perfectly that it takes your readers back in time. In the same way, it seems that every major city in the U.S. has an author of police thrillers who specializes in writing about that city.
So nostalgia is a tremendously powerful draw in a lot of types of literature, even wonder literature, though it seems to me that the more original your work is, the more difficult it becomes to use nostalgia as a draw.
Another huge draw is mystery. If you analyze bestselling novels—from young adult literature, to thrillers to fantasy and so on—you’ll find that nearly all of them open with some mysterious element. I believe that it was the author John Brown who pointed out to me a study that showed the power of mystery. The brains of dogs who were sent out on the hunt, it was discovered, were rewarded with an intermittent supply of dopamine to keep them interested in the hunt. As soon as the object the dogs were searching for was discovered, the dopamine stopped and was replaced by a rush of serotonin.
It appears that humans are much the same. A good mystery, with plenty of clues, can hold readers for hundreds of pages.
Then of course comes wonder, that sense of discovery that comes when we find something new. In some genres, such as science fiction and fantasy, and in most YA fiction, it is the controlling emotion of the literature, the emotion that the author seeks most to evoke.
But of course, as I’ve pointed out before, we don’t really even have “genres” in fiction. Books are sold based upon the emotion that they’re supposed to evoke. Thus, romance books evoke romance, thrillers arouse feelings associated with adventure, mysteries give us our dopamine rush, and of course we have horror. If you look at science fiction and fantasy, you’ll understand why they were called “wonder” literatures as early as the 1960s.
Last of all we have “general fiction,” a category where numerous types of literatures can be found. Humor is kept in this section of the bookstore, but so are books that carry a sense of nostalgia about life as a whole. Some books in this section cater to a reader’s sense of elitism, and so on.
The most important thing to recognize about a story is this: What emotions is this story attempting to arouse, and are those emotions appropriate to the audience?
Young readers respond to wonder, humor, horror, and mystery. Writing dramatic novels for children will probably destroy your career. Similarly, if you’re an elderly person writing a nostalgic novel about your life during the Great Depression and hoping that it will appeal to children, you’re going to be disappointed. Children don’t share your nostalgia. They don’t really read for that. Now if you have valuable insights you gained in your childhood, those might serve as a draw, but I’ve read literally dozens of novels written by elderly people who just don’t understand their audience.
So you need to know what it is that your reader wants in his or her story, and then supply it in abundance. If you’re writing a romance, your reader will want it to be the most powerful one of its kind. That should be your goal. If you’re writing humor, then your novel needs to be so funny it makes your reader weep.
In critiquing a story, I look at how well the author caters to the needs of his or her readers. What emotions did I feel when I was reading the story? How powerfully? How frequently?
Now, you might note that I lump intellectual payoff with emotional payoff. Plato himself listed intellectual payoff as one of the primary values to a tale. Most of us, when we have a cool insight, get that feeling that our “head is about to explode.” It’s something like a feeling of wonder, but it’s aroused by a cool plot turn, or a startling revelation, or a unique plot element. Sometimes, a character’s insight in a story will arouse that feeling. Have you ever watched a movie and heard a character say something that seemed profound or offered an insight that was just what you needed to hear at that time in your life? A great story, in my estimation (and Plato’s), doesn’t just entertain, it enlightens. It doesn’t just amuse the reader, it offers insights into the human condition.
So when I critique a tale, I often ask myself at the end, “Am I a wiser and better person for having read this tale?” If so, the tale will stand tall in my memory.
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