Writing with emotional and intellectual payoff not only draws in readers, but keeps them turning page after page. There are several types of emotional payoffs, as well as intellectual payoff, that are very effective when used appropriately.
Writing with Nostalgia
Some stories gain power by tapping into the emotions that we felt at a particular age, or during a certain time of our lives. They 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 of “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 Austen; 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. once had an author of police thrillers who specialized 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.
Learn more about creating powerful nostalgia in Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing by David Farland, available where ebooks are sold and as part of our Super Writers Bundle.
Writing with Mystery
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.
Writing with Wonder
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 on 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 we have horror for the scare. If you look at science fiction and fantasy, you’ll understand why they were called “wonder” literatures as early as the 1960s.
Need help writing wonder? Check out Writing Wonder by David Farland.
The Appropriate Emotional Payoff
The most important things to consider about a story are these: 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.
Evoking the Right Emotions
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?
Writing with Intellectual Payoff
Now, you might note that I lump intellectual payoff with emotional payoff. Plato himself listed intellectual payoff as one of the primary values of 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.